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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 722: debated on Monday 14 November 2022

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Operation Deter

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police on the effectiveness of Operation Deter. (902154)

Before I answer, on behalf of the UK may I pass on my thoughts and prayers to all those affected by the terrible attack in Istanbul yesterday? I am sure that the whole House will join me, on behalf of the UK Government, in saying that the UK stands with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. We send our condolences to all those affected.

Last month, I visited Thames Valley police to meet the chief constable, force leaders and student officers. A number of topics were discussed, including the delivery of Operation Deter. I am always keen to discuss interventions that the chief constable and local partners believe to be effective in reducing knife crime.

The police and crime commissioner for Thames Valley, Matthew Barber, introduced Operation Deter as a zero-tolerance approach to knife crime. It started in Milton Keynes and is now being rolled out in the force in other areas. It is already delivering some very encouraging signs in reducing knife crime. Will my right hon. Friend review it further and encourage other forces to replicate it in their areas?

I have met the excellent police and crime commissioner, to whom my hon. Friend refers, on two occasions now—perhaps more—and I really welcome all initiatives that show measurable impacts against violent crime. I am determined that interventions that are proven to work are delivered across our forces. I am also a big supporter of violence reduction units. I am very keen to look at the verified results of Operation Deter, alongside all innovative approaches. I am clear that all options should be explored and that we should support operations that work.

Hate Crimes

Hate crime is a scourge on communities across the country. We expect the police to fully investigate hateful attacks and ensure that the cowards who commit them feel the full force of the law.

The Home Secretary said that the public want the police to tackle crime, yet the Home Office cut the number of police officers and left Islamophobia to increase over the last five years. Year after year, Home Office figures show that British Muslims are the victims of the highest number of hate crimes. This Islamophobia Awareness Month, will the Home Secretary take any steps to root out this insidious hatred, which impacts our British Muslim community?

There is a cheeky two-part question there. In relation to police numbers, I remind the hon. Gentleman that in his own area we have already recruited 804 new officers and there will be lots more coming in that space. On religious hate crimes against Muslims, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is working hard in this area. I remind him that this Government have done more than any other to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. We have provided extra money—over £4 million between 2016 and 2022—to monitor and combat anti-Muslim hatred. I remind him that, in addition, the Home Office allocated £24.5 million to protect mosques and Muslim faith schools through the Places of Worship: Protective Security Funding Scheme in May 2022. A new Muslim faith schools protective security scheme will also be delivered this year. The Government are thoroughly committed to stamping out this evil crime.

New Police Officers: Entry Pay Rates

4. What discussions she has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) relevant stakeholders on the adequacy of entry pay rates for new police officers. (902157)

The independent Police Remuneration Review Body makes recommendations to the Government on the pay and allowances for police officers. In July, we announced that we had accepted the review body’s recommendation to award a consolidated increase of £1,900 at all pay points with effect from 1 September, targeted at the lowest-paid to provide an uplift of up to 8.8%.

Police officers inform me that they have faced a 20% real-terms pay cut over the past decade, and there seems to be a particular problem with new recruits. My local federation tells me that some of its officers are using food banks and that a potential new recruit decided to continue his career with a fast food chain because he had been offered a pay rise. Does the Secretary of State admit that pay and remuneration for police officers—professionals who put their lives in danger on our behalf—is a real problem?

The Government recognise that increases in the cost of living are having a significant impact on the lower-paid. In that context, and after careful consideration, we chose to accept in full the review body’s recommendations to award the consolidated increases that I mentioned. We want to ensure that there is support for our officers, who play a vital role in this country.

Given that on the streets of London alone, entry pay rates have already attracted 4,734 more police officers to join the Metropolitan police, and given how vital it is to continue to provide the right place for those new recruits to be properly trained, does the Home Secretary agree that Uxbridge remains the most sensible place in Hillingdon to have a place station? Will she join me in passing that view to the present Mayor of London?

My right hon. Friend speaks a lot of sense, as usual. He is absolutely right and he has a huge amount of which to be proud when it comes to increasing the numbers of police officers on the frontline fighting crime and standing up for victims, which Labour has opposed at every opportunity. If I may make a humble request of him, will he give up some of his precious time to advise the current Mayor of London who is wholly failing on fighting crime, having seen a 9% increase in crime in London? The Mayor really could take some advice from his predecessor.

New statistics published today reveal that the mini-Budget cost even more than we first thought—a staggering £30 billion. That comes on top of 12 years of austerity, which has seen a real-terms pay cut for police and staff, thousands of jobs lost and prosecutions plummet. The Home Secretary was in the Cabinet and the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire was No. 2 in the Treasury at the time of the mini-Budget. Will they both now apologise to our police for the damage they have done?

The Government are clear that policing must have a modern pay structure that recognises and rewards skills and competence, rather than time served. In line with that approach, chief constables have the discretion to pay an officer a starting salary of between £23,556 and £26,682 depending on qualifications and experience. The settlement is fair. We want our police officers to be empowered and strong in the fight against crime.

