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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 733: debated on Monday 22 May 2023

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Antisocial Behaviour

Antisocial behaviour brings misery and menace. On 27 March, the Government launched the antisocial behaviour action plan, giving the relevant agencies all the tools they need and communities confidence that it will not be tolerated. The plan focuses on making communities safer, building local pride, prevention and early intervention. These proposals will ensure perpetrators are punished and help to restore pride in our communities.

I compliment the Secretary of State on driving the increase in police numbers on the streets. While Durham has 239 more police officers since 2019, will she confirm that recruitment will continue, as we have not yet returned to the 2010 level? Will she advise me and my Sedgefield constituents how to ensure that the emphasis is on frontline deployment to antisocial behaviour hotspots?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his doughty campaigning in his constituency. Durham has received £3.4 million through four rounds of the safer streets fund, including just under £1.5 million in the current round. This is funding projects such as youth diversionary activity, ASB education programmes and target hardening measures. This Government are putting more police on the streets and engaging with communities to enable them to prevent crime.

Driving without care or consideration is described as one of the worst forms of antisocial behaviour, as the consequences can be fatal. If caught speeding, does the Home Secretary agree that no one should be above the law?

As I said earlier, last summer I was speeding. I regret that. I paid the fine and I took the penalty. At no point did I attempt to evade sanction. What I am focused on is working for more police officers, so I am proud that this Conservative Government have secured a record number in the history of policing. This side of the House is focused on the people’s priorities.

According to a joint letter I received from the Home Secretary and the Levelling Up Secretary on 27 March 2023:

“Tackling antisocial behaviour is an absolute priority for this Government.”

In the real world, how can 450 fewer police officers in Merseyside since 2010, and 69p per person invested in the immediate justice pilot, be classed as anything approaching tackling antisocial behaviour?

I am pleased that, thanks to this Government’s commitment, Merseyside has received millions of pounds of increased funding compared with previous years, but, most importantly, there have been seven rounds of safer streets fund projects in Merseyside, with 2.9 million in total provided over four rounds. I am glad that Merseyside has been chosen as one of our pilot areas for our immediate justice scheme, which is one way we will kick antisocial behaviour.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her earlier answer. In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are delighted to have seen more than 330 brand-new police officers recruited, new CCTV in Kidsgrove parish and more than £2 million in safer streets funding for Stoke-on-Trent. Sadly, however, in places such as Cobridge, crime increased by 75% between January and December 2022, which is why I launched the safer streets petition, which has more than 430 signatures. Will my right hon. Friend work to get the police and crime commissioner and the city council to bid with me for the next safer streets pot, to keep the streets safe in Tunstall, Cobridge and Smallthorne?

My hon. Friend does a great job of standing up for his constituents on antisocial behaviour. In March, we launched the action plan to crack down on precisely the behaviour he has been talking about. The plan is backed by more than £160 million of new funding. That includes funding for an increased police and other uniformed presence in ASB hotspots. I am glad that his force has also been chosen as one of the pilots.

I am pleased to see the plan being brought forward, because only last week I was speaking to parish councillors from Bagworth who have had real problems with vandalism and graffiti in some of their playgrounds —so much so that they are thinking of closing them. I have heard of this happening in places such as Earl Shilton and Barwell, too. Will the Home Secretary say how the plan will support communities such as mine?

I was pleased to visit Leicestershire police force some months ago. I am committed to supporting communities and the police. I am pleased that Leicestershire police has received £2.8 million through four rounds of the safer streets fund, including £800,000 in the current round, to fund projects such as youth diversion activities, antisocial behaviour education programmes, and target hardening. We have funded several initiatives, and that is how we work together with other agencies to ensure that our streets are safer, communities can restore pride, and ultimately that criminals are put behind bars.

In Kendal we are proud of the recently set up Youth Matters project, which is about engaging young people with worthwhile activities to do with their time. Does the Home Secretary agree that as well as tackling antisocial behaviour by firm and adequately resourced policing, it is important that she works with her colleagues in the Department for Education to boost youth work, in particular detached youth work, to help give young people worthwhile things to do with their time? What is she doing to improve funding for that part of our armoury against antisocial behaviour?

