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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 709: debated on Monday 28 February 2022

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

PCSOs: Neighbourhood Crime

1. What recent assessment she has made of the importance of police community support officers in tackling neighbourhood crime. (905727)

The whole House will be united in horror and revulsion at Putin’s war on Ukraine. I will update the House on the action that we are taking to help British nationals and Ukrainians and to hold Russia and Putin’s Government to account later in Question Time. For now, I want to reiterate the Government’s unequivocal support for the people of Ukraine, who are being truly heroic.

I echo the Home Secretary’s comments and am sure that we will extend a generous and gracious invitation to those fleeing from Ukraine.

In the year to September 2021, 1.7 million cases of antisocial behaviour were reported to the police. In Cambridge, I have more and more people coming to me with problems. We used to have police community support officers, who were a welcoming, reassuring, uniformed presence on our streets. Where are they now?

Strong local policing is absolutely in the DNA of neighbourhood policing. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that this Government are not only funding but backing the police, with almost £15.9 billion in this financial year, and increasing police numbers to 20,000. He will also know that his local police recruitment numbers have gone up and that his local force has already recruited 138 police officers.

I was very pleased to see Thames Valley police launch a new recruitment campaign for PCSOs. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking PCSOs for all they do to support the people in Wycombe and across Thames valley and the whole country? Will she also join me in welcoming that campaign and encouraging people to apply?

I agree and congratulate Thames Valley police force; it has exceptional leadership and all officers there and across the country are doing great work. That recruitment campaign is vital and is going incredibly well. We have just over 11,000 new police recruits and officers on the streets of England and Wales and the numbers will grow and grow. Of course, this is all about keeping our communities safe.

The PCSOs are doing a fantastic job of supporting residents with regard to the increase in car crime happening in one area of Hull. What particularly upsets residents, however, is seeing those criminals uploading videos to TikTok and celebrating their crimes. Will the Home Secretary update us on what her Department is doing to work with social media companies to help them identify evidence of criminality and support police investigations?

The hon. Lady is right, and she will recognise that criminals who upload videos absolutely are pursued by the police and law enforcement agencies to bring them to justice. She asked specifically about work with technology companies and online platforms and providers. That is always ongoing, including through some of the wider work relating to the online harms Bill.

The increase in police officers in the south-west is welcome, but what is being done to tackle drugs, and will the Home Secretary meet me to see what we can do to stop antisocial behaviour happening in towns such as Brixham and Dartmouth?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; drugs are a scourge across society and they blight communities. We have a great deal of work taking place on drugs, and I will happily meet him and any colleagues to discuss that. Not only do we, first and foremost, have the county lines programme, but we believe in supporting individuals who suffer from addiction, and that is exactly what Project ADDER is doing.

Sexual Violence: Nationality and Borders Bill

2. What assessment has she made of the potential effect of the Nationality and Borders Bill for people who have experienced sexual violence. (905728)

The Government recognise that sexual violence is a devastating crime that has a long-lasting impact on victims. The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is part of our new plan for immigration, will strengthen our ability to protect vulnerable people. On 16 September, we published an equality impact assessment, which includes an assessment of the potential impact on people who may have experienced sexual violence.

Last week, a joint letter with more than 60 signatories across Scottish civil society, including Rape Crisis Scotland, Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance, SAY Women and the Women’s Integration Network, criticised the Nationality and Borders Bill, saying:

“It is a gift to abusers and exploiters, and we have no doubt that it will harm survivors of sexual violence, gender-based violence and those who flee persecution.”

Scotland wants no part of the Bill. It is not in our name. Will the Minister take the opportunity to remove the Bill now?

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I am sure that people in Scotland are as concerned as the Government are about people risking their lives in the hands of evil people smugglers, making dangerous crossings of the channel, and all the risks that that presents to life. The fact is that sensible discretion will be built into the whole approach, with various checks throughout, good reasons and a trauma-informed approach. That is precisely what we have committed to; it is exactly what we will deliver.

Violence Against Women and Girls

4. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s tackling violence against women and girls strategy. (905730)

5. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s tackling violence against women and girls strategy. (905731)

As part of the violence against women and girls strategy launched last July, we are bringing forward legislation against stalking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and wider domestic abuse. The strategy is overseen by the VAWG inter-ministerial group, which I chair.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the importance of the continuing work of police and crime commissioner Jonathan Evison, his team and the Humberside police service on the You Are Not Alone campaign, which aims to raise awareness of support for victims of domestic violence and, indeed, perpetrators? I think that it is really important work, and I hope that she will recognise it.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comment and for the work that the police and crime commissioner and her local police force are undertaking. The You Are Not Alone campaign was launched during the pandemic. I recommend it to anyone who is a victim of any form of domestic abuse or violence. It is a successful campaign, and I pay tribute to police and crime commissioners and to our police officers across the country, who have been supporting it and making sure that they provide support to victims of abuse.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the shadow policing Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), has said:

“Harsher sentences don’t act as a deterrent.”

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that is wrong, that harsher sentences actually do work, and that we are prepared to put domestic abusers and violent and sexual offenders behind bars for longer to make our streets, especially in Rother Valley, safer for women and girls?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is right that we change our laws, have tougher sentences and make sure that perpetrators absolutely feel the full force of the law. He is right to make that case. The Government are also undertaking wider work on perpetrator behaviour and education campaigns across all Departments.