Neighbourhood Crimes: Effectiveness of Police Community Support Officers

5. What assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of police community support officers in tackling neighbourhood crime. (902158)

The Government are determined to reduce neighbourhood crime, and I am pleased to report that, since 2019, neighbourhood crime has reduced by about 20%. It is up to chief constables to decide on the level of PCSOs that they choose to recruit, but as the House will be aware, we are in the process of hiring an extra 20,000 police officers, after which we will have a record number of uniformed officers serving.

Police community support officers have a vital role to play in tackling neighbourhood crime and building trust and confidence in policing at a community level, because they are often the most visible officers to our communities. Will the Minister therefore confirm how many fewer officers are assigned to neighbourhood roles in England and Wales today compared with 2010? How long does he expect it to take until police officer and staff numbers in neighbourhood roles reach the same number again?

I can confirm that neighbourhood crime is about 20% lower than in 2019, as I said a moment ago. I can confirm that after the 20,000 officers have been recruited in April next year, we will have a record number of uniformed officers serving in this country. I can also confirm that the Metropolitan police area, which includes the hon. Lady’s constituency, the shadow Policing Minister’s constituency and my own, already has a record number of uniformed officers.

PCSOs play a vital role in London wards’ safer neighbourhoods teams, which perform a vital function. Will the Minister ask the Mayor of London why he is starving boroughs such as Barnet of the officers needed to make up SNTs to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour?

The Metropolitan police already have more uniformed officers than at any point in their history, and in the current financial year they have had a funding increase of £170 million on last year, so I think my right hon. Friend asks a very reasonable question.

In the London Borough of Brent, 320 hours of safer neighbourhoods teams’ police time has been abstracted in the past three months. The figures are not routinely made public, but it is important for communities to have access to that information because they need to know that their safer neighbourhoods teams are there to act for them. Will the Home Secretary undertake to publish abstraction figures as a matter of routine?

Such operational matters are for the police, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the level of abstraction owing to the unjustified Just Stop Oil protests. In October and early November, about 11,000 Metropolitan police officer shifts were lost as a result of having to police those outrageous and unnecessary protests. That is a matter of concern, and that is why it is so important that we see an end to these protests as soon as possible.

I usually get very positive feedback about Chelmsford’s pubs, clubs and nightclubs, but in recent weeks there has been a flurry of emails and comments on social media about suspected spiking incidents at one establishment. I have been in touch with our excellent city centre policing team, who are among the hundreds more police we have had in Essex in the past five years. Will the Minister join me in encouraging all those who think they may have been victims of spiking to come forward and report the incidents to the police so that the perpetrators can be caught and held to account?

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I certainly join her in calling on victims to report these very serious and damaging offences as quickly as possible. The Government are committed to producing a report on the prevalence and nature of spiking and the action needed to tackle it by April next year.

Neighbourhood policing and PCSOs should be at the heart of communities, providing proactive policing to keep communities safe, yet after cutting thousands of neighbourhood police officers from our streets, the Tories have cut 8,000 PCSOs. Labour has made a commitment to hire thousands more PCSOs as part of a fully funded neighbourhood policing programme. Will the Minister match that commitment, or will further cuts be coming after Thursday’s Budget?

As the hon. Lady knows, the total funding going into policing this year is £16.9 billion, which is a £1.1 billion increase on last year. I have said it once or twice before, but I will say it again: come April next year, when those 20,000 extra officers are hired, we will have a record number of uniformed officers serving on our streets.

Families with Leave to Remain: No Recourse to Public Funds

6. When she plans to publish improved data on families with leave to remain but no recourse to public funds. (902159)

The Home Office now publishes an extensive range of data in respect of NRPF change of conditions applications, including data on age, gender and nationality. We are open to other avenues to obtaining further NRPF-related data; plans for doing so have been set out in published correspondence with the UK Statistics Authority.

At present, the Home Office does not know how many people it gives leave to remain with no recourse to public funds attached. For months, Ministers and officials at the Department have been saying that a new IT system is about to be introduced and will give us that information. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority, whom the Minister mentioned, told me in a letter in February that the new system would be operational some time this year, rather than last year as previously announced. When will the Department take back control and switch on its new system so that it can provide this completely basic information?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s long-standing interest in this issue. We have made it clear on a number of occasions that we also want to deepen and enrich the level of data that is available. We have been speaking to our stakeholders to see what further steps we might be able to take, and I shall be happy to keep the right hon. Gentleman informed.

Asylum Application Backlog

We are clear about the fact that the asylum system needs to do better and cases need to be processed more quickly. The aim of the asylum transformation programme is to bring the system back into balance and modernise it. Its focus is on increasing productivity by streamlining and digitising processes to speed up decision making and increase efficiency and output.

A hotel in Earl Shilton, in my constituency, has twice been identified as a way of trying to deal with the backlog, but has failed in that regard owing to health and safety concerns about fire in particular. I was therefore surprised when constituents wrote to me saying that they had seen asylum seekers in the hotel. I contacted the borough council, the county council and the police, but none of them knew anything about it, so I checked social media and found that the story had been corroborated and was true. When I contacted the Home Office, it took 72 hours for it to be confirmed that they had been placed there. This is completely unacceptable. What is the Home Secretary doing to ensure that it does not happen in other constituencies, and will she meet me to discuss the situation in Earl Shilton so that communication can be improved?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. We have experienced unprecedented pressure on the system recently, and responding to it has been challenging for our operational partners. We have a statutory duty to provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation. We do inform local partners of our actions, but despite our ambitions to do that expeditiously, owing to the recent incredible pressure on the system we have sometimes fallen short. I understand that a direct communication has been sent to my hon. Friend, but I can say to him now that we want to improve our engagement to ensure that there is much better understanding and much better support for local communities that are affected.