Tackling antisocial behaviour is one of my priorities. That is why I launched the plan with the Prime Minister. It requires a multifaceted solution, and a lot of work must be focused on youth diversion. I was pleased to visit a boxing project a few weeks ago, in which money from the Home Office was diverted to encourage young people off the streets to take up a sport, work with mentors, and learn a new skill. It is a great way of reducing crime.

The Home Secretary rightly said that antisocial behaviour brings misery and menace. As part of local antisocial behaviour plans, neighbourhood and traffic police across the country will rightly be cracking down on speeding and dangerous driving. Does the Home Secretary think that people who speed should be given the option to get private speeding awareness courses, rather than doing them with everyone else, and in her own case, what exactly did she ask her civil servants to help her with?

Hopefully we are not going to be too repetitive today, Mr Speaker. As I said earlier, last summer I was speeding. I regret that. I paid the fine and I accepted the points, and at no point did I seek to evade the sanction. But let us be honest about what this is all about. The shadow Minister would rather distract from the abject failure by the Labour party to offer any serious proposals on crime or policing. Labour Members want to talk about this because it distracts from the fact that they voted against tougher sentences for paedophiles and murderers. They want us to ignore the fact that Labour MPs would rather campaign to stop the deportation of foreign criminals than back our Rwanda scheme. They would rather the country does not notice their total abandonment of the British people. This Government are focusing on delivering a record—[Interruption.]

Order. The Home Secretary said that she did not want to be repetitive. That goes all around the Chamber.

Immigration Policies: Scotland

3. What assessment she has made of the effect of her Department's immigration policies on labour shortages in Scotland. (905036)

The points-based system serves the whole United Kingdom, and as noted in the Migration Advisory Committee annual report, immigration policy cannot be a complete solution to population movements within the United Kingdom, or to labour shortages. The Scottish Government have policy levers to address those issues more effectively.

The Scottish Government have repeatedly raised the issue, I have secured a debate on it, and my SNP colleagues have raised it over and over again: labour shortages are posing huge challenges for Scotland right now. The Scottish Government proposed a rural immigration pilot—a proposal welcomed by one of the Home Secretary’s predecessors, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid). Why will the UK Government not engage with the Scottish Government on that important issue, given that the Scottish Government have no powers in that area?

We believe strongly that the UK is better served by a single, national immigration service, and there is no material difference between unemployment or economic inactivity rates in Scotland versus the rest of the United Kingdom. The first port of call for vacancies should always be the domestic workforce. That is why my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary has brought forward a wide package of measures across the whole country, to help more people into the workforce. It is not right that we always reach for the lever of immigration to solve those challenges.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when thinking about the level of net migration, we should consider not just GDP and economic impact but the social and cultural impact of such rapid change, including the pressure on public services and housing?

It is right that we consider economic growth and the needs of our economy, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that these decisions also require careful consideration of the impact of large amounts of legal migration on housing, access to public services and, as he said, community cohesion and integration. That is absolutely the approach of the Government and the Home Secretary, and I am considering the challenge.

Ending the small boat crossings is one way of reducing immigration, and Labour has a five point plan to do just that, but asylum seekers are only a fraction of the net migration total. The reason net migration is so high in Scotland and across the UK, and the reason businesses are over-reliant on migrant labour, is that, for 13 years, the Conservative party has failed to train up our home-grown talent. It has slashed the skills budget, and failed to get people off record-high NHS waiting lists and back to work. Labour has set out plans to do each of those things, because we want and expect immigration to come down, and yet the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are clearly at loggerheads on the issue—it appears that the right hand does not know what the far-right hand is doing. Is the Home Secretary still committed to the 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge of bringing net migration below 226,000? If so, does she think that the Prime Minister agrees with her?

Let us be absolutely clear: this party wants to bring net migration down. I have no idea what Labour wants to do. In the last few days we have heard a succession of shadow Ministers confused on this issue. The Conservative Government believe in controlled migration. We only have to look back to the legacy of the last Labour Government to see that, under Labour, there is always an open-door approach to migration. We will control migration; the Labour party leaves an open-door migration policy.