We all agree that women should be able to go about their lawful business free from intimidation and able to use public spaces, yet every day thousands are affected by protests outside abortion clinics that are designed to shame women out of their legal rights to healthcare. Will the Secretary of State meet me to ensure that we have consistency nationally on the situation and that protesters who seek to control women’s bodies and stop them making choices are stopped and moved away from the clinic gates?

I commend the hon. Lady for much of the work that she has been doing. I would be very happy to meet her. All the points she raises are absolutely valid: women should be able to go about living their lives freely, safely and without harassment.

The all-party parliamentary group on commercial sexual exploitation is conducting an inquiry into the pornography industry in response to growing concerns that online pornography is fuelling violence against women and girls. Will the Government establish the necessary legal framework to prevent and address the harm associated with the production and consumption of pornography?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I agree with the sentiments that he echoes and would be very happy to meet him to discuss the matter. There are many, many legitimate concerns about pornography and the wider harms—age access, age verification and all sorts of issues, some of which the Government are picking up right now. The online harms Bill is one area, but there are other things that we can and should be doing.

Since the publication of the VAWG strategy, rape charging has fallen to an all-time low, leaving more people accused of rape in communities than ever before. Operation Bluestone found that the monitoring of previous offenders was failing to use

“intelligence to establish whether suspects had been named in previous offences.”

Operation Soteria found that

“officers were not routinely monitoring known offenders of sexual crimes”,

leading to a “total lack of morale” among police. This week the inspectorate said that alleged rapists were escaping justice, citing a case in which an alleged rapist was acquitted after the police and the Crown Prosecution Service had failed to present evidence in court showing that he had allegedly raped two other people previously.

I ask the Home Secretary to set out for the House exactly where, in the strategy and in her plans, are the proper monitoring and offender management that will stop any offender, let alone the most violent and repeat rapists, because that is not even nearly happening now.

As the hon. Lady will know, both the rape review and the criminal justice taskforce have been clear and explicit about the actions that are being taken across Government. Operation Soteria, which she mentioned, is being rolled out to 14 other police forces. It is important for us to fix these key gateways—the way in which the police investigate cases, the handovers to the Crown Prosecution Service, and how it all works throughout the criminal justice system—and that is being done as a result of the rape review and work with the Justice Secretary. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talking about “12 years”, but the rape review report was published last year. This Government are fixing many of the long-established problems in the criminal justice system that have led to some of the most appalling outcomes. We can all agree, if on nothing else, on the need to fix those appalling outcomes for rape victims.

North Wales police recently received half a million pounds of UK funding for the safer streets and safety of women at night campaigns. Having been out with the police on foot patrol, I ask my right hon. Friend to join me in congratulating Inspector Claire McGrady of Wrexham town police and Wrexham Council on acknowledging the issues involved, increasing CCTV and lighting provision, and providing a weekend welfare centre.

My hon. Friend is right; the safer streets fund and many other initiatives that the Government are leading to protect citizens and the safety of women across our communities are making a difference. The work of police forces with police and crime commissioners demonstrates how targeted resources can keep the public safe, and give the public, including women, confidence in their communities.

The Home Secretary has talked in a muscular fashion about the need for exemplary punishment of the perpetrators of violence against women and girls. She will recall her commitment to the deportation, where appropriate, of offenders in Rochdale, and indeed in other parts of the country. She also committed herself to meeting me to discuss the issue, and I still await that meeting. May I have an update?

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I cannot speak about that case in the House, and he will know exactly why, but I will meet him to go through the specific details.

The work of organisations such as the Sexual Abuse and Rape Advice Centre in my constituency is vital. I have seen at first hand how SARAC supports survivors of rape and domestic abuse. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that she will work with such organisations to ensure that they have a chance to feed in their expertise on how we can support victims and tackle violence against women and girls?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has personally led in campaigning and raising awareness, and also on the work of her local organisations—I have visited her constituency in the context of other issues. The role of the third sector is vital; it provides an important gateway and a lifeline for so many, and of course the Government continue to support it.

Citizenship: Legislative Framework

While we do not plan a wider review, the Nationality and Borders Bill will make several changes to the British Nationality Act 1981, allowing people to acquire citizenship where they had previously been unable to do so because of historical anomalies.

It is often overlooked that this political state shares a common travel area with our neighbours across the sheuch, as some of us would call it. I dare say that, from citizenship frameworks to asylum policy, this Government have a lot to learn from Ireland about implementing humane and just policy for those coming to the UK. What steps, if any, has the Department taken in recent days to learn from the best practice seen in the Republic of Ireland in terms of its legislative frameworks for citizenship?

We always look at the practices in other countries, and I would point out that our visitor route is more generous than the equivalent in the Republic of Ireland. I am actually meeting an Irish Minister later today. We are looking at how we can amend nationality law to make processing slightly easier so that we no longer need to look into people’s past immigration history, but we have already done that recently in relation to a grant of indefinite leave to remain or settled status under the EU settlement scheme.

I congratulate the Government on changing the rules last week with regard to Commonwealth soldiers, who will no longer have to pay for their citizenship if they have served for six years. That was a great decision and I thank the Government very much for it. Does the Minister agree that similar flexibility will be needed in the near future with regard to Afghan refugees who are based here? A young family came to see me in my surgery last Saturday. They are now well settled, but they are concerned about how long it will take them to get citizenship. And of course, quite soon, similar questions will be raised with regard to Ukrainians.

A lot of nationality law is in primary legislation, which limits some of the flexibility we have, but we will certainly be happy to consider what we can do to support those who want to take that step to become British citizens.