We now know of at least four sexual assaults on children who have been left in these hotels for months because of the backlog. In a meeting with MPs last week, the Home Secretary’s officials committed themselves to providing details of the safeguarding requirements for private contractors if Ministers gave them permission. If the Home Secretary is so confident that she is doing everything she can to fulfil the duty of care for these vulnerable children, will she give that permission and will she publish those details?

I have been very straight in saying that our asylum system does need improvement. The Immigration Minister and I are working intensively and improving our processes, and the duties to those in our care and how they are discharged, whether those concerned are adults or children, or other vulnerable people. There has been unprecedented pressure on the system, but we are working apace to procure alternative accommodation, and have been doing so for several months. As I have said, we are working intensively, and we hope to secure everyone’s support in that effort.

Clearing the processing backlog is clearly one of the keys to solving the whole asylum problem, and we need to get on with it and make sure that it is done as fast as possible. The other key is, of course, controlling the source of the problem. I was pleased to learn of the measure signed by my right hon. Friend in Paris this morning, which is a modest step towards solving a much greater problem. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than populist policies which may grab headlines, the only way to solve this problem will be through painstaking hard work of the kind that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Mr Macron have instigated?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support and input on this challenging issue, and I was pleased to visit Manston with him a few weeks ago. He is absolutely right; there is no single solution to this problem, and international co-operation is a vital part of the solution. That is why I am very grateful to French partners for their effective work to date and also for their support for the positive step forward in the new deal that I signed this morning with my opposite number in France, which will greatly deepen our co-operation and further our response to illegal migration in the channel.

In Hounslow there are more than 3,500 asylum seekers waiting for a determination on their applications in, at the last count, 12 interim or contingency hotels. They have been waiting not weeks, not months, but even years. They are existing in accommodation and eating food unfit for animals, and Clearspring Ready Homes and a network of unaccountable subcontractors are skimming off vast profits and ripping off the accommodation providers, the vulnerable asylum seekers and, of course, the taxpayer. As the Home Secretary admits, the Home Office has a challenge here, so why will she not contract with local authorities that have expertise in procuring accommodation and that will ensure the basic standards that the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) is concerned about, and ensure safeguarding as well—

Order. That is an important point but I have to get other Members in as well. We cannot have speeches; we must have short questions. I think the Home Secretary has got the drift of this one.

There are many plans afoot to try to improve the processing of asylum claims, and one of those relates to procuring alternative accommodation for those seeking asylum. We need to reduce our reliance on hotels, improve our productivity within the asylum processing system and ensure that people stop making the journey in the first place. There are huge levels of work ongoing, and I would encourage the hon. Lady to support those plans and our work.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 establishes a new category of asylum seekers that the Government claim are not permitted to claim asylum in Britain and should therefore be removed, but because the Government have failed to secure a returns agreement with France, and because their Rwanda policy is completely unworkable, 16,000 people in this category have been stuck in limbo waiting an additional six months for a decision, at huge cost to the British taxpayer. Of those 16,000 waiting in limbo, only 21 have been returned since the Act came into force. Do Ministers therefore accept that their own legislation is adding further delays, cost, chaos and confusion to an already broken system while doing next and nothing to remove failed asylum seekers who have no right to be here?

I find it staggering that Labour Members seem to love complaining about the system but when we introduced laws to fix it, what did they do? They opposed them every step of the way. We wanted to make it easier to deport foreign national offenders; Labour voted against it. We wanted to fix our asylum system; Labour voted against it. We secured a ground-breaking agreement with Rwanda; Labour would scrap it. Labour Members are very good at complaining, but they have absolutely no solution at all.

Visitor Visa Applications: Potential Barriers

8. What steps she is taking to reduce potential barriers for (a) family, (b) spouse and (c) visitor visa applications. (902161)

Our immigration system allows people from across the globe to come to the United Kingdom to visit and join family here. Over 2 million entry clearance visas were issued in the year ending June 2022, but it is also right to ensure that visitors intend to leave at the end of their stay and that those coming to join their family can be supported by the family and not by the British taxpayer.

According to the Home Office’s own figures, just under 20% of the total accepted and rejected visitor visa applications ended up being rejected, yet when it comes to those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationality, the figure suddenly, dramatically and inexplicably rises to 30%. Does the Minister really expect us to believe that there is no racial or religious bias at the Home Office?

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong, and he makes a baseless slur against my officials at the Home Office. All visa determinations are based on objective criteria, and I would add that 303,000 visas and permits were granted for family members in the year ending June 2022, which is 61% more than in 2019. The Home Office is granting record numbers of these visas, and we do so in an entirely objective fashion.

