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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 727: debated on Monday 6 February 2023

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Resources

On 31 January, the Government confirmed a total police funding settlement of up to £17.2 billion for 2023-24, an increase of up to £287 million on this year, providing the police with the resources to fight crime and keep the public safe. As a result of our police uplift programme, we are on track to meet our target of 20,000 new police officers, meaning that England and Wales will have the most police officers ever.

I welcome the work this Government are doing to increase police resources and tackle antisocial behaviour, with many initiatives—such as the youth investment fund, the youth justice sport fund and the safer streets fund—acting as preventive policy measures. However, in my constituency of Hyndburn and Haslingden, it is not just individuals who are impacted by this; it is also businesses, which have associated costs and fear for their staff. Will my right hon. and learned Friend work with me to see how we can address this issue for businesses on our high streets?

I share my hon. Friend’s deep concern about antisocial behaviour, and I was pleased to discuss the issue with her very recently. She will obviously be aware of the 435 new police officers on the ground in Lancashire, thanks to this Government. She will also be aware of the 18% fall in neighbourhood crime in Lancashire since 2019, thanks to this Government, and the £1 million safer streets funding in Lancashire, thanks to this Government. Lancashire police are building a specialist antisocial behaviour unit to make the most of those extra resources, and have already had some progress with Operation Propulsion, aimed at tackling nuisance bikes. There is more to do, and that is why I will be setting out the antisocial behaviour plan in due course.

In Watford, I have been fortunate enough to join dawn raids and have seen at first hand the important work the police do in tackling serious and organised crime. However, once the police successfully carry out these types of operations across the country, often with extensive multi-agency work, it is important the right support is in place to maintain security within the community. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please confirm what further support is in place to ensure the long-term dismantling of these awful gangs and to guarantee that no new criminals take over and reinstate the lines of supply to this criminality?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent work in Watford, working hard for the communities he serves.

Through our successful county lines programme the police have arrested thousands of individuals and closed down 2,900 county lines. The programme focuses on charging line holders, ensuring we put offenders behind bars and putting deal lines out of action. Together with “Clear, hold, build”, an initiative that I launched recently, we will also be taking more robust action on serious and organised crime gangs that blight communities through drug dealing.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight constabulary is one of the lowest-funded police forces by central Government. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that this historically unfair funding settlement will be looked at, and that the people of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight can look forward to the same levels of funding as similar areas?

We will be consulting very shortly on police funding formulas, but I am very pleased that the excellent police and crime commissioner in Hampshire, Donna Jones, has made very good use of the funding flexibility that I brought into force very recently by raising the precept. That will increase the amount of funding available to the frontline in policing, and together with the safer streets funding and millions of pounds for violence reduction units, it will mean more police, less crime and safer streets in Hampshire.

Linking police records of gun certificates to medical databases was a key ask of the community in Plymouth after the tragedies we suffered in 2021. How is that linking of GP records with police-held databases and other medical records going, and what additional policing resources is the Home Secretary making available to ensure that, no matter where in the country someone lives, if they present to their medical professional with a mental health issue, it will be clear to that medical professional whether they have a firearm?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about access to firearms or other weapons for people with a track record or indication of mental health vulnerabilities. We must wait for the coroner report to be issued, so I will not comment substantively, but we are looking very closely at this and I hope to report on it in due course.

There have been too many examples of misogyny and sexism in public services in recent times, so can the Home Secretary reassure the House that sufficient resources will be provided to clear out the worst offenders and help change the culture so we can once again have confidence in our important police services?

The hon. Gentleman is right that recent instances have really shaken confidence in the whole of the policing family throughout the country, and although there are many thousands of professional, expert men and women who put themselves forward every day, it is clear that policing must do better. That is why I have asked the College of Policing to strengthen the statutory code of practice for police vetting, we have tasked the Angiolini inquiry to look into the specifics of the David Carrick case, and we have commissioned the inspectorate to conduct a rapid review of all forces’ response to the inspectorate’s recent review into vetting and counter-corruption. It is clear that standards need to rise so that cases such as the tragic ones we have seen become a thing of the past.

