Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 727: debated on Monday 6 February 2023

I am going to make a short topical statement.

It is very important that our passport system runs as efficiently as possible. This is an issue that matters a great deal to our constituents. Covid had a global impact on passport processing times. In 2022, His Majesty’s Passport Office served more customers than ever before. Staff numbers have increased by over 1,200 since April 2021 and many staff have been trained to deal with a broader range of applications. I note that last spring there were serious concerns about the performance of the Passport Office, which prompted the Home Affairs Committee to inquire into the issue. I have made it a priority to fix that issue since I became Home Secretary, and I am pleased that since September the team at the Passport Office have worked hard to reduce processing times and that, despite very high demand so far this year, last week, approximately 99% of all UK applications were completed within 10 weeks. Indeed, last week, approximately 97% of all UK applications were completed within three weeks. We expect elevated demand for passports throughout the year, so customers should continue to allow 10 weeks, and I urge people to apply in good time, not at the last minute, to avoid delays.

I say to the Home Secretary that it is not appropriate to make such statements at the start of topicals. If there is a statement, she should come to the House. Topicals are meant to be short bits of business, not to be dragged out. If we stay long today, she will understand why. If there is an urgent question tomorrow, she should not be shocked if somebody has to answer it.

Whereas most countries have police forces, we are proud to have a police service in Britain, with police officers playing an integral role in the communities in which they live and work. That is why I particularly welcome the 16,000-plus police officers who are being recruited. In West Yorkshire, in my patch, that means 589 additional police officers. What extra will the Home Secretary do to ensure that we recruit high-quality police officers while also retaining those experienced officers in our local forces?

West Yorkshire police have recruited 837 additional police officers to December, against their total allocation of 852. This is an unprecedented recruitment drive and it gives forces the opportunity to recruit the brightest and the best into policing. It is thanks to this Government’s commitment to policing, to police numbers and to funding that we are on track to recruit a historic level of police officers on the frontline, something that the Labour party has failed to support.

The whole House’s thoughts will be with Turkey and Syria after the terrible earthquake.

Sentencing is under way today for David Carrick’s truly appalling crimes. It is shocking that he was able to serve as an officer for so long, and we think of his victims. After Sarah Everard’s murder, Ministers said “Never again”, but barely anything changed. Can the Home Secretary confirm that, if a police officer is under investigation for rape or domestic abuse, there is still no requirement for them even to be suspended, and that many, like Carrick, are not?

We are going through an overhaul of our processes when it comes to disciplinary procedures applying to those officers who are under investigation. That is why I have announced a review and am looking into measures over the disciplinary process, so that we make it easier for chief constables to exclude those officers who have fallen short, whether that is criminal behaviour or other professional misconduct. It is right that we change the system and, if necessary, I will act.

But nothing has changed in two years. Everything the Home Secretary has said is too little and too late, and far, far too weak. I have been contacted by a woman whose police officer partner was actually charged by his force with domestic abuse, but he still was not suspended and he is still a serving officer. This kind of thing is too unfair on victims and on police officers working hard. Labour will change the law to bring in compulsory standards for policing and to tackle abuse. Why won’t the Home Secretary change the law?

I think the right hon. Lady needs to keep up, because we have the College of Policing already strengthening the statutory code of practice for police vetting; we have tasked the Angiolini inquiry to look at the specifics of the Carrick case; and I have launched a review into the disciplinary process.

But let us be clear: the right hon. Lady is trying to talk tough and to sound robust on the issues, but her actions and those of her party have completely fallen short of protecting the British public. It is the Labour party that has voted against police funding for several years now, and it was the Labour party that voted against our legislation that would have given the police greater powers and increased sentences.

Home Secretary, these are topicals. You took advantage; don’t take it on every question, please.

T3. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the steps being taken to further the aims of the Green Ribbon Policing campaign, to support the mental health of our police officers—particularly those with serious conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder—and to hold the forces to account for delivering that support? (903505)

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. It is something we work on regularly via the police covenant oversight board, which I chair. One of the steps we have already taken is to appoint a chief medical officer for the police, to deal with exactly the issues that he rightly raises.

T5. The broken police funding formula means that Bedfordshire police are continually reliant on special grant funding each year to tackle serious and organised crime. Will the Minister tell the House when he expects the review of the police funding formula to be completed, and can he assure my Luton South constituents that that review will take account of the level of complex and organised crime in Bedfordshire? (903507)

Yes, there is an intention to consult on the police funding formula in the near future. That is very important, but I ask the hon. Lady to join me in welcoming the fact that Bedfordshire now has about 150 more officers than it did in 2010.