My constituent Mary Samuels is the legal guardian of her niece Faith, who is currently in Sierra Leone. Mary submitted a visa application for Faith as a non-British child of a parent who has permission to be in the UK, as Faith’s lack of parents or guardians in Sierra Leone is putting her at serious and substantial risk. Although I am grateful for our conversations with the Home Office, those conversations have been ongoing since July 2021. I know that the Minister cannot comment on this case on the Floor of the House, but will he commit to personally reviewing the case and to meeting me to discuss how we can ensure that this intolerable situation for Mary and Faith is concluded as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend has been following this exceptional case assiduously. I can say that the application is in its final stages of consideration, and the applicant will be notified of the outcome as soon as a decision has been made. I am of course happy to meet him if that would be helpful.

In contrast to family, spouse and visitor visas, golden visas were available until February 2022 to all who could afford them, including the world’s super-rich, with next to no background checks. Spotlight on Corruption has found that, of all the golden visas issued, around half—that is more than 6,000—have been reviewed for possible national security risks. When he was Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Minister for Security called for the 2018 review of golden visas to be published. Can the Government confirm when we will finally see that review?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security has been clear that we will publish that report at the earliest available opportunity, but I would add that this is the Government who brought an end to golden visas and who led the world in economic sanctions in support of the people of Ukraine.

Knife Crime and Serious Violence

The Government have taken a dual approach to tackling serious violence, combining tough enforcement with programmes steering people away from crime. Since 2019, we have invested £170 million in the areas most affected by violence to boost the police response, and we have invested a further £170 million in developing violence reduction units to tackle the root causes of violent crime. These programmes together have been assessed as preventing 49,000 violent offences in their first two years.

Harrow is, generally speaking, a safe borough in which to live, but we have seen an 18% increase in knife crime this year. There were 41 major incidents last month, and only last week there was a major incident in which three people were stabbed and put into hospital. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is needed is not just extra police officers, but apprehending people who carry knives, punishing them by taking them to court and imprisoning them so they cannot cause damage to other people?

I agree with my hon. Friend that a robust police response is essential, as is the courts making robust use of the two-strikes rule requiring a mandatory prison sentence on a second conviction for possessing a bladed article. Those are very important, and I am happy to look with him at how they are working and whether they need to be pushed a bit further. I am sorry to hear about the knife crime statistics in Harrow. Nationwide, knife crime, or knife-enabled crime, is down about 9% compared with pre-pandemic levels. If my hon. Friend feels that more needs to be done in his area, I would be happy to discuss it with him.

The two-strikes strategy is not something we have done in Milton Keynes. The Home Secretary has heard about Operation Deter, under which people caught with a knife in Milton Keynes will spend time behind bars. Along with the right legislation and the right policing strategies, such as Operation Deter, we need to work with local communities. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Knife Angel to Milton Keynes as we work with communities to raise awareness of the consequences of knife crime?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; the Knife Angel and other organisations do fantastic work, and I strongly commend them. It is exactly that kind of initiative that some of the funding streams I mentioned earlier are designed to support.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched film from a security camera in Stockton showing two men; one used a chainsaw to cut through the door of a house while the other set about smashing all the windows in a bid to get to the resident. Who knows what would have happened if they had got in? That is another example of terrifying attacks by dangerous, organised criminals determined to silence our communities as they fight to control their illegal drug businesses on Teesside. The Government love to spin a story about police recruitment, but will Cleveland police ever get back the hundreds of police officers cut since 2010 and the resources needed to protect our communities and catch these criminals?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that the kind of crime he describes is despicable and that those who commit it should be pursued, prosecuted and imprisoned. I met the excellent police and crime commissioner for Cleveland, Steve Turner, just a short time ago—

I also met the chief constable, Mark Webster, just a week ago. The hon. Gentleman mentions resources, and of course Cleveland this year is receiving an extra £7.8 million compared with what it received last year and it has been allocated 239 extra officers as part of the police uplift programme, 197 of whom are already in post.

In September, I asked a then Home Office Minister why it is still legal for anyone aged 18 and over to walk into a shop and buy a machete. I was told, because the incidence of the use of machetes on our streets is increasing, that the serious weapons review is looking at this matter. Will this Minister tell us when that will be concluded and when the Government will act to ban the sale of machetes in this country?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and I have a lot of sympathy for the point he is making. In the two or three weeks since I have been in this position, I have met the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner McNulty, who has particular expertise in this area and is the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on this topic. He has made a number of interesting proposals that are consistent with what the right hon. Gentleman just suggested. I am studying those carefully and sympathetically, and hope to have more to say on this topic in the near future.

Biometric Residence Permits

There are currently no material delays in the physical production or delivery of biometric residence permits. We aim to deliver a BRP within seven working days of the immigration decision. All BRPs are currently being produced within 48 hours of receipt of a production request at the secure printing facility. Our secure delivery partner, FedEx, is attempting to deliver 99% of BRPs within 48 hours of their production and is successfully delivering nearly 80% of them first time.