On 8 August last year, the Home Office sent a family from Halifax back to Afghanistan on a voluntary return flight. That family felt they had no choice but to apply for the voluntary return scheme, having had their claim for asylum refused the year before. Kabul fell to the Taliban just seven days later, on 15 August. The family have three children—the youngest is just five years old. Can the Minister explain how the Home Office could ever have allowed this to happen? Can he confirm whether this has happened to others? Can he put on record that the five-year re-entry ban, which would ordinarily apply to someone who leaves the country via the voluntary return scheme, will not apply in these appalling circumstances?

I am obviously interested to hear of the case that the shadow Minister raises, and I would be interested to meet her to discuss it further, particularly if the family is in Afghanistan, as it may not be appropriate to share the details on the Floor of the House. I would be happy to meet her and have a conversation about the circumstances of that case.

Sexual Harassment

7. What assessment she has made of the potential merits of making public sexual harassment a criminal offence. (905733)

We fully recognise the concern that my right hon. Friend raises. In fact, that same concern has been raised by many Members across the House and many campaigners. We will do all we can to make streets safer for women and girls, and if that includes a new offence, so be it.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees with the Law Commission that misogyny should not be a hate crime. Does she not also think it appropriate that she should agree with the Law Commission that public sexual harassment should be a specific offence? I would like to echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has just said that women should be able to live their lives

“freely, safely and without harassment”.

Can we stop looking hard at this and actually bring forward some legislation to make it happen?

As I have just said, if the work we are doing with the Law Commission, legislators and others makes it clear that we need to make a new offence, that is exactly what we will do. I would like to draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the work that the police are doing to keep women safer. They are recording more VAWG crimes, there is an increased willingness of victims to come forward and there are improvements in police recording. We know we have more to do, which is why this evening we are launching a national communications campaign to tackle the perpetrators of public sexual harassment.

But last week the Minister could not have been clearer in her view that the test as to whether there should be legislation in these areas was what the Law Commission said about it. She was absolutely clear that, because the Law Commission did not recommend that misogyny should be a hate crime, that should not be the law. Why is she not equally clear on sexual harassment?

Let me be as clear as I can for the whole House. If there is a need for a new offence, we will bring it forward.

I welcome the Government’s broad support for tackling violence against women and girls, including in public, and for banning virginity testing and hymenoplasty in the Health and Care Bill, which is going through the other place. I also welcome their backing for the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham)—the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill—to ban child marriage in England and Wales. Our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will look to extend some of those issues, for example by outlawing breastfeeding voyeurism and ensuring that violent offenders spend more time in prison. Does the Minister agree that, by voting against that Bill, the Opposition are failing to send the right message on protecting the victims of crime?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the sheer scope of the work we are doing to tackle these atrocious crimes. Violence against women and girls is appalling, and this Government are focused and united on stamping it out. I would like to see the Opposition voting with us this evening to support the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Given the very loud comments Opposition Members have made from a sedentary position, I expect to see them in the Lobby with us this evening.

Immigration Policy

We have introduced a new global points-based immigration system that works in the interest of the whole of our United Kingdom, including Scotland. We continue to deliver a comprehensive programme of engagement on the new immigration system, including with each of the devolved Administrations.

President Zelensky’s formidable leadership and valour should inspire and humble us all. Like many MPs, I have constituents with family and close friends in Ukraine. Given the humanitarian crisis, will the Minister please advise us on what discussions are taking place with the Scottish Government to develop comprehensive, rapid accommodation for Ukrainian refugees, such as Ken Stewart and his family, across these islands now and in the coming days?

I briefly spoke with Neil Gray on Friday, ahead of potentially meeting more formally, about potential options for Afghan nationals currently in bridging hotels and those leaving Ukraine to be both housed and settled in Scotland. If there are individual cases at this stage, please feel free to bring them to my attention, and we will look into them.

I have had that since I was 13 years old, Mr Speaker. You are not the first, and I am sure you will not be the last.

The Opposition support the call of the Welsh and Scottish Governments for the UK Government to offer sanctuary to Ukrainians who are fleeing the horrors of war, but the UK Government’s response has, once again, demonstrated the toxic combination of incompetence and indifference that are the hallmarks of this Home Secretary and her ministerial team.

Over the weekend, the Minister, who is responsible for safe and legal migration, tweeted that the Ukrainians who are running for their lives should apply to come to our country on seasonal fruit-picking visas. That tweet was the modern-day equivalent of “Let them eat cake.” Thankfully he has deleted it, but will he now come to the Dispatch Box to apologise unconditionally for that tweet? Will he also offer swift, well-managed and safe sanctuary to these victims of Putin’s barbarity who require our support?

I am interested in contrasting those comments with what the Ukrainian ambassador said yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will shortly announce more. As I have already said, it was useful to have a constructive conversation with the Scottish Government on Friday.

The Minister will have heard loud and clear during his call with Neil Gray on Friday that the Scottish Government fully support replicating the European model and lifting visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals now. The UK Government are now alone among our European allies in asking Ukrainians to jump through visa hoops to reach sanctuary here, and they are even more alone in legislating to criminalise, marginalise and impoverish those who seek asylum through their anti-refugee Bill. Surely basic human decency requires an urgent rethink on both counts.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will shortly say a bit more on what we are looking to do for Ukrainians. Yes, it was a productive conversation with Neil Gray, but one thing that would certainly help us to support more of those seeking asylum in this country would be if 31 of the 32 local authority areas in Scotland, including the hon. Gentleman’s own, were not refusing to be dispersal areas.