Illegal Immigration Bill: Devolved Administrations

4. Whether she has had recent discussions with the devolved Administrations on the Illegal Immigration Bill. (905037)

I am in regular correspondence with the devolved Administrations about the Illegal Migration Bill. I recently met the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson, and last week I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice to propose a meeting, which I hope will happen later this week.

Not only is the Bill being driven through Parliament at breakneck speech, but the Scottish Government have been given no opportunity yet to consider the proposals properly before their introduction. Does the Minister therefore agree that any regulations through the Bill that would amend, repeal or revoke any Scottish legislation or any devolved matter cannot possibly come into force without the consent of Scottish Ministers?

I think that I just made clear that I have reached out to colleagues in the Scottish Government. But immigration is a reserved matter, and it is a matter for this Parliament to dictate our future borders policy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the Bill. From the figures that I have seen, his constituency of Midlothian currently has no asylum seekers in dispersal accommodation and no asylum seekers in contingency accommodation such as hotels. Zero asylum seekers in his constituency. He is, I am afraid, yet another example of humanitarian nimbyism by the SNP.

In addition to the devolved Administrations, will the Minister kindly share details of the discussions that he has had with local authorities—local government and local councils in particular—on the Bill’s provisions? How do those relate to the Government’s plans to accommodate people in Wethersfield, including those who would be covered by the Bill?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. When she was Home Secretary, she set out the policy to create large sites on which to house asylum seekers in a more focused and less expensive manner, and she took forward a proposal for a site in the north of England. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I have continued that tradition and set forth plans for three sites: one at Bexhill, one at Wethersfield and one at Scampton.

The Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance, TARA, supported 156 women in its service in 2021 and 2020. Of those, 138 were seeking asylum or were undocumented when they were referred to TARA. Bronagh Andrew of TARA told the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee that,

“had the Illegal Migration Bill been in place, those women would not have been able to access our support.”

In the face of clear evidence of the harm that the Tories’ Illegal Migration Bill will cause, what possible justification can the Minister give for removing support from trafficked women in Scotland and strengthening the hand of those who would exploit them?

The Bill is based on the simple principle that we want to break the people smugglers’ and human traffickers’ business model. By supporting the Bill—I know the hon. Lady opposes it—we will do that. We will stop people making these dangerous, unnecessary crossings and there will be fewer cases such as those that she raises. But I go back to the point that I made to her colleague, the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). If the SNP feels so strongly about this issue, why does it do so little to support asylum seekers in Scotland? Currently, there are 11 contingency hotels in the whole of Scotland, housing 600 migrants. That is 1% of all the asylum seekers in the country. She never matches her words with deeds.


We recently launched our strategy to tackle fraud, alongside measures in the Online Safety Bill that will require companies to prevent fraud and measures in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to hold companies to account for fraud committed by their employees. We are also working with tech companies to agree other measures and improving the support we give to victims.

We know that 80% of fraud starts online, and 18% comes from the tech companies that the Minister talked about, yet they do not contribute anything to reimbursing the victims of fraud, despite effectively profiting from causing it. Is it not time that we considered asking them to contribute towards reimbursing some of the losses that they are introducing into the system?

My hon. Friend is raising questions that we have looked at closely in the fraud strategy, and he is absolutely right to highlight the disparity between those who are causing and those who are paying. This is a conversation that we have been having, and I look forward to identifying some areas soon for further discussion. Action Fraud has not always helped as well as it might, which is why we are looking at making the system more efficient.

At my surgery in Sarratt last month I met Catherine, whose father was defrauded out of thousands after taking a call from a man who he thought worked for Virgin Media. Catherine only found out after her father unfortunately passed away and she found all the emails he had sent attempting to get his money back—a battle that Catherine has now taken on. Can the Minister tell the House what he is doing to stop vulnerable people being targeted by fraudsters?

May I offer absolute sympathy to Catherine? Sadly, although my hon. Friend is citing the case of an older man who was the target of crime, this is a crime that affects many people of all ages across our society. It is not specifically connected to the most vulnerable; rather, it predominantly affects people who are online more often, which, as one can imagine, includes many people across society. We are rolling out the nationwide economic crime victim care unit across England and Wales, for victims whose cases are not investigated by the police. This group will help victims to recover from fraud and cyber-crime, and will significantly reduce the likelihood of repeat victimisation.