I thank my right hon. Friend for those statistics, which appear to be somewhat at odds with the experience of my constituents: Oksana Vakaliuk, a refugee from Ukraine, has been waiting since 1 May for her BRP; Adnam Hameed was granted his tier 2 visa in May and was still waiting for his BRP last month; and Mohammed Poswall has been waiting since July for his wife to receive the spousal visa stamp in her passport. I really appreciate the work that my right hon. Friend is doing in this respect, but the challenge is that these individuals could be working in our economy, contributing to meeting our skills shortages and paying tax. Will he meet me to go through these and other cases to help understand what is causing the delays, which may be specific to my region?

I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. As I said in answer to her initial question, the data suggests that the vast majority of customers are receiving their BRPs within seven days and the system is working in an acceptable fashion. But if cases are falling through the cracks, it is of course right that we aim to fix that, and I would be pleased to meet her.

Biometrics are obviously important, but going back to spousal visas, which have also been mentioned, the wife of my constituent is an Afghan citizen who is stuck in Iran. As we know, Afghan refugees are not being treated well in Iran, but the Home Office, in reply to me, says that it will not particularly expedite this case. Will the Minister afford me the same courtesy that he did to the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and look into the case that I have mentioned if I write to him after this session?

Ingredients Scheduled under Drug Legislation: Review

11. Whether she is taking steps with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that the potential health benefits of ingredients scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 are kept under review. (902167)

Drug control seeks to strike a balance between preventing criminality on the one hand and allowing access for legitimate use, such as medicines development, on the other. The Government are guided in their decisions by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs as a well-established process for taking these decisions, and of course we follow the expert advice.

Psilocybin should never have been designated a schedule 1 substance, but this position by the Home Office has become even more untenable following publication this month of the largest multi-site phase 2b trial of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. The study found rapid and enduring reductions in depression symptoms on a 25 mg dose. The further, very promising research in the UK is being severely hindered by psilocybin’s schedule 1 status and the prohibitive associated costs for our academic researchers. Will the Home Secretary finally commit to rescheduling psilocybin and related compounds to schedule 2, to allow more research into mental health treatment paradigms that could see a happier, healthier and more productive country and a growth boom for our science, innovation and pharmacology sectors?

The drug to which the hon. Lady refers is an MDMA-based medicine. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is currently considering the barriers to legitimate research that are posed by controlled drugs. Once we have had its advice on the topic, including the implications for psychedelic drugs, such as MDMA and psilocybin, we will obviously take an appropriate decision in relation to research. In relation to more widespread availability, we will follow the decisions made by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence before reaching any such decision ourselves.

Illegal Cross-channel Movements: Discussions with French Counterpart

12. What recent discussions she has had with her French counterpart on illegal cross-channel movements. (902168)

The Prime Minister and I are committed to reducing dangerous illegal migration into the UK, which is why I was in Paris today with my French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, to agree a new joint strategy and operational plan, which will drive forward our next phase of co-operation and make this route unviable eventually.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her agreement in Paris today but, as she herself has said, there is no silver bullet. Given that there are so many hundreds of miles of French coastline to be policed, will this agreement be a game changer?

As my hon. Friend says, on its own, this agreement will not fix the problem—it is important that everyone is clear about that. However, I am very proud of the co-operation that the UK and France have led in recent years. This deal represents a step change and a big step forward in our joint challenge. For the first time under this new integrated approach, UK officers will join law enforcement colleagues in France as embedded observers to share real-time information relating to small boats. The deal will include significant investment in intelligence capability and information sharing that all agencies will use, including the National Crime Agency and Europol. I believe that this is a big step forward and I encourage everyone here to get behind it.

The Home Affairs Committee’s report on small boat crossings, published in the summer, made a series of recommendations, one of which was more engagement with the French, so we very much welcomed the announcement this morning. Of course, it is the fifth announcement on arrangements with the French in four years, and there is not a single one thing that will solve this problem. That is why we made a series of recommendations, including: securing an agreement with the EU on the return of failed asylum seekers; and piloting the provision of initial UK asylum applications at facilities within French reception centres. That would mean that individuals wanting to seek asylum in the UK could do so without having to get into those awful dinghies and make that treacherous journey across the channel. Will the Home Secretary look again at the whole suite of recommendations that the Select Committee made after two years of looking at this subject?

I read with interest the report from the Select Committee, which makes several important points about greater collaboration and deeper co-operation with our friends in France. Last year our joint efforts saw more than 23,000 dangerous and unnecessary crossings prevented, and this year to date more than 30,000 crossing attempts have been stopped by the French. Joint working has also resulted in the dismantling of 55 organised crime groups and secured more than 500 arrests since its inception in 2020. That operational collaboration is absolutely integral to solving this common challenge.

Regrettably, the modest French agreement falls short of what is needed to address the scale, impact and urgency of the channel crossings issue. We do not need more observation—we need action taken on the French side. Even today, as the ink dried on this new deal, small boats crept through the sea-mist and one even landed on a beach in a residential coastal village in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and Kent leaders to discuss the dreadful impact on local services, which they described in a letter to her two weeks ago as being at breaking point?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work on this issue over several years. As I said, I am not going to overplay this agreement. It is an important step forward and provides a good platform on which to secure deeper collaboration, and it represents progress. For the first time, UK officers will be on the ground in France, working hand in hand with their French counterparts. They will be working side by side in the command HQ. They will be working with intelligence and surveillance material together. They will be partners in a very material sense in the fight against this challenge. Is that going to solve the problem on its own? It will not, but I encourage everybody to support the deal we have secured.