Antisocial Behaviour

The beating crime plan lays out the Government’s commitment to working with local agencies to drive down antisocial behaviour. We ensured that local agencies have flexible tools and powers to tackle it through the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and in the levelling up White Paper we announced that the safer streets fund will be expanded to include the prevention of ASB as one of its primary aims.

There has been a spate of antisocial behaviour and a rise in burglary in Thornbury and, particularly, Alveston over the past few weeks. Avon and Somerset police has provided strong support and recruited 670 new officers in the last year and a half alone, which is very welcome, but what steps can my hon. Friend take to make sure these new officers do not just concentrate their activity in the core city areas but support rural south Gloucestershire, too? Will she meet me to discuss what more we can do to keep communities such as Thornbury and Alveston safe?

I completely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents, who are suffering from antisocial behaviour and burglaries. I welcome his acknowledgement that the Government have ensured that Gloucestershire has additional police officers. Those officers are deployed by the chief constable and the locally elected police and crime commissioner, so it is absolutely down to them. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be advocating most vociferously to ensure that they are targeting those additional officers where they are needed.

Despite the best efforts of our fantastic police officers, the careless use of unlicensed off-road motorcycles is a huge aspect of antisocial behaviour in Redcar and Cleveland. The use of these bikes, largely by teenagers and young adults, has resulted in significant damage to private property and to the living environment for local people. Sadly, it often also includes the transportation of illegal drugs. Will the Minister commit to visiting Redcar and Cleveland with me to see the extent of the problem, speak with some of the people affected and help us devise a plan to tackle this criminality?

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency—perhaps I can visit the Gloucestershire constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on my way there. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) is absolutely right to highlight the detrimental impacts of this type of behaviour. Of course, our legislation gives those responsible the ability to deal with antisocial incidents. I understand that he faces a particular issue in Eston hills, so perhaps he can take me there and we will see what we can do together.

Is the Minister aware that some kinds of antisocial behaviour sometimes become violent and that some of the young people swept into that have autism backgrounds? Is she concerned that under joint enterprise it is now believed that many young people are in prison who should not be there? Is she worried about joint enterprise and is she making any investigation to do something about it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. On the broader issue of those suffering from autism, we absolutely are aware that a number of factors contribute to young people sadly being caught up in crime, either as perpetrators or as victims. We are working widely across government with our colleagues in the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, and I point specifically to the excellent work we are doing in the violence reduction units up and down the country and through the youth endowment fund, which targets and specifically funds projects to help young people avoid a life of crime. I would be happy to talk to him in more detail about the specific issue he raises with me.

What assessment has the Minister made of the link between youth antisocial behaviour and a lack of youth-focused community spaces and initiatives? What discussions have taken place across Government about ensuring that communities have the resources to support young people before antisocial behaviour occurs or escalates?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the issue of youth violence is a key priority for the crime and justice taskforce, led by the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. My colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have recently allocated £540 million to additional youth services up and down the country, which is a fantastic initiative to enable young people to be engaged in productive activities so that they are not tempted by a life of criminality.

I am very happy that Ipswich is getting £25 million through a town deal, but when I talk to town centre businesses and my constituents I find that many of them are very concerned about crime and antisocial behaviour. It is actually putting some people off going into the town, and in Dial Lane a number of businesses have had their windows smashed. Does my hon. Friend agree that as we support our town centres in coming out of the pandemic it is crucial that we tackle antisocial behaviour, and that one way in which we can do that in Ipswich would be by looking at the police funding formula for Suffolk, which I have banged on about quite a lot, to make sure that we get a fair deal and a bigger police presence in the town centre, so that businesses and my constituents feel 110% secure to spend money in the town centre?

I am pleased to say that because of my hon. Friend’s ardent campaigning there are more police officers in his area. I wish to highlight for him the safer streets fund, which is exactly the kind of initiative that we are putting into town centres to tackle these issues, through things such as better street lighting, CCTV and additional security for residents. The latest round of our safer streets fund is focused on targeting violence against women and girls. That will specifically look at patrols, safer streets and training and the night-time economy.

Antisocial Behaviour and Organised Crime

10. What assessment her Department has made of the relationship between antisocial behaviour and organised crime. (905736)

The beating crime plan laid out the Government’s commitments to working with local agencies to drive down antisocial behaviour and tackle the organised criminal business that often drives the most visible crime felt in local neighbourhoods.

Crooks, fraudsters and those with links to organised crime are exploiting loopholes in the law to access taxpayers’ cash in the exempt supported housing sector. The Minister for Crime and Policing is aware of the problem and he knows that the proliferation of this type of housing units is causing an avalanche of antisocial behaviour that is destroying neighbourhoods. He recently promised, when he visited Birmingham, that he would have urgent conversations with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Work and Pensions, but in the Opposition Day debate that took place in this Chamber last week there was no reference to any such conversations having taken place and no Home Office interest in this matter. Can the Minister tell us what steps are being taken by Home Office officials and Ministers after that visit to Birmingham by the Policing Minister to make sure that the Home Office plays an active, cross-Government role in shutting down the loopholes that causing chaos in communities?

The hon. Lady will appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing is sitting next to me on the Treasury Bench, and I am sure that he would be delighted to follow up on those specific questions.