I welcome Minister’s proposal that Action Fraud should have greater capacity. I have experienced a number of constituency cases where elderly people were robbed of their life savings and there was a feeling that insufficient priority was being given to this issue. Will the Minister give an assurance that there will be a renewed focus on dealing with these scams, which destroy people’s lives?

I can absolutely give that commitment. These scams, which to some people appear victimless, are sadly anything but. The connection to serious mental health issues that follow is sadly all too clear, and many of us in our constituency work have come across individuals for whom these events have resulted in extreme suffering and sometimes even worse.

It is staggering that fraud now accounts for almost half of crime, yet barely any of those crimes are investigated, and less than 0.1% of them make it to court. Hardly anything seems to be being done to upgrade police technology and practice to help deal with that. Seriously, what are the Government doing that will make any sort of difference?

The hon. Lady will have heard only a few weeks ago that we launched our new fraud strategy, which includes 400 officers in the national fraud squad and increased resources of some £400 million to help police forces across the country. A lot of that work has already started, and a lot of it still has to be done. We are making sure that that focus is there because, as she correctly says, 40% of crime is fraud. The UK, sadly, has received too many attempts to defraud our people, for several reasons. One reason is the way our banking system works and the speed of banking in the UK, and another is the English language, which I am afraid makes it significantly easier for fraudsters overseas to act against our people. It is true that a significant amount of that crime is not here in the UK but abroad, so working with partners around the world is important.

There were 3.7 million instances of fraud last year. Will the Minister say why only 0.1% of cases make it to court?

We are working on that challenge with the Ministry of Justice, and the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight it. Often, the reason is that many of those crimes are committed abroad or are not followed up. Sometimes, that is because people are embarrassed to report them, which is a great shame because they should not be embarrassed—they are crimes like any other. Often, it is because it is very difficult to collect evidence. That is exactly why we have launched the new national fraud squad to help police forces across the country, working with the regional and organised crime units to bring not just the evidence but eventually the prosecution through the Crown Prosecution Service, to make sure that we have not just reports of fraud but prosecutions and convictions.

Just over a year ago, the anti-fraud Minister Lord Agnew resigned in anger at the billions being lost and written off in covid fraud payments. He said to the Treasury Committee on which I sit:

“There is not anybody who would condone a weak system that allows money to fall into the laps of crooks, and that is what I saw happening.”

Lord Agnew was a Conservative Minister. Can the Minister tell us what has changed, if anything, such as the amount of money in covid fraud payments recovered or the attitude of the Treasury?

As the hon. Lady knows well, this Government take fraud very seriously in these matters. I say that with absolute confidence because we have just worked up a national fraud strategy for the first time in many years. We have the money and the commitment, and now we have the officers behind it. This is an extremely important area of crime that we have been taking seriously in order to ensure that it reduces alongside other areas of crime. That is exactly what this Government will do.

According to the Government, fraud is now the most common crime in the UK, costing almost £7 billion a year, with one in 15 people falling victim. The number of victims has skyrocketed amid the cost of living crisis, and victims are left without hope. Police forces up and down the country are crying out for resources to tackle the ever growing and advancing ways in which criminals exploit people to commit fraud. If the Government care and are serious about fraud and its victims, why do Ministers persistently exclude fraud from crime statistics?

That is a slightly strange question, because fraud is in the Crime Survey of England and Wales, so I simply do not understand which surveys the hon. Lady is looking at. She may be thinking of the crime surveys before 2010, which are hard to compare because Labour did not count fraud—but we do.

Visa Applications from Afghanistan: Women and Girls

6. What steps her Department is taking to support women and girls applying for UK visas from Afghanistan. (905039)

More than 24,000 people have arrived in the UK from Afghanistan under or since Operation Pitting, of whom 21,000 have been resettled under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy or the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. There is not a visa application centre in Afghanistan for security reasons, but those who have left the country can make a visa application in the normal way. The ACRS is designed to support vulnerable people such as women and girls at risk.