North Shropshire is obviously a safe place to live, I am very glad to say, but headteachers and health professionals have recently reported to me an increase in county lines drug-running activities and child exploitation. Can the Home Secretary confirm that North Shropshire will receive additional police resource, particularly at night-time, and the multi-agency approach we need to close down these county lines gangs?

There has been considerable success through our county lines programme over the last few years, shutting down over 2,000 county lines across the country and making thousands of arrests of those caught up in propagating this evil behaviour of drug supply. It is vital that we go further and that this success reaches every part of the country.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Some Government Members will be celebrating the Prime Minister’s first 100 days—it is remarkable that that is considered an achievement these days—but during those 100 days in office around 30,000 people, mostly women, will have been raped, and 20,000 of those rapes will have been reported while only about 320 will ever lead to a charge. The Home Secretary has responded by slashing Government funding for forensics, cutting this year’s funding for local police forces by £62 million and heaping pressure on to council tax payers to fill the gaps. Is that because of the Government’s disastrous mini-Budget, is it because of the Government’s failure to grow the economy over 13 years, or have they simply given up on tackling violence against women and girls?

I must gently point out that the hon. Lady has got to get with the programme, get with reality, and come back down to earth. The facts are that we have increased police funding by over half a billion pounds, I have just brought in more flexibility so police and crime commissioners around the country can increase their resources on the frontline, and we are on track to have the highest number of police officers on the ground in the history of policing. That is thanks to this Government’s funding and policies.

Of course we must do better on violence against women and girls and on rape and sexual offences; that is why we are pioneering the roll-out of Operation Soteria, which will improve operational support for victims of rape and serious sexual offences on the ground throughout an investigation. It is also why we are going to have specialist measures in court so that victims of rape and serious sexual offences give evidence in a much more appropriate manner. We are taking the steps; that is far better than carping from the sidelines.

Iranian Regime: Threat to UK

2. What recent assessment her Department has made of the level of threat posed by the Iranian regime to people in the UK. (903479)

The director general of MI5 recently outlined that, since January 2022, there have been at least 10 Iranian threats to kidnap or even kill UK-based individuals. The level of the Iranian threat is kept under constant review. The Home Secretary and I are working with our partners across Government to ensure that all tools at our disposal are used to protect individuals in the UK against any threats from the Iranian state.

It has been patently obvious for years that the whole Iranian Government are rotten. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders are allowed to travel to the UK and store their stolen wealth almost with impunity. The people of Iran are fighting back. Why do we not stop their abusers stealing the wealth of the country and sanction more than just 50 people at the top of the organisation?

The hon. Member is absolutely correct: the IRGC is a vicious organisation and its first victims are the Iranian people, who have been brutalised and murdered by that despotic regime for far too long. I hope he will be encouraged by the actions the UK Government are taking at the moment in looking into various of these areas, and also by the work being done by some of our partners. It is interesting to note that, of the so-called E3+3, Germany and France appear to be looking at proscribing the IRGC, as the United States has already done. It seems that not only is there international agreement on the point the hon. Member raises, but that action is absolutely ready to go.

As part of the sanctions the Government are imposing on this evil regime, will they please shut down the Islamic centre in Maida Vale, which is the voice of the supreme leader in this country? It should not have charitable status and should be shut down.

My right hon. Friend has raised an extremely important issue, of which I am acutely aware and which has not gone without notice.

The Minister seemed to say in response to the original question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) that we were considering proscribing the IRGC. Is that the case?

The Government always keep all areas under review, and speculation has certainly been in that direction. What we have already done is sanction various different elements. Any further action will no doubt be announced as soon as it is ready, and we will see as soon as that can be done.

Clearly, the threat from the IRGC to people in this country—be they opposition journalists reporting on what is going on in Iran at the moment or UK citizens—is paramount. Foreign Office Ministers have responded to all the urgent questions the Speaker has granted and the debates we have had, but will my right hon. Friend now take the obvious step, which is supported by all political parties in the Chamber, and proscribe the IRGC in its entirety?

My hon. Friend will know that it is not me he has to persuade in this matter and that there are many areas where I would like to go. I can assure him that the Government are absolutely listening to exactly what he is saying. The Home Secretary and I are as one on this.