As my hon. Friend knows, low-level drug use is sadly commonplace across many towns and cities in the UK. It is the scourge of my community and often acts as an escalator into more serious crime, but is yet rarely challenged by the authorities. Will she therefore agree to reinforce the message that drug use is illegal, that it should be treated as a crime and that it should carry an appropriate penalty enforced by police and courts alike?

My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the robust and sweeping action that we have taken to tackle drug use, which is led by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Minister for Crime and Policing. The 10-year drugs plan sets out how we will eradicate drug taking from our country. Let me also highlight the work that we have done on county lines, which is a hideous scourge that affects many young people. Funded by Government, some of the work that has taken place has closed down county lines programmes—more than 1,500 lines—made more than 7,400 arrests and seized £4.3 million in cash.

Police Accessibility

It is important that the services that the police provide, whether digitally or face to face, are all accessible, so that everyone can come forward to report crime and interact with police officers in any way that suits their requirements. We are committed to giving the police the resources they need to fight crime and keep the public safe. That is why policing will receive up to £16,900 million in the coming financial year.

Does the Minister agree that the police and crime commissioner for Cheshire needs to reconsider his priorities when he is talking about closing down Ellesmere Port police station to the public and getting rid of 40 police community support officers while, at the same time, giving his deputy a 33% pay rise despite their having been in the post for five months?

As I understand it, there is a consultation ongoing about how the Cheshire police should interact with the public they serve. I would hate to jump to any conclusion about what may or may not be decided, but, Mr Speaker, you will be aware that all police and crime commissioners should be reviewing their property strategy in the light of the massive expansion in police officer numbers that they are seeing at the moment, to the extent that, in the next 12 months or so, we expect to see the highest number of police officers that the country has ever seen.

Catalytic Converter Theft

We are working with police and manufacturers through the national vehicle crime working group to tackle the theft of catalytic converters.

In many areas of the country, crime is going down. It is going down in many areas in Bromley and Chislehurst, but one area where it is not is the explosion in catalytic converter thefts in my constituency. Ours has been identified by the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead as one of the highest areas for this crime. These are not opportunistic thefts. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these are thefts by organised crime gangs seeking valuable metals that are sold for considerable amounts of money—platinum and palladium—carried out by men armed with baseball bats, threatening violence? Will he ensure that much greater priority is given to this crime and that we clamp down on the handlers of these stolen goods by greater enforcement of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013?

My hon. Friend, with his usual acuity, has put his finger on the button of this issue. It is cause for significant concern in parts of the country, and he is right that it is a product of prices in the metal market. He will be pleased to hear that just this month the British Transport Police co-ordinated a national week of intensification on acquisitive crime, looking particularly at catalytic converters, and that the work we have done on scrap metal dealers will go some way to dealing with the problem. However, we need to work much more closely with manufacturers to ensure that they do as much as they can to design out the theft of converters. Let us hope that in the years to come, as we all convert to electric vehicles, it will become a problem of the past.

Hate Crime: Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities

The Government take all forms of hate crime seriously and we will shortly publish a new strategy setting out how we intend to tackle those abhorrent crimes. I assure the hon. Lady that we have sought views from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Following Ministers’ welcome criticism of Jimmy Carr’s abhorrent joke celebrating the genocide of Roma and Sinti people, the Traveller Movement said that if the Government were serious about reducing discrimination against GRT communities, they would scrap the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Does the Minister accept that it is hypocritical for Ministers to condemn racism from others while pushing through a Bill that the Government’s own impact assessment confirms will discriminate against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people?

I am afraid the hon. Lady is completely wrong about the Bill. It is a vital Bill to keep the public safe and protect them from sex offenders, violent rapists and other criminals. The comments she refers to were horrible, and it is clearly unacceptable to mock victims of genocide. We are clear that all forms of hate speech are unacceptable.

Violence Against Women and Girls

Tackling violence against women and girls is a top priority for this Government. Our actions include publishing a cross-Government strategy on tackling VAWG, to be followed shortly by a complementary domestic abuse plan; bringing in world-class legislation to tackle stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021; further increasing our funding for support services to £185 million a year by 2024-25; and making public spaces safer.

In December last year the Government rejected the recommendation to create a firewall to enable migrant victims to safely report domestic abuse to the police without fear of being reported to the immigration authorities. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services said that that would be in the public interest. Can the Minister say how exactly the Government plan to protect victims too frightened to come forward, and to protect the public from the rapists and abusers left free to offend with impunity?

Our domestic abuse plan and all the work we have done sets out clearly how we are going to protect the most vulnerable victims of domestic abuse, including those who may find themselves in the immigration system. We have support schemes for those women, and we take this seriously; we work extremely sensitively with our policing partners, who have specialist trained officers to recognise such cases and get support to the victims.

Remarkably, despite all the talk on violence against women and girls, the Home Secretary and the Minister still fail to grasp that misogyny is the driving force behind it. The offending histories of many perpetrators reveal how they escalate from lower-level criminal behaviour—offences that many do not report because they do not think they will be taken seriously, such as exposure, street harassment and catcalling. Racism, homophobia and ableism are addressed in law, but no such protections are afforded to women and girls. Why do the Home Secretary and the Minister continue to turn a blind eye to the culture that exists and is the root cause of violence against women and girls?