For the fourth time in recent weeks, I feel compelled to raise on the Floor of the House the case of five British children who have been in hiding in Kabul for the past 18 months. Four of those British passport holders are girls and only one of them is allowed to attend school. I and my team have not been able to bring them to safety, to be with their family in the UK, because their Afghan mother cannot secure a visa. I am grateful that the Minister has looked at this case personally, but it has stalled again, because his officials are insisting she travels to Pakistan to do her biometrics. He will be aware that it is totally unsafe for a woman to risk her life to travel on her own, without a chaperone, to Pakistan to get a visa, even if Pakistan grants her a visa to travel there. So please, will the Minister waive the requirement for biometrics in this case and those of other women and girls who face mortal danger, as this family does?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tenacious way in which she has represented her constituents. She knows that I intervened personally to seek a swift resolution to this case. I am told that UK Visas and Immigration has the application under consideration and is speaking with the hon. Lady’s office to help progress the application, and I hope we can resolve it very soon.

Does the Minister accept that the female population of Afghanistan is enslaved at present? Has he seen the amazing film by the courageous Sky correspondent, Alex Crawford, called “Women at War: Afghanistan”, which spells that out? Will he spare a moment to look at early-day motion 1188, marking the 90th anniversary today of the founding of the Academic Assistance Council, now the Council for At-Risk Academics? I came across that organisation while it was trying to rescue female academics from potential enslavement and bring them to this country so that they could join the faculties of the University of Southampton, among others.

I would be pleased to look at the material that my right hon. Friend recommends to me, in particular the early-day motion. The treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan by the Taliban is abhorrent—we all condemn that. That is one of the reasons we have created the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, to support as many as we possibly can.

I recently had a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the plight of female judges and prosecutors who were encouraged by the United Kingdom to take up those roles, when they were trying to produce a democracy under the rule of law in Afghanistan. I would like to see humanitarian visas for some of those women, so that they can come to the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister seemed quite sympathetic and said he would take the proposal away and look at it. Will the Minister assure me that the Home Office would also be sympathetic to that request?

I would be very happy to look into that. I remember that the hon. and learned Lady has campaigned on this issue for some time, since the fall of Kabul, so perhaps a useful way forward would be for she and I to meet to discuss this further.

As part of the Government’s resettlement scheme for Afghan citizens facing threats of persecution from the Taliban, the Home Office granted visas to the Afghan women’s junior development football team. The women’s parliamentary football team played a match against them and, despite the studded tackle that left me wincing in agony, I was struck by their gratitude for and appreciation of our generous and lifesaving hospitality. However, there are many sportswomen left in Afghanistan, banned from participating in their sport by the Taliban and under threat of severe recriminations if they even dare to kick a ball, ride a bike or wield a cricket bat. What is the Minister doing to support those women and girls, particularly if they wish to come to the UK to play their sports?

As my hon. Friend has said, the Taliban have banned Afghan women and girls from competing in sports and exercising in gyms. Afghan women who competed in sports, ranging from football to cycling, are now forced to stay home, amid the kind of intimidation to which she refers. I think particularly of the bravery of those Afghan women who recently posed for photos with the Associated Press, alongside the equipment that they used to be able to use, now covering their faces with burqas. These are the reasons why we have made our important and generous offer through the ACRS, which is a scheme we want to take forward to help more women and girls out of Afghanistan to a place of safety and a new life in the UK.

Yarl’s Wood: Serco

7. What discussions she has had with representatives of Serco on improvements to security at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. (905040)

The Government take the protection of the public and security incidents at immigration detention centres extremely seriously. I met senior Serco executives on 4 May to discuss their response to the incident at Yarl’s Wood in my hon. Friend’s constituency. An independent investigation into the incident is now under way; we will consider its findings in detail.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the chief constable of Bedfordshire, Trevor Rodenhurst, for working with other police forces across the country? I understand that all but one of those who absconded have been rearrested, and that arrests have been made of others who have facilitated people being out of detention. However, there remain serious questions to be answered, both about the comparative ease with which people were able to abscond from the facility and about the interaction between Serco and the police. Will my right hon. Friend please look at those issues?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking Bedfordshire police for leading the national response to the incident. He is correct that of the eight men who escaped, only one now remains at large and we are determined to find him as quickly as possible. There are robust security measures in IRCs, but they are now being reviewed again in the light of this incident. I have met senior Serco executives to hold them to account for their conduct and to ensure that they take the incident extremely seriously. I know that my hon. Friend will be visiting Yarl’s Wood soon; I would be very happy to speak to him and understand his reflections.