The Minister has been explicit, as have others, about the threat we face in the UK from the Iranian regime. I really welcome what he has said, and we stand ready to work with him on this issue, but the truth is that we have not seen anything like the sanctions and immigration controls that have been deployed against Russia being deployed against Iran. Will the Government go further and be clear? Will they proscribe the IRGC using either existing terror laws or new state threat variations to drive out this threat and keep people safe?

The hon. Lady knows very well that the Government have already sanctioned many individuals inside the Iranian regime and have taken action on individuals who may have had access around Europe and indeed into the United Kingdom. Those people have been either controlled or not allowed permission to travel. She should also be aware that our embassy in Iran is keeping us closely informed of how the sanctions are playing out and making sure that we target appropriately individuals who are a threat to the United Kingdom.

It is completely wrong that any foreign state should be able to threaten anybody in the United Kingdom. Anybody in the UK should have the same protection and be afforded the same rights as anybody else. The action we have taken to protect some journalists in the UK, which was highlighted only recently by some of our agencies, is absolutely vital to the security of our whole society.

Refugees: Accommodation

Our first duty is to break the business model of the people-smuggling gangs, stop the boats and reduce the number of those coming to this country illegally. Alongside that, we are working to ensure that decent but not luxurious accommodation is available while asylum claims are being processed. We are working with local councils and providers to develop regional dispersal plans and are pursuing a range of options to increase supply.

I am very pleased to hear what the Minister says. When the dreadful invasion of Ukraine took place, many people welcomed with open arms refugees from Ukraine. Does he agree that it is still not safe for many of them to go home? Many have outstayed their time with their host, so can we have a coherent plan going forward to ensure that refugees from Ukraine are decently protected and housed?

The hon. Gentleman is right to celebrate the good work that we have done in this country to support people who came here from Ukraine. That has been the largest humanitarian visa effort in this country’s history. I have benefited from that personally, having had a family stay with me, as I know many Members across the House have. Over 500 individuals continue to come to the UK every week under the Ukrainian visa schemes, but he is right to say that the challenge now is as much about ensuring re-matches are available for people who, for whatever reason, are coming to the end of their stay with their original families. We are working very closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that those changes are as seamless as possible so that nobody ends up homeless.

The Best Western hotel in the town of Buckingham was originally acquired by Clearsprings on a six-month lease, which in theory runs out in March. The loss of the hotel as a valuable local business is noticeable in the town, as is the diversion of precious primary care resources, with an on-site clinic required at least once a week on top of the usual services of the Swan Practice. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the use of the Best Western in Buckingham will end soon, so that Buckingham businesses can get back to normal and health resources are freed up?

The Home Secretary and I are as frustrated as my hon. Friend that too many people are staying in hotels, costing too much money to the taxpayers of this country. We want to ensure that hotels such as the one in his constituency are exited as swiftly as possible. That is why we are pursuing a full dispersal model with local authorities and considering a range of other options, including larger sites. The enduring solution to this problem is to break the business model of the people smugglers and to stop the boats. It is for that reason that the Home Secretary and I will shortly bring forward further legislation, which I hope will command support across the House.

Do the Government have any plans to make use of the former Atkinson Court care home in east Leeds as part of their dispersal policy?

I am not aware of that site, but I am very happy to look into it and revert to the right hon. Gentleman. The mandatory dispersal model we are pursuing is one of agreement with local authorities, where every local authority works with the Home Office and our providers to agree a number of bed spaces in their local area and then to choose appropriate ones that meet the needs of the local community. I am happy to revert to the right hon. Gentleman on that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the severity of the risks, it would not be appropriate to house asylum seekers in a Pontins holiday camp in my constituency? Will he take the opportunity to confirm at the Dispatch Box the reports at the end of last week that the site will not be used?

The Home Office is reviewing a range of options and having exploratory conversations with a number of local authorities. If the local authority, Sefton Council, does not wish to proceed On the Pontins site in my hon. Friend’s constituency then the site will not proceed, because it is the freeholder of that site. He should really speak to Sefton Council to get that assurance, but the task for all of us is to stop the boats, or else we will continue to have troubles like this in the years ahead, with thousands of individuals crossing the channel illegally and placing unbearable strain on our asylum accommodation.