T4. Recently, we have seen an increase in instances of antisocial behaviour, especially around shops in Rubery and in particular the Co-op in West Heath, an incident that involved a knife. Can my right hon. and learned Friend explain how we can help to protect those who work in retail, and also reduce instances of antisocial behaviour? (903506)

Tackling antisocial behaviour is a priority of mine, and my hon. Friend is right to mention this issue. When it comes to retail staff—people who are on the frontline of our public services—we have taken steps to protect them. We introduced an aggravating factor in legislation, so that an assault on a retail staff member will be taken into account at sentencing; we have a retail crime group within Government chaired by the Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), to bring together the relevant agencies; and ultimately, more police and less crime is going to do the job of protecting those in retail.

Can I say that I am quite serious about trying to get through topicals? When the right hon. and learned Lady is still here much later than was expected, do not try and complain.

T6. On 14 December, the Home Secretary said to the House regarding people who are smuggled into the UK,“they are coming here unfairly and illegitimately. That is not the right way to come to the United Kingdom and they are not welcome.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 1123.]When I meet with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow North next week, if it transpires that some of them have come to the United Kingdom on small boats or in the backs of lorries, at what point in the meeting should I tell them that the Home Secretary says they are not welcome here? (903508)

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is living on another planet if he thinks that everybody who is coming to this country on a small boat—breaking our laws, putting themselves at risk, and paying huge amounts of money to unlawful and criminal people smugglers—is welcome. Those people should not be taking that journey, and there will be a robust response from our laws if they continue to do so.

My right hon. Friend is right to ask the question, because fraud has been a blight on too many communities. I assure him that the fraud strategy that many of us have been working on for a number of months is coming out very soon.

T7. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last Wednesday, it was a pleasure to meet Home Office staff who were out on strike over pay and to protect their pensions. What interventions is the Secretary of State making to resolve that dispute, so that Home Office staff can process their many asylum applications, which have been mentioned today? (903509)

The hon. Gentleman is talking about industrial action, and there were instances of that by Border Force officers in the run-up to the new year. I was very grateful for the preparation and planning by Border Force management, and for the incredible support from members of the military to enable swift operations at the border, despite the industrial action.

T9. Does the Minister agree that in addition to funding for town centre improvements, there is the safer streets fund, which plays a vital role in levelling up places such as Ilkeston and Cotmanhay? They will benefit from more than £400,000 of safer streets funding to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, which far too often blight our communities. (903511)

My hon. Friend represents a seat in an interesting county, and I know that she works hard on this issue. I believe that there are three projects of the kind that she mentions in Derbyshire, on which more than £1.5 million has been spent. These projects do level up, and they include spending on measures such as closed circuit television and street lighting. Crime has fallen in her constituency, and that is partly due to her work with the outstanding Conservative police and crime commissioner, Angelique Foster. I urge my hon. Friend to continue that work.

Following the news this week that Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, has moved to reschedule psilocybin for medicinal use from 1 July, when can we expect the Home Office to finally reschedule psilocybin, so that people with conditions such as treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder do not have to travel to Europe, the United States or, now, Australia for psychedelic therapy treatment that they should be able to access safely, where appropriate, here?

The hon. Lady is raising an important and reasonable point. I have carefully read her moving letter on this issue. We are getting advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and will act on this as soon as we can.

T10. I have been contacted by a number of medical professionals working for us in the NHS who are trying to get extensions to their skilled worker visas. They have waited for months, but emails and telephone calls to the Home Office are going completely unacknowledged and unanswered. Surely people who are doing a service to this country should at least have a dedicated hotline, so that they know where they stand. (903512)

We introduced the health and social care visa to make it easier for the NHS to recruit internationally. A benefit is that there is an enhanced service standard of 15 working days for extensions to those visas. That is being met at present. If my hon. Friend has concerns, I would be happy to look into them.

Will the Minister meet me to discuss the continued pressures arising from the use of hotel accommodation in my constituency and others across the Liverpool city region?

I would be happy to. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support our legislation in due course, which will tackle the root cause of the issue.