With the greatest respect, I think the hon. Lady completely mischaracterises the Government’s comprehensive, sweeping, serious and well-funded response to violence against women and girls, which she has heard me and the Home Secretary refer to earlier in this session. On the specific issue she raises, I highlight the fact that the police are recording more crimes of violence against women and girls, and there is an increased willingness of victims to come forward because of the work we and the criminal justice system have done. There is always more to do, but crime reporting in the VAWG sector is up by 12% to September 2021 on the same period of the prior year.

We have heard lots of words on strategies, taskforces, roundtables and action plans, yet many victims will never see justice, and more and more criminals are getting away with it. The House of Lords has voted to introduce a new crime of sex for rent, which Labour Members support and will be voting for tonight. Will the Minister back us?

My colleague the Policing Minister will be speaking to that amendment later, and we will be consulting on this specific issue. However, I want to highlight that there are already offences on the statute book to tackle this particular abhorrent form of behaviour.

English Language Tests

14. If she will take steps to resolve the immigration status of overseas students who have been falsely accused of cheating in English language tests. (905742)

As I said recently in the House in response to an urgent question, the Home Office is awaiting the findings of the upper tribunal presidential panel, who are currently considering the case known as RK/DK, which we hope will bring further clarity to the ETS TOEIC issue. Once we have received and digested the judgment we will announce our next steps.

After 2014, over 30,000 overseas students lost their visas, accused of cheating in English language tests. It is now clear that the great majority of those students were entirely innocent. It is now over 12 months since the Home Secretary rightly told the Home Affairs Committee:

“We need to find a resolution”.

Why wait for the outcome of the court case? There is no need to delay. Why not now bring forward the resolution the Home Secretary has rightly promised?

Given that the judgment is believed to be fairly imminent, it makes eminent sense to wait for it and then announce our next steps fully taking into account what it says and what it concludes. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, given the passage of time we have already amended our guidance to make it clear that where a person’s right to a private and family life in the UK is relevant, the interception of a previous TOEIC test is not an invariable ground for refusal if they make an immigration application.

We now come to topicals. I have granted some extra time to the Home Secretary as she wants to make an important announcement.

Topical Questions

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is monstrous and unjustified. I am in regular contact with the Ukrainian Minister of the Interior and the ambassador to London. The United Kingdom stands firmly with the people of Ukraine, and, as this House would expect, Britain is stepping up to play its part in responding to the terrible situation on the ground in Ukraine.

The Government have already announced the first phase of a bespoke humanitarian route for the people of Ukraine. The new route responds directly to the needs and asks of the Ukrainian Government. Every conflict and threat situation is unique and requires a tailored response. Our new route will continue to keep pace with the developing situation on the ground and has so far already supported hundreds of British nationals and their families resident in Ukraine to leave. UK Visas and Immigration staff continue to work around the clock to assist them. The route has also enabled dependents of British national residents in Ukraine who need a UK visa to apply through the temporary location in Lviv or through the visa application centres in Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. Over recent weeks teams have been surged to these areas and applications have been completed within hours.

We are in direct contact with individuals and we have also lowered various requirements and salary thresholds so that people can be supported. Where family members of British nationals do not meet the usual eligibility criteria but pass security checks, UK Visas and Immigration will give them permission to enter the UK outside the rules for 12 months and is prioritising all applications to give British nationals and any person settled in the UK the ability to bring over their immediate Ukrainian family members. I can confirm that through this extension alone an additional 100,000 Ukrainians will be able to seek sanctuary in the UK, with access to work and public services. We are enabling Ukrainian nationals already in the UK to switch free of charge into a points-based immigration route or to the family visa route. We are extending visas for Ukraine temporary workers in some sectors, and they can now stay until at least December 2022, primarily because no one can return to Ukraine. Anyone in Ukraine intending to apply under the family migration route should call the dedicated 24-hour Home Office helpline for assistance before making an application.

Britain continues to lead and is doing its fair share in every aspect of this Ukraine conflict. I urge colleagues not to attempt casework themselves, but to directly refer people to the helpline number. Duplication of effort would waste precious time and cause confusion. This is the best and most efficient way to help people.

Over the weekend, I have seen Members of this House calling for full visa waivers for all Ukrainians. Security and biometric checks are a fundamental part of our visa approval process worldwide, and they will continue, as they did for the evacuation of people from Afghanistan. That is vital to keep British citizens safe and to ensure that we are helping those in genuine need, particularly as Russian troops are now infiltrating Ukraine and merging into Ukrainian forces. Intelligence reports also state the presence of extremist groups and organisations who threaten the region, but also our domestic homeland. We know all too well what Putin’s Russia is willing to do, even on our soil, as we saw through the Salisbury attack and the nerve agents used on the streets of the UK. The approach we are taking is based on the strongest security advice. The Prime Minister has set out myriad other ways we are supporting Ukraine.

There will be other statements in the House today, but there are two other points I would like to add. The Nationality and Borders Bill is at Report stage in the other place. It contains provisions to allow visa penalties to be applied to specific countries that do not co-operate with the return of their nationals. I am now seeking to extend those provisions so that a country can be specified if it has taken significant steps that threaten international peace and security, have led or are likely to lead to armed conflicts or are in breach of international humanitarian law. The extension would draw on the precedents from the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. Those powers will be available as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. The sooner that happens, the sooner this House and all Members can collectively act.

We are ever mindful of the cyber-attacks and disinformation emanating from Russia.

I am sure the House would like to listen to the actual measures we are bringing in. The cyber-attacks and disinformation will be met with robust responses, and we have stepped up all international co-operation on that.