Home Office accommodation provider Mears has made significant profits providing substandard facilities for asylum seekers. Community InfoSource in Glasgow has found that Mears’ practices are retraumatising and causing unnecessary stress and suffering. Mears is now back to using hotels such as the Muthu in Erskine, which the Park Inn incident in Glasgow proved to be entirely unsuitable for vulnerable people. Why are the UK Government encouraging rapacious companies to profit from misery, rather than investing in community-based alternatives and more effective decision making?

If the hon. Lady has specific allegations, will she please bring them to me and I will be happy to investigate them?

The answer to this issue, in Scotland as across the country, is for local authorities to step up and make more accommodation available. As I have said many times at the Dispatch Box, including to the hon. Lady, the Scottish Government are taking fewer asylum seekers and refugees than any other comparable part of the United Kingdom. The SNP’s record on this issue is frankly shameful. It was, after all, the Scottish Government whose failed Ukrainian scheme meant that they had to house Ukrainian refugees in cruise ships.

Crime: Lancashire

I know that questions about policing in Lancashire are of particular interest to you, Mr Speaker.

I am pleased to report that since 2015, there are 467 more police in Lancashire. Next year, the available funding will increase by £12.3 million. Over the last three years, Lancashire police have had £5.5 million for their violence reduction unit and £4.7 million for their hotspot policing. I met this morning with Lancashire’s excellent police and crime commissioner, Andrew Snowden, who talked to me about Operation Warrior, which has seen on average each week 2 kg of drugs being seized, 17 arrests and £55,000 of illicit cash being taken off the streets.

When I tabled my question, I had planned to raise the issue of rural crime in the Wyre area of my constituency, but events over the last few days have changed that. As part of the intensive search for Nicola Bulley, Lancashire police are asking drivers for dash-cam footage from the Blackpool Lane and Garstang Road area of St Michael’s from Friday 27 January between 9 and 10 am. Will the Minister echo my request for people from the local community to come forward, even if they think their dash-cam footage does not contain anything of interest—the police will be able to make that decision—and for all of us to do our best to find Nicola and bring her home?

I completely echo what the hon. Lady says about this awful, tragic case. I agree with everything she said and I join her in urging anyone who thinks they may have any information, however innocuous it may seem, to come forward, including dash-cam footage and any other information that may be relevant. The whole local community and the police are desperately doing everything they can to find out what happened, and I urge everyone to help them in that endeavour.

It almost seems like Lancashire day today, Mr Speaker.

I join the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) in praising the hard work of our constabulary and the many local people, particularly my constituents, who have been out searching the river banks of the Wyre estuary looking for clues as to what has happened. Will the Minister join me in imploring people to avoid the speculation, gossip and guesswork that has been going on? People have been descending on St Michael’s on Wyre and it is hampering the investigation and causing inordinate distress to Nicola’s family.

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. It is important that the public respect the family’s need for privacy at what is obviously an extremely difficult, upsetting and unimaginably distressing time. It is important that the public let the police and the local authority get on with their work. I repeat what my hon. Friend said and what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said a moment ago: if anyone has any information, however minor or innocuous it may seem to them, I ask them to share it with the local police. Anything at all could help them to get to the bottom of this, and I urge people to do everything they can to help the police at this terribly difficult time.

Domestic Abuse: Serial Perpetrators

5. What steps her Department is taking ensure effective (a) management and (b) monitoring of serial perpetrators of domestic abuse. (903482)

Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime and tackling it is a priority for this Government. Our tackling domestic abuse plan, which was published last year, is clear that our response to perpetrators will be uncompromising and relentless. We are investing unprecedented amounts in perpetrator interventions and technology for the police to identify abusers. We are also considering the feasibility of putting dangerous offenders on the register.