Over Christmas, a 17-year-old boy in Leigh-on-Sea was able to buy a terrifying 2-foot “zombie knife” machete online and have it delivered directly to his door. Does the Minister agree that we need to close the loophole regarding the definition of zombie knives, and get them out of circulation once and for all?

Yes, I entirely agree. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing this issue to my attention a few weeks ago. We are looking to consult in the very near future to make sure that the law prohibits dangerous weapons where necessary.

A man was stabbed to death outside Asda in Walsall town centre, and an 18-year-old was stabbed to death in Cook Street, Darlaston. What discussions has the Home Secretary had with the new chief constable about reducing serious violent crime in Walsall?

Violent crime is devastating, which is why we need to get knives and other offensive weapons off our streets. I am pleased with the targeted interventions made through violence reduction units, hotspot policing and, of course, increased police resources, which are all working towards a reduction in knife crime and violent crime.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite extraordinary that Members of this House complain about the number of asylum seekers, but oppose all measures that the Government bring forward to tackle them coming here illegally? Will she therefore join me in encouraging all Members to back our plans to stop small boats, which is what my constituents and the British public so manifestly want to happen, so that we can save lives and break the model used by illegal people traffickers?

My hon. Friend puts it incredibly well. The tragedy is that Labour Members have opposed every measure that we have proposed. They voted against our Bill, which would have provided tougher penalties for people smugglers. They voted against our measures to improve the situation. We delivered the ground-breaking partnership with Rwanda and they would scrap it. Labour’s plan is to invest more money in the National Crime Agency. Let me tell Members that we are already doing that. The reality is that Labour has no plan. It has no idea, and, frankly, it is not on the side of the British people, because all it wants is open borders.

South Caernarfon Creameries is Wales’s oldest and largest dairy co-operative. It is investing in Project Dragon, an ambitious expansion programme that involves investing £8 million in a factory plant from Turkish technology leaders, Gemak. Contractual deadlines are at risk as a result of delays at the British consulate in issuing visas for key staff who are essential to installing and handing over the equipment. Will someone from the Secretary of State’s Department meet me at their earliest convenience to resolve this situation?

I would be happy to look into the matter for the right hon. Lady. I would say, however, that the visa service is now working within its service standards in all respects.

How many Albanians last year claimed to be modern-day slaves, and what are we doing to encourage the processing of their claims back in their country of origin?

The published figures to September last year show that 3,400 Albanians claimed to be modern slaves. Of course, some within this number will prove to be so, but many will not, which is why it is right that we tackle abuse of the system. We have already taken substantial action by increasing the reasonable grounds threshold and reducing the minimum recovery period. If we need to take further action, we will.

Around 40,000 people seeking asylum are stuck in hotels. However, Home Office policy allows decisions on refugee status to be communicated only to those who have been dispersed. Surely that is absurd and counterproductive. When will the policy change?

We are considering this issue. The policy was put in place some time ago, for good reason: so that those local authorities that were bearing a disproportionate number of the individuals in hotels and temporary accommodation did not take a corresponding number of people were they to be granted asylum. We are looking into that at the moment.

The skilled worker visa system simply is not working for many businesses in Milton Keynes North. Despite having a licence, small businesses find that it takes ages to get a decision, and then either the visa is denied, or they pay extortionate fees for a service that does not materialise. Can we get on this immediately, because our businesses are crying out for skills? Will my right hon. Friend commit to resolving these issues?

I would be happy to look into any specific cases, but overall, the skilled worker system is operating well. We have more than 48,000 registered sponsors, mostly small and medium-sized businesses. In the year to September last year, almost a quarter of a million work-related visas were granted, and the standard processing time is three weeks for those applications.

The graduate visa route enables international students to work in the UK for up to two years after their study. Curtailing or removing this route would deter international students from studying in the UK, but their net contribution to the UK economy is more than £25 billion per year. Does the Minister recognise that international student fees cross-subsidise teaching fees for British students?

We very much welcome the best and the brightest students from all over the world to our world-leading universities. Our points-based system was designed to enable graduates and undergraduates to come and study at UK universities. We are always looking at our visa routes to make sure the right balance is struck between the resources we can provide for people coming here and the numbers coming here. That is the same across the board, whichever visa route we look at.

I welcome the extra funding from the safer streets fund and the shared prosperity fund, but does the Home Secretary agree that we also need a zero-tolerance approach to tackling antisocial behaviour? Many of my constituents—long-term residents—are concerned about going into our town centre because they do not feel safe. Does she agree that it is time for a hands-on, and not a hands-off, approach, so that where there are groups of men in the town centre blighting the experience of most of my residents, we clear them out?