Small Boat Crossings

10. What steps her Department is taking to reduce the number of small boat crossings of the English channel. (905044)

21. What steps her Department is taking to reduce the number of small boat crossings of the English channel. (905055)

Our Illegal Migration Bill will end illegal entry as a route to asylum in the United Kingdom, breaking the business model of the people-smuggling gangs and restoring fairness to our asylum system.

Tackling illegal immigration, like small boats, is a hot topic for many of my constituents; I hear about it time and again on the doorstep, and I see it in my inbox. Can my right hon. Friend assure the people of Stourbridge that it is this Government who can be trusted to make every possible effort to address this complex problem and ensure we stop the illegal boats?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Prime Minister and I are determined to stop the boats—we are doubling the number of UK-funded personnel in France, and for the first time specialist UK officers are embedded with their French counterparts—whereas I am afraid the Labour party has consistently voted against our measures, not just in the Illegal Migration Bill but in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. We know that Labour Members would scrap Rwanda. The truth is that they do not want to stop the boats; they want to open our borders.

In a recent interview, the Leader of the Opposition was unable to say whether he would repeal the Public Order Act 2023, which protects the public against seriously disruptive protests. Given this flip-flopping on key legislation, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only this Conservative Government who can be trusted to stop the boats, and that it is entirely possible that the Opposition, having tried to vote down the Illegal Migration Bill several times, will change their mind on that as well?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The British people would be forgiven for failing to keep up with changing Labour policy. On the one hand, Labour Members opposed our Public Order Bill; on the other hand, they said that they would not repeal it. They are in favour of campaigning to keep foreign criminals in the country, yet they want to scrap our Rwanda plan. This Government, this Conservative Prime Minister and this side of the House are focused on stopping the boats, taking the fight to the militant protesters and standing up for the British people.

Last December, the Prime Minister promised that the Home Office would recruit another 700 new staff to the small boats operational command. How many of those 700 staff are now in post?

Last year, the Prime Minister set out a detailed plan on how we are stopping the boats. The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to our increased personnel on our small boats operational command. I am pleased to say that we are making very good progress on increasing the personnel working on the channel. We have increased the number of caseworkers, we are making progress on our asylum backlog and we are increasingly bearing down on this issue.

Afghans make up one of the largest cohorts of small boat migrants, in part because the legal routes are not working. Let me give the Home Secretary a quick example. Families who have been approved under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy are stuck in Islamabad and are now being told that they need to source their own accommodation to get here, but there is no published guidance on how they should go about doing that. Given the obvious challenges of securing accommodation, not least if they are stuck in a hotel room in Pakistan, can the Home Secretary say precisely what support her Department is providing to this cohort of people who are stuck in Pakistan?

Both the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme make clear the criteria by which people will be assessed when they are applying to come to the United Kingdom. I am proud that this country and this Government have welcomed over 20,000 people under those schemes. Of course there will be individual cases and we are happy to consider them, but overall the scheme has worked well and thousands of people have benefited from it.

One of the justifications for using former military bases rather than hotels was that they would be a deterrent. We now learn from the Home Office that RAF Scampton will not take people from hotels, but that it might be a detention centre or it might take migrants from Manston. The whole policy is in chaos. Is that why the Home Secretary’s own civil servant, on 6 February, recommended to her that the Home Office should agree to stop work on proposals for RAF Scampton and agree that it should immediately notify the local authority that it was no longer developing proposals for the site? Why has the Home Secretary ignored her own civil servants?

I very much appreciate the efforts of my right hon. Friend in standing up for his constituents; he is doing a fantastic job. What I would gently say to him is that we have over 40,000 people accommodated in hotels today and we are spending over £6 million a day on that accommodation. It is an unacceptable situation, and that is why the Prime Minister and I have made it a priority to bring on and deliver alternative, appropriate and more cost-effective accommodation.