In response to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister admitted that the Home Office does not routinely collect data on the number of domestic abuse victims killed by a partner who had previously been convicted of domestic violence. When domestic abuse offences reported to the police have doubled in the past five years while charges have nearly halved, this puts lives at risk. Will the Minister back Labour’s call for a domestic abuse register to track offenders, protect victims and help prevent more crime?

The feasibility of such a register is being looked into. I remind the House that 911,000 reports of domestic abuse are made to the police every year. The Government are carefully considering technological answers and ensuring that police forces look carefully at the situation. We are looking at multi-agency forums for improving the track record on this issue. The Government are spending unprecedented amounts in a cogent, targeted way and I am proud of the commitments so far.

I was pleased to see that last year’s tackling domestic abuse plan recognised the link between domestic abuse and child abuse. My hon. Friend will be aware of the horrendous child sexual exploitation case in Rotherham and will agree that we need to end child abuse of all kinds. Does she agree that we need a child criminal and sexual exploitation commissioner, working alongside the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to stop CSE, punish perpetrators and ensure that anyone linked to CSE has no link to public office ever again?

I know my hon. Friend is a strong campaigner on this issue and that it is very important locally, but it is also hugely important nationally. I was privileged to visit the National Crime Agency and other groups that work in the field. A huge amount of work is going on. It is clear that the Government need to have a detailed response to the recent report to ensure that we have joined-up thinking across all Departments to stamp out child sexual abuse, because it is a dreadful crime.

Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner

The role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, as set out in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, is to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences and the identification of victims. The Home Secretary recognises the importance of the role of the anti-slavery commissioner and has committed to running a new competition to recruit for the role. The process will begin imminently.

I thank the Minister most warmly for that answer. She illustrates perfectly the need for my private Member’s Bill, which would allow Parliament to make this most important appointment, rather than the Government. The post has been vacant for 10 months already. In the third quarter of last year, no fewer than 4,586 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office—38% up on the previous year. What is it about their record on this issue that makes the lack of scrutiny so attractive to the Government?

I do not accept that narrative. The competition is opening shortly. There will be a large number of very good candidates, and there needs to be a proper process. These things cannot be rushed. Sometimes the best things come to those who wait.

In the third quarter of 2022, over 4,500 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the national referral mechanism—a record since its introduction—and 43% of those were children. Just last month, people up and down the country were shocked to learn that over 200 children seeking asylum have gone missing from Home Office hotels. The Home Office ignored repeated warnings that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 would make things worse. What have we seen since then? A failure to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner and just one conviction for child trafficking last year. Does the Minister think that that one conviction shows that the Government are on top of this? Does it not show that they are continuing to let dangerous criminal gangs get away with their crimes?

There is a big history with trafficking, and dangerous gangs have to be looked at. However, it is this Government who have the confidence to do something about it. There are issues that other Members of this House were reluctant to look at. It is important, for example, that the ethnicity of each and every alleged criminal in the field is noted, so that greater statistics and knowledge can be held. A commissioner will be appointed at the appropriate time, as soon as possible.

Neighbourhood Policing

8. What recent assessment her Department has made of the adequacy of levels of neighbourhood policing. (903486)

We are in the middle of recruiting an extra 20,000 police officers. We are on track to deliver that by March, in just a few weeks’ time. As of December, we had recruited over 16,000 of them. When we hit the target in a few weeks, we will have more police officers than at any time in this country’s history: approximately 148,000.

Neighbourhood policing is vital in cracking down on antisocial behaviour. I am very glad to say that our excellent police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, is fully aware of that issue and is addressing it. Nationally, why have we seen an overall drop of 8,500 in the number of police community support officers over the past 13 years? Locally, in Northumbria, there has been a drop of 395, and we are still down by 565 police officers since 2010.

As I explained a moment ago, we are on track very shortly to have more police officers than at any time in this country’s history, but let me tell you what has dropped since 2010, Mr Speaker. According to the crime survey, criminal damage has dropped by 65%, domestic burglary has dropped by 56%, robbery has dropped by 57% and violence has dropped by 38%. That, Mr Speaker, is what has dropped.