The Home Secretary might not like it, but if I may give her some positive advice, when you answer a question you are meant to look to the Chair. That is all I will say.

The Home Secretary insists that the agreement announced today represents a step forward, but is she able to tell the House whether it will mean fewer small boats crossing the channel?

A large win from the agreement is that there will be more French gendarmes patrolling the French beaches. There is a 40% uplift to the number of personnel that the French are deploying. That must be a success, and I encourage the right hon. Lady to welcome it.

It is astonishing that the Home Secretary has not made an oral statement on this subject, given the number of people who want to ask questions. She is preventing full scrutiny of this deal. Could that be because her written statement admits that there have been only 140 smuggling-related convictions across all of Britain and France in 35 months? Can she confirm that that means there have been on average just four convictions a month for those dangerous crimes, even though last month alone nearly 7,000 people arrived in the UK as a result of organised criminals profiting from putting lives at risk? Why is the Government’s action against criminal smuggler gangs so pitifully weak?

Why is the Government’s action so pitifully weak? We introduced legislation—an extensive Bill designed specifically to deal with the problem occurring on our shores—and on every occasion, what did Labour Members do? They voted against it. If they were really serious about solving this problem, they would be supporting our proposals, not carping from the sidelines.

That is a totally nonsense answer. The Home Secretary obviously is not aware that former chief constables have warned that her Nationality and Borders Act 2022 makes it harder to prosecute people traffickers, and that in fact it is adding six-month delays to the asylum system and pushing up the costs.

Patrols and intelligence sharing are welcome but long overdue, but will the Home Secretary match Labour’s funded policy for a major expansion of additional specialist officers in the National Crime Agency as part of a proper plan to work with other countries to investigate and crack down on those gangs? Or is she actually preparing for cuts in policing and security operations on Thursday because her party’s disastrous management of the economy has let everyone down?

Of course we need to go further and faster in the fight against illegal migration. I am very disappointed and concerned by the unprecedented numbers of people arriving here illegally. We are taking steps to fix it. The reality is, as I said, that this year alone more than 30,000 attempts have been prevented by the French. I have come back today from securing a deal that will increase the number of French patrols on the French coastline, which will reinforce our collaboration and intelligence work and strengthen our joint fight, but what do Labour Members do? They criticise. They criticise because the simple truth is that this is not about the French deal or our response, but about their abject failure to speak on behalf of the British people. They do not care about illegal migration; they want an open-doors migration policy, as they always have.

Of course, we all welcome closer co-operation with the French, but the Home Secretary is absolutely right to temper her expectations given that previous deals were signed in 2010, 2014, ’15, ’16, ’18, ’19, ’20 and, indeed, ’21. What discussions has she had with the French about safe legal routes for those with clear links to the United Kingdom, linked if necessary with an appropriate returns agreement? Surely she must see that only a deal that includes safe legal routes can make a significant and lasting impact.

I am not going to repeat myself, but I think the deal is a good step forward and a great platform from which to build deeper co-operation. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that his question would have much more credibility if Scotland stepped up further and took a better share of those who come here seeking refuge and asylum.

Topical Questions

The UK is working closely with France to reduce illegal small boat crossings over the channel. Over the past year, those efforts have produced results. Today, I was in Paris with my French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, to agree a more integrated and strengthened approach aimed at making that lethally dangerous route unviable, with world-class law enforcement teams from both countries working even more closely together. That is a positive step forward.

For the first time, UK officers will join French law enforcement teams as embedded observers, sharing real-time information on the ground and in command HQ. We will provide investment of up to £62 million this year, supporting cutting-edge surveillance technology, the expansion of the UK-France joint intelligence cell, and more French officers patrolling the French coast. This is an international problem; it requires an international solution.

May I raise a question about the Afghanistan citizens resettlement scheme on behalf of a constituent whose father has played a prominent role in women’s education, achieving recognition and awards from the United Nations? The ACRS is a clearly structured scheme, but may I request a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to discuss the very special circumstances of my constituent’s father?

The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which commenced on 6 January 2022, will see up to 20,000 at-risk people resettled to the United Kingdom. If my hon. Friend sends me the details, I will ask the relevant teams to look at that case.

On Friday, a commission established by Refugees for Justice and led by Helena Kennedy KC concluded that the 2020 stabbings and shooting at asylum accommodation in Glasgow’s Park Inn could have been avoided, and recommended important asylum reforms. Will the Home Secretary or the Minister for Immigration agree to meet Baroness Kennedy—with whom I spoke this morning—and Refugees for Justice to discuss that important report?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and the Baroness to discuss her report. We take safety at immigration removal centres extremely seriously. If I may, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the immigration enforcement officers and others who responded to the recent disturbance at Harmondsworth in London. Their hard work in difficult circumstances was much appreciated by all of us.