Yes, we agree entirely. That is why my hon. Friend’s county and his town have had safer streets funding, and why they are getting extra police officers. The Government completely agree that zero tolerance to ASB is exactly what we need.

The biggest criminal in Europe, with the most blood on his hands, is Vladimir Putin. We have frozen his Russian state assets in the UK; will the Home Secretary support my Bill tomorrow to allow us to seize those assets and give them to the Ukrainian people, so that they can rebuild their country?

Going from freezing to seizing, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is a slightly difficult procedure under our laws, due to the rights that people have. We have looked at that matter with partners, particularly in common law jurisdictions, and I hope to have further conversations on the subject with the United States when I go there tomorrow.

My constituents remain concerned about the victims of people-smuggling gangs. Can my right hon. Friend advise how many people smugglers have been caught and arrested under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and confirm that the Government will continue to act with vigour against people smuggling and illegal immigration?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are implementing the Nationality and Borders Act as swiftly as possible, and it is already having a real impact, with more than 190 people having been arrested since it became law.

Aviation is hugely important to the UK economy, but the Government have neglected to recognise the worker shortage in the sector. Does the Home Secretary plan to include aviation in the skilled worker visa shortage occupations list?

We work with the Migration Advisory Committee to keep the skilled worker list under review. We work closely with the Department for Transport on issues such as wet licensing, which was raised recently. It is important to make sure that we have the correct workforce, but we also have to crack down on abuse where we see it.

Is it not obvious from today’s exchanges that many of those who oppose the UK-Rwanda migration and economic development partnership have no idea about Rwanda, have probably never been there, and are wholly wrong to condescend to and disparage Rwanda? Above all, they have not the ghost of an idea how to solve the problem of cross-channel gangs putting people at risk at sea. The difference between the Government side and the Opposition is that we have a plan and they do not.

My right hon. Friend puts it very well. Let me put on record my thanks and appreciation to him for all that he has done to try to fix this incredibly difficult problem. He is absolutely right: the Labour party complains and sits on the sidelines, criticising, opposing and voting against every measure that we put forward. I urge Labour to back our Bill, back control over our borders, and back the British people.

East Devon’s farmers rely on a skilled domestic and foreign workforce to put their fantastic produce on our tables all year round. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give that he will work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that the seasonal agricultural worker scheme will be extended beyond 2024?

We review the seasonal agricultural worker scheme every year, working closely with DEFRA. We have extended it for this year, as my hon. Friend knows, and increased the numbers permitted under that scheme. That is quite right, but it is important to balance that against the need to ensure that British workers find their way into the workplace and are trained, and the need to invest in British farming, so that we do not need to reach in the first instance for foreign labour.

It is quite right that police forces are under significant scrutiny at the moment, but I commend Humberside police force, which has recently been assessed as “outstanding”, and, in particular, its Grimsby-born chief constable, Lee Freeman, who was recently awarded the King’s Police Medal. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps that excellent police forces such as Humberside can take to share good practice so that every police force across the UK can become outstanding?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Chief Constable Lee Freeman for his rightly deserved award for excellence and leadership in policing. Humberside police force is a great example of how standards in policing are improving and strong leaders are turning things around. That force’s recent inspectorate report is testament to its excellent work. Humberside police has been pioneering best practice when it comes to police treatment of and resolution for victims and people with mental health issues. Its pioneering programme of “right care, right person” is being rolled out throughout the country and is sought after by other forces. It is an example of excellence.

It was worth waiting for, Mr Speaker.

I have recently written to the Minister about the Great Northern hotel in my constituency, which is being stood up to accommodate migrants who have crossed the channel on small boats. I asked him if he would give a timeframe for when the hotel will be stood down. I do not expect him to give me that timeframe from the Dispatch Box today, but can he at least guarantee that when he responds in writing, there will be a timeframe so that we can give certainty to the police, support services and the people of Peterborough?

The Great Northern hotel in Peterborough is ingrained in my mind as a result of my hon. Friend’s assiduous lobbying. That is quite right, because we share his frustration; we want to see such hotels returned to use by the local community and for the benefit of the economy. I will write back to him to set out our plans—as far as I can at this stage. I know that he will support us in all our efforts to stop the boats.