In Kent, burglary has decreased by 41% and crime overall has decreased by 7%. I am pleased to report that by the end of next month, we will have 358 extra officers operating across Kent. However, in Medway we have been blighted by the new phenomenon of car racing and car meets, which have created terrible antisocial behaviour and lots of problems for local residents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Kent police working with the council to implement a public spaces protection order is a great way to tackle this nuisance, which is a very dangerous activity?

I am happy to confirm that the county of Kent already has a record ever number of police officers. I pay tribute to its fantastic police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, who is doing great work—along with Kent’s MPs, of course. I agree with my hon. Friend that public spaces protection orders are a very good way to combat antisocial behaviour, whether it is antisocial racing or nitrous oxide consumption. I encourage all local authorities to use PSPOs.

Asylum Applications: Backlog

We have committed to clearing the backlog of asylum applications over this year and to introducing a faster, more productive system. Since making that commitment at the end of 2022, we have made excellent progress: recruiting more caseworkers, working towards a doubling in their number, establishing dedicated caseworkers per nationality and designing a more streamlined process, which is already raising productivity substantially.

Luton is a compassionate town and is always proud to support those seeking sanctuary, but the backlog and delays in the Home Office’s asylum system have led to Luton receiving a disproportionate number of dispersal placements in comparison with the rest of the east of England. Luton Borough Council’s services are already stretched beyond their means, following a decade of Government cuts, so how is the Minister working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that councils receive clear funding settlements to cover the costs of the increased impact on local services?

We provide funding for every asylum seeker who is in a local authority’s care of about £3,500, and we work closely with local authorities through the mandatory dispersal system to make sure that each one plays a fair and equitable part. However, the answer to this problem is not more accommodation; it is stopping the boats and ensuring that we have some of the most robust laws in the world, so that those who come here illegally do not find a way to a life in the UK. I hope that the hon. Lady will support us when we introduce our legislation.

My constituent arrived here from Syria and claimed asylum in July 2021. He is a doctor and applied to volunteer with the covid vaccination programme, but was turned down because he had no documentation. After more than a year and many interventions by my office, he finally had his asylum interview and was given a job as a healthcare assistant, but that was delayed because he had to wait for his national insurance number. The NHS is crying out for staff. When will the Government sort this out?

We are working to bring down the backlog of cases. Let me gently point out that the last Labour Government left a backlog of cases of not 450,000, as I said during the last session of Home Office questions, but 500,000, as has been shown by further research. So bad was the backlog that there was even a room colloquially known as the “room of doom” into which cases were put. We will get the backlog down, and create a streamlined and efficient asylum system.

Tensions in the community are rising in my constituency owing to the use of hotels to house asylum seekers in and around Cannock Chase and, in particular, in Bridgtown. There were protests in Cannock at the weekend. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the local police, who are doing everything they can to respond to issues as they arise, and will he meet me to discuss the situation and ways in which we can alleviate the concerns of my constituents?

I should be pleased to meet my right hon. Friend and work with her to ensure that that hotel, like others, is cleared as quickly as possible. I hope she will see from the work we are doing that we are straining every sinew to tackle this issue. For example, following the communiqué that was signed with Albania at the end of last year and is now being implemented, we are seeing weekly return flights of illegal migrants to Albania and a faster process, involving 400 caseworkers dedicated to those Albanian cases.

One group with a strong claim to be here are the former interpreters in Afghanistan and other locally employed civilians who helped our armed forces. Will the Minister explain to the House whether such applications are caught up in the general collection of applications made by people who have come here illegally, or whether any form of priority and extra attention is given to those very deserving Afghan refugees?

My right hon. Friend has raised an important issue. We take our moral commitment to those who supported our troops and our efforts in Afghanistan extremely seriously. We have helped more than 20,000 individuals to come to the UK, some before Operation Pitting, some during that operation and some since, under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and subsequently the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The Foreign Office is drawing up a further list of individuals for the ACRS. The people to whom my right hon. Friend has referred should be applying to that scheme, and we hope we will be able to bring them to the United Kingdom as soon as possible, if they are not here already.