T5. I welcome the agreement that the Home Secretary has signed with the French Government. It is a contribution to dealing with the asylum crisis and therefore allowing hundreds of hotels, including some in my constituency, to go back to doing their proper job. Does she recognise that we also need an asylum system that can process applications quickly? If the figures remain at 1.5 decisions per week per decision maker, as they are now, or at four a week, as in the Government’s latest pilot, we will never see an end to the backlogs and delays, so may I urge the Government to be more ambitious? (902182)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question and his advice on this matter. We want to increase the productivity of our Home Office staff so that cases are not being decided to the tune of one per person per week, but at four, five or six per person per week, as they were a few years ago. We have had a positive pilot in our Leeds office, and we now intend to roll that out at pace across the country.

T3. We have 8,000 fewer PCSOs, 6,000 fewer neighbourhood police officers, and people can see for themselves that there are fewer uniformed officers on our streets. No doubt the Home Secretary will deny yet again that the Government have cut police. In the vain hope that the public might be reassured by something that this Government say, I will ask again: will she commit to matching Labour’s plan to recruit 13,000 more neighbourhood police officers? No more smoke and mirrors: yes or no? (902180)

There is no need for smoke and mirrors when the police budget this year is £1.1 billion higher than last year, and there is no need for smoke and mirrors when on completion of the police uplift programme in just a few months’ time, there will be more uniformed police officers on our streets than at any time in this country’s history.

T7. What steps are the Government taking to increase charging rates for offences of rape, serious sexual offending and harassment against women and girls? (902184)

I thank my hon. Friend for his serious question, and I know he works hard in Bury North to talk about the issue. The Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls. We are taking action through the rape review and the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and tackling domestic abuse to improve the police’s response to these crimes. Charge volumes for rapes are up 8%. It is not enough, and there is a lot more to do, and we are working hard with schemes such as Operation Soteria in the hope that these good practices will progress throughout the country.

T6. We have cases marked urgent not responded to within two months and weekly phone calls with MPs’ offices being cancelled at short notice. When will Ministers get a grip of officials and make sure that Members of this House are treated with respect, so that we can represent our constituents? (902183)

The hon. Gentleman and I have already spoken about this matter, and it is absolutely right that officials at the Home Office treat Members of Parliament and their staff with the respect they deserve and that we ensure they get the relevant meetings and decisions. Anything I can do to facilitate that—for him or any other colleague—of course I will do.

T9. Having completed the course, I thank Sergeant Richard Neeves and West Yorkshire police for organising my participation in the parliamentary police and fire service scheme. Does the Minister agree that Members from across the House should be encouraged to take part in the scheme if they want to gain a greater understanding of the pressures and challenges our police officers face day-to-day? (902186)

I join my hon. Friend in thanking Sergeant Richard Neeves for the work he did in encouraging and helping my hon. Friend to participate in the parliamentary police and fire service scheme. Yes, I do agree: Members from right across the House should engage in that scheme.

T8. When 172 men, women and children who were asylum applicants in Acton were bussed suddenly to Ashford in Kent, 80 miles away from their schools, NHS networks and faith communities, it made the TV news. It happened because the private provider of hotel accommodation wanted it back. Will the Home Secretary look into that case, because there is a human cost to uprooting families at the drop of a hat, as well as the waste of taxpayer money in shifting people from hotel to hotel when they could be contributing and paying in if they were processed faster? (902185)

The reality is that the accommodation pressure that we are seeing today is a symptom of the broader problem of unprecedented numbers of people arriving here illegally, at a level that we have not seen before. That is putting pressure on the system to find and provide accommodation for these people, as we have a duty to accommodate them. We need to stop the crossings, which will ease pressure on accommodation.

I recognise the agreement reached this morning with the French to stop illegal migrants crossing the English channel in small boats, but what else will my right hon. Friend do to take lessons from other European countries? Germany and Sweden, for example, do not recognise refugee applications from Albania. Countries such as Italy and Poland are physically stopping people from crossing their border illegally. What more will be done to tackle this problem?

My hon. Friend is right that there is a real need for a multi-pronged approach. It is not quite right that countries like Germany or Sweden do not accept asylum applications; rather, they may have higher burdens of proof or thresholds that need to be met. We need to change some of the regimes that govern asylum and some of the rights being claimed, in a large number of cases, unmeritoriously. We will make an announcement on the measures that we are taking in due course.

T10. I welcome the Minister for Immigration to his place. Will he meet me to discuss an Afghan spousal visa case that I have been dealing with for over a year? Pakistan will not grant her a visa so that she can travel to her biometrics appointment. (902187)

Of all the issues that the Home Secretary has to deal with, few are more harrowing than child sexual abuse. The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse recently reported that there were 8.8 million attempts to access such imagery online in the UK in a single month. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Online Safety Bill will include a provision for UK companies to report such content to the National Crime Agency? Will she work with her colleagues to bring forward the Bill this year?

This issue is very close to my right hon. Friend’s heart and to mine. The Government are committed to tackling all forms of child sexual abuse to keep children safe at home, outside and online. There is a lot of good work being done by the NCA and GCHQ. In relation to timing, I am hopeful that we will have some news imminently.

When it comes to immigration policy, it is “Oui, oui, oui” to working with the French Republic, but when it comes to bespoke policies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to deal with demographics and labour shortages, it is “Non, non, non.” What is the difference? Why are we not allowed bespoke policies in his Government, working with the Scottish Parliament, to enable us to do that?