Finally, what is happening in Ukraine is utterly heartbreaking and profoundly wrong, but together with our international partners, we stand with the heroic Ukrainian people. Further work is taking place with diplomatic channels, and the Ukrainian Government have today requested that the Russian Government be suspended from their membership of Interpol, and we will be leading all international efforts to that effect.

We did try to arrange with the Home Secretary’s office that the statement should be up to 500 words. I think we will find that that was beyond 800 words; it took six minutes. I think the House would have benefited from an actual statement. If we cannot have one tomorrow morning, I suggest someone might like to put in for an urgent question, because I believe the House would benefit from that, as there was so much in what the Home Secretary said. I will be extending topicals.

T2. Will the Home Secretary listen to the 50 organisations, including Save the Children and Amnesty International, that wrote a joint letter in The Times last week calling for the Ukraine crisis to lead to a rethink on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which discriminates against refugees depending on how they reach our shores? (905753)

First, we will not be reconsidering the Nationality and Borders Bill. The hon. Gentleman has already heard about the amendments we will be tabling to deal with countries such as Russia and the actions of President Putin.

T3. Our failure to stop tens of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing the English channel in the last few years has resulted in them being accommodated in hotels, often in completely inappropriate locations, including a site in Blackpool, at a cost of millions of pounds per week to the UK taxpayer. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the Home Office can process the claims of those crossing the channel as soon as possible and reduce the huge cost to the taxpayer? (905754)

I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns about the use of the property in Blackpool, which he has strongly expressed to me on previous occasions. We are looking to double the number of asylum decision makers and to take forward a programme of simplification and modernisation of processing to increase the number of decisions we make, cut down the backlog and reintroduce a service standard for the time taken for an initial decision.

The Home Secretary said that she was announcing a bespoke humanitarian route, but it is extremely unclear from what she said what the details actually are or who it will apply to. The Ukrainian people are showing great bravery, but we know that people, particularly mothers and young children and elderly parents, have left to find sanctuary. The UK has always done its bit to help those fleeing war in Europe and it will come as a relief to many people who have been calling for action if the Government are prepared to do more.

I must ask the Home Secretary, however, why there is so much confusion about it. The Russian invasion began five days ago and other countries responded with clear sanctuary arrangements immediately. Troops have been gathering since mid-January and British intelligence has been warning of an invasion for weeks. We have had a weekend of complete confusion. We still do not know what the arrangements are. Why was nothing worked out already? How on earth is the Home Secretary so poorly prepared for something that she has been warned about for so many weeks?

Let me refute every single point that the right hon. Lady has made. All intelligence, rightly, has pointed to the invasion for a considerable time, and the Government have been working for that, as we know, in terms of the wider Government response. [Interruption.] If I can start to respond to some of those questions, all hon. Members would benefit from paying attention and listening.

When it comes to providing visas and support for Ukrainian nationals in the United Kingdom, our schemes have been put in place for weeks—there is no confusion whatsoever. They have been in place in countries switching routes. They have been well publicised and well documented. We have been working through our visa application centres. [Interruption.] Again, perhaps the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) would like to listen, rather than being responsible for some of the misinformation that has been characterised and put out over the weekend. Those routes have been open and available.

A helpline has been available for weeks. We have had people working in the region and in country in Ukraine for weeks and weeks. We obviously closed down our operations in Kyiv, because we removed staff from there—

Order. We have to make some progress. We are on topicals; they are meant to be short. You had six minutes before. I call Yvette Cooper, briefly.

The Home Secretary said that the routes have been in place, but she has been trying to get people to use existing visas, which do not work in a time of crisis. That is why her Immigration Minister was suggesting that people come and pick fruit.

At a time when many people want to stay close to the Ukraine, we know that there are family members or extended family members—people who have connections here in the UK—who want to come and join family and friends. They will still not know what the situation is as a result of the Home Secretary’s words today. Let me ask her something very specific about the elderly parents of people who are living here in the UK, who are not covered by her announcement yesterday. Will the elderly parent who tried to join her daughter in the UK, who was turned down and made to go away by UK Border Force at the Gare du Nord, be able to return to the Gare du Nord today and come safely to the UK?

T4. Scunthorpe and Ukraine have deep ties rooted in our steelworks and we are horrified by what is happening to our Ukrainian friends. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the support that she has just described will stay in place for however long it is needed? (905755)

My hon. Friend makes a very sensible point, because, of course, there is a conflict taking place. The work of the Government is absolutely right now to support the people of Ukraine, and in particular to support those who need to come over to our country.

After this weekend I have to say that, not for the first time, I am struggling to understand what the Home Office is announcing and why it is announcing whatever it is. May I ask, for example, about my constituent who is fleeing Ukraine? Is he able to be accompanied by his mother-in-law, sister-in-law and niece? Again, why not do the simple thing and the just thing, and lift visa restrictions altogether?

T5.   The Government should be rightly proud of the action taken to support our police officers, not least through the adoption of Harper’s law, which is due before this House later today. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that police officers get all the mental health support they need, as advocated by the Green Ribbon Policing campaign? (905756)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in the case he makes about mental health, and I know that he is doing some great work on this as well. We are doing a huge amount in Government, working with the Department of Health and Social Care in particular, focusing on mental health support, such as the TRiM—trauma risk management—programme and things of that nature. I know he has a particular interest in this, and it is something I would like to discuss with him further.