In 2019, the then Conservative Home Secretary said that she would end small boat crossings in a matter of months. Since then, the number of crossings has increased from 1,000 to 45,000, with the criminal gangs laughing all the way to the bank. Last year, Ministers promised that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 would deal with the crisis, but in fact it has caused the asylum backlog to spiral out of control, forcing the British taxpayer to foot the bill for an extra £480 million in six-monthly accommodation costs. Now, Ministers are making all the same empty promises again. The Refugee Council says that the latest Government proposals will cost the taxpayer an extra £1 billion every six months, without anyone being returned anywhere. Does the Minister agree with Albert Einstein that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a definition of madness?

The problem with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues is that they vote against every step that we bring forward. In an age of mass migration in which millions of people are on the move and want to come to our country, either as economic migrants or asylum shoppers, we have to take the most robust action we can. The system we are building is a simple one in which those who want to come here illegally in small boats will find no way to a life in this country. They will be returned home, or to a safe third country such as Rwanda.

We will fulfil our commitment to those fleeing genuine persecution, war and human rights abuses, such as through the schemes that we have created for Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, but we on the Government Benches are capable of seeing the difference between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants. I hope the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will join us in voting for that further legislation when we bring it forward shortly.

Delays even when decisions have been made are all too common. To give an example, a constituent had his appeal allowed but is still waiting for the tribunal’s decision to be implemented nine months later. He cannot get on with his life. In a written answer to me, the Minister for Immigration was unable to provide my constituent with a timescale, or to establish the longest time that people have been waiting, or even how many appeals are still in Home Office limbo. Can he tell me what is the longest time that people like my constituent will have to wait, or is Home Office bureaucracy now completely out of his control?

The hon. Lady does not want us to tackle this issue because she believes in open borders. We want to take action to ensure that this country is not somewhere where economic migrants and asylum shoppers seek to come. That means suffusing deterrents throughout the system. She should support plans such as Rwanda and our efforts to bear down on illegal migrants. We will bear down on the backlog of cases. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we will clear it over the course of this year. We are ensuing that productivity rises every week.

Police Officers: Protecting Communities

The Government have committed substantial extra funding to invest in policing and to reduce crime, including the recruitment of an additional 20,000 police officers by March. We recently confirmed a total police funding settlement of a maximum of £17 billion for 2023-24. We have seen great results: a fall in overall crime since 2019 thanks to this Government, a fall in domestic burglary since 2019 thanks to this Government, and a fall in violent crime since 2019 thanks to this Government—more police, less crime and safer streets.

Hendon Police College was once an exemplar of British policing, but there have been accusations of police staff officers being assaulted, inappropriate use of pain compliance techniques and multiple cases of cheating in exams, where the perpetrators subsequently lied about it—all by trainee police officers. How can there be trust in the police to protect the public when the recruitment process fails to identify the fundamentally dishonest?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point about standards in policing and, in particular, the recruitment methods used to increase the forces. That is why we need to improve our standards. I am glad that many forces have committed to a face-to-face interview—that is absolutely vital to weed out the inappropriate applicants. We need to ensure that there is a rapid review of all forces’ responses to the inspectorate’s recent report on vetting and counter-corruption. I know that the Met commissioner is taking this issue incredibly seriously and has put in place a rigorous plan to improve standards and restore confidence.

Kids in my constituency are razzing around the streets illegally on motorbikes. Sadly, two have died as a consequence of accidents they were involved in. The worst of it is that, on both occasions, the police have been caught on the hop by impromptu vigils that have taken place at the accident spots. Hundreds of other kids are defacing public and private property and intimidating residents, and the police are powerless to act. That shows that turning the police funding taps off and on has lost us experience. What will the Home Secretary do to get that experience back?

I will tell the House why the hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong in his analysis. We are on track to recruit 20,000 police officers. That is the highest number of police officers ever known in this country—higher than in the Labour years and higher than in the 1990s, so I am sorry, but the facts do not support his accusation of reduced funding and reduced resources. He raises an important point about antisocial behaviour, and that is my priority: graffiti, vandalism, drug dealing, nuisance boy racers—they all have to be stopped. That is why increased numbers of police officers and neighbourhood policing on the ground are going to be able to tackle exactly the problem he talks about.

Topical Questions

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.