Because we are all blessed to live in one United Kingdom. There is no material difference: Scotland’s unemployment rate was 3.3% and its economic inactivity rate was 21% in recent figures, compared with the UK average of 3.5% and 21%, respectively. It is more important that we work together as one UK. Those are exactly the terms on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just concluded this very important agreement.

While co-operation with the French is no doubt welcome, is it not the case that since 2015 the British taxpayer has subsidised the French police force to the tune of £200 million? Since then, a record number have been intercepted but an even higher record number have made it across the channel. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is nothing in the agreement that obliges the French police to detain and arrest anyone they intercept and that, therefore, they are free to come back the following night and try again? Are we not throwing good money after bad?

I do not believe that this is throwing good money after bad because, as I said, this year alone we have seen 30,000 successful interventions by the French to stop attempts to leave France and come here illegally. That is a very impressive record but is not enough, because it is not fixing the problem. Increasing the number of gendarmes as agreed under the deal, the embedded observers, and joint working at a real level on the ground between the UK and the French, will, I believe, take us forward in combating the scourge.

There is a huge problem with the over-policing of black children due to adultification, which is where minors are treated as adults. Some 799 children aged between 10 and 17 were strip-searched by the Met between 2019 and 2021 without any being arrested. We need an urgent independent investigation into the over-policing of black children. Will the Minister commit to one?

I know this issue is dear to the hon. Member’s heart. The police must use their powers carefully to target the right sort of offenders. It is of concern that that can sometimes appear to be disproportionate. Nobody should be stopped and searched because of their age, race or ethnicity. There are codes of conduct in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and there is the use of body-worn video data. About 40% of stop-and-searches that take place in London are of young men—

The announcement today is clearly a good thing, but is the Home Secretary entirely confident that she will have sufficient aerial surveillance assets in place so that we can do our half of the job properly?

I have visited our clandestine command and control team, headed up by Dan O’Mahoney and Border Force officials, and we have a military presence. Some very impressive technology is being used, such as surveillance drone technology, to enable and facilitate better co-operation with the French.

Why do the Government continue to extend the temporary offshore wind workers concession? The industry is not even asking for it. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. The extension was reviewed by the Government and, on the basis of the representations made to us by the industry, we extended it to April 2023. If he has heard other representations, I would be pleased to hear about them.

On Friday, we found out that Ipswich Borough Council’s temporary injunction to prevent the Novotel being used for up to 200 economic migrants was unsuccessful. More to the point, the owners are now saying they might have them for 12 months not six months. I heard in the media that the Government might move away from hotels to temporary accommodation such as Pontins. Can the Minister give me an update on the plan for moving away from hotels to much more basic and cheaper accommodation?

We want to exit hotels as soon as possible, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and move to simple but decent accommodation that does not provide an additional pull factor to the UK. The challenge is considerable, however, as 40,000 people are making that perilous crossing every year, which places immense pressure on our asylum system and prevents us from providing the kind of humane and compassionate response that we want to provide to people coming here in genuine peril.

Last week, the new Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley came to Twickenham to meet community representatives. He said that one of the biggest pressures facing his officers is dealing with large numbers of mental health cases; sometimes, multiple officers are spending entire shifts with people in mental health crisis because the NHS does not have a bed for them. Will the Minister outline what his Department is doing to work with the NHS to ensure that provision is in place so that officers can be out dealing with burglaries and catalytic converter theft, which is what my constituents are worried about?

The hon. Lady makes an important and valid point. I had a similar conversation with Sir Mark a couple of weeks ago and I was out with officers in my borough of Croydon the week before last where the emergency response team told a similar story. Sir Stephen House is looking at this topic as part of his review into police productivity, but I also plan to have discussions with colleagues across Government, including in the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England, to find out what more we can do. The issue that she raises is certainly real.

It is vital that our police forces draw on the best talent in our communities, including people who excel outside the classroom. Following our discussions, can the Home Secretary update the House on future plans for entry routes into policing?

I thank my hon. Friend and other honourable colleagues for their important campaigning to ventilate this issue. He speaks not only with passion, but with a deep understanding of the issue. I very much agree with him. I think that there are people from all walks of life who do not necessarily have a degree or want one who can be very good police officers. That is why I have asked the College of Policing to consider options for a new non-degree entry route to complement the existing framework. The current transitional arrangements will be extended in the meantime, and I am very clear that the police force must be open to those who neither have or want a degree.

In Batley and Spen, we continue to face serious problems of antisocial behaviour, reckless driving and dangerous parking. Ultimately, behaviour change is key, but in the short term, neighbourhood police and local councils need the resources to catch and punish those who show no respect to our communities. When will the Government properly invest in neighbourhood policing, and when will they stop cutting already stretched council budgets so that councils can use their power to tackle dangerous parking?

Council budgets are obviously a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and they will be set out in the local government funding settlement in a few weeks’ time. When it comes to police budgets, which are the Home Office’s responsibility, as I have said once or twice already, the budget this year is £1.1 billion higher than it was last year—it stands now at £16.9 billion—and by April next year, when the police uplift programme is complete, we will have more uniformed police officers recruited than at any time in our country’s history.