T7. I listened to the Home Secretary’s earlier statement with interest, but clarity is needed. I have constituents who have family members in Ukraine, some of them frail and elderly. Can she assure the House that those Ukrainians who wish to join their families in the UK can do so via a third country without being mired in delays and bureaucracy, and can she further guarantee that those refugees will not be ordered to leave the UK after the nominal 12 months have expired? (905758)

There are no delays and bureaucracy, as the hon. Member has already heard me say, and on her last point, yes.

T6. North Wales police in my constituency of Clwyd South does an exceptional job in keeping the public safe and tackling crime. Could my right hon. Friend comment on plans to recruit and retain the best and brightest to join our police force, and would he join me in praising our local policing initiatives? (905757)

I am more than happy to lavish praise on North Wales police, which does a fantastic job along the coast there, as do all our police officers up and down the country. I am pleased to say that we are making enormous progress on our recruitment programme. As I hope my hon. Friend knows, we are well over 11,000 now, and I expect to hit the 20,000 target shortly.

Jo, a constituent, came to Britain in 2001 and served for five years in the Army, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he developed post-traumatic stress disorder. He served time for drink-driving offences, but he sought help for PTSD, stopped drinking and rebuilt his life. He now has two children in Coventry and no connections in Zimbabwe, his birthplace, where he was tortured the last time he was there. However, on Wednesday Jo is set to be deported to Zimbabwe, and I have had no reply from the Minister to my urgent correspondence on this case. So will the Home Secretary step in and stop Jo being deported from the country he has served and where his family lives to a place where he will be at risk of torture?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is fair to say that casework inquiries on these matters are treated urgently, and it is one that will no doubt cross my desk within the coming hours. Of course, the flight in question later this week relates to individuals who have committed very serious criminality, but I will of course ensure that the individual case is looked at.

T8. In the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, does my right hon. Friend agree with me that now is the ideal time to review and reform the 32-year-old Computer Misuse Act 1990, as recommended by the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report, and will he meet me and colleagues to discuss how reforming that legislation could not only help to tackle online crime, but unlock our national cyber-defence? (905759)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of the review of the Computer Misuse Act. Since my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary launched that review last year, a number of very good and important suggestions have come forward, which we are currently reviewing. Meanwhile, of course, we continue always to update our approach, including to the National Cyber Security Centre and, more immediately, to the online safety Bill.

In the evidence the Home Secretary gave to the Home Affairs Committee on 2 February, she said that a major obstacle for accepting more people under Operation Warm Welcome for Afghans fleeing the Taliban was the lack of suitable accommodation because of Home Office contracts. The Select Committee has been warning about this for some time. I think that the Home Secretary has announced a bespoke humanitarian policy for those Ukrainians fleeing—[Hon. Members: “No, she hasn’t.”] Oh, perhaps she has not; I am sorry there is not a statement to clarify that. What I want to know is: what is she going to do about the lack of accommodation that the Home Office provides for asylum seekers and refugees in this country?

We are certainly concerned about the lack of suitable accommodation across the United Kingdom in terms of dispersal areas, which is why we are keen to sign up new areas to become dispersal areas. I am pushing my own council and, as I have already said, there are 31 out of 32 areas in Scotland that could do with signing up as well.

T9. Dorset police is at the bottom of the funding league table for police forces, coming 40th out of 41 forces, and we continue to battle issues of rural crime, including county lines drug gangs. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring that Dorset gets its fair share, so that we can get more police officers—I particularly want to see the rural crime police team doubled, and I know those aspirations are shared by our police and crime commissioner? (905760)

I have committed before, and I am happy to do so again, that before the end of the Parliament we will produce a new funding formula to ensure that my hon. Friend’s constituency gets exactly what he deserves, as indeed he should.

Does the Home Secretary accept that many Members of this House are dismayed that she did not make a statement in the normal way, so that she could have been questioned in the normal way? Does she further accept that that is not just disrespectful to the House of Commons, but it shows a lack of real concern for those desperate people escaping Ukraine?

I completely reject the right hon. Lady’s latter point, and naturally I will always be happy to return to the House and take questions.

Constituents in Tatton are increasingly concerned about the growing number and range of online fraud and scams, and the ability of Action Fraud to deal with them. Many of those crimes originate outside the UK, with some from hostile states such as Russia. What is the Minister doing to counter that?

My right hon. Friend is right, and we share her constituents’ concern. We are looking constantly to upgrade and improve Action Fraud, and I encourage her constituents to carry on reporting those instances of fraud. Together with the rest of our constituents, their forwarding of dodgy emails to report@phishing.gov.uk has so far led to 73,000 scams being removed.

Will the Home Secretary publish her review into the tier 1 gold-plated visas? Will she suspend all tier 1 visas for people who have connections with the Putin regime, and will she look into the veracity of applications for British citizenship by Russian oligarchs who are connected with Putin?

I think the hon. Gentleman knows my view and position on that, and of course the answer is yes.

Another young life has been tragically lost to a knife in Milton Keynes. Does the Minister agree that as well as record numbers of police on the streets, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service need to work with the police to ensure that there are real deterrents to carrying a knife on our streets?

My hon. Friend is right, and I am very sorry to hear of the crime that took place in his constituency. As he will know, the fight against knife crime is at the forefront of the Government’s priorities, and as he said, alongside deterrent sentencing and assertive and extensive policing, we need to work on long-term solutions to turn young people’s lives away from crime. I am pleased that I was able to visit the Thames Valley violence reduction unit last year to look at the extensive work it is doing to put in place exactly those kind of programmes.