The problem is that there are no safe and legal routes. I have children in my constituency who are separated from their parents because they were brought to the UK under the UNHCR scheme and their parents cannot now come and join them. They have moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan, but they have no means of coming here to be with their children. Why is the Home Secretary keeping families apart as opposed to reuniting them?

I just do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation. I am incredibly proud—[Interruption.] I am incredibly proud of the immense generosity that the Conservative Government and, more importantly, the British people have demonstrated over recent years. We have welcomed over half a million people seeking humanitarian protection to these shores through safe and legal routes. On top of the country-specific routes, there are non-country-specific routes through which people can apply. The reality is that we have millions of people seeking to come here and we have to take a balanced approach, but overall we have extended the hand of generosity and we have a track record of which we can be proud.

Vagrancy Act: Repeal

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is a tireless campaigner on this issue and I know that the whole House is grateful to him for championing and introducing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. As we made clear at the time of the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Government are committed to the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824, and as soon as suitable replacement legislation is ready—which we hope will be fairly soon—we will introduce it as soon as parliamentary time allows. At the same time, we will repeal the Vagrancy Act.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. More than a year ago in a vote in both this House and the other place, we agreed to repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, yet it seems as if the Home Office is trying to reintroduce it to deal with aggressive begging. I think the whole House would agree that people who are street homeless need to be helped and assisted, not arrested. When will we see the enactment of that legislation so that the police can be given the powers to help people who are street homeless rather than threaten them?

My hon. Friend is right. The people who are homeless and need assistance should receive that help. I know that our colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are working hard to make sure that that happens, but we also need to make sure that members of the public are protected from aggressive or nuisance begging, so where the repeal of the Vagrancy Act leaves lacunae in the law, we need to ensure that they are filled. That is why we will repeal the Vagrancy Act once the replacement legislation is ready and, as I have said, we will do that as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I thank the Minister for his response to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). Homelessness is a scourge and a problem across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Minister is known to be a compassionate man, and he understands the issue very well. What discussions have taken place with the Northern Ireland Executive on the Vagrancy Act to make sure that what happens here also happens in Northern Ireland so that it benefits our people, too?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which he asks with his customary courtesy and compassion. We want to have discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as it is reformed, which we hope will be soon. I am pleased to tell the House that rough sleeping levels in England, where the Government have direct responsibility, are about 35% lower than in 2017, and we look forward to working with our friends and colleagues to bring about the same results in Northern Ireland.

Foreign Disinformation

12. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on countering foreign disinformation in the UK. (905046)

Countering foreign disinformation that seeks to subvert and undermine the UK’s democracy, prosperity and security is vital. The National Security Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, will further strengthen our ability to counter hostile state threats.

It is now more than two years since The Times reported that Iranian cyber specialists were peddling disinformation in an attempt to influence the result of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. In the same year, the US Department of Justice shut down 36 Iranian-linked websites in a disinformation crackdown. How do the Government intend to combat and disrupt the threat of disinformation spread here in the UK by the murderous Iranian regime?

Disinformation is the concerted effort to create and deliberately spread false or manipulative information, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that hostile states such as Iran use disinformation as a hostile act against the United Kingdom’s interests. We are constantly reviewing our position on Iran, and this is something we take very seriously at the top of Government.

Microsoft’s digital defence report outlines how nations including Russia, China and Iran are deploying social media-powered propaganda operations to shape opinion, discredit adversaries and incite fear, with harrowing examples of Russia’s use of hybrid warfare in Ukraine. During the passage of the National Security Bill, the Labour party called for an annual report on the extent of disinformation originating from foreign powers, which this Government rejected. Does the Home Secretary accept that the Government have been far too slow in responding to the scale of this threat, and that such an annual report represents the bare minimum that the Government should be doing to protect the UK from foreign hostile and sustained cyber-interference?

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation that the Government have been too slow to act on Russian state threats. Following the invasion of Ukraine last year, the UK introduced trade sanctions in relation to internet and online media services, preventing designated entities from using platforms to connect with UK audiences online. The Government designated TV-Novosti and Rossiya Segodnya on 4 May 2023, choking off the Russian Federation’s ability to disseminate misinformation across the internet through its state-sponsored RT and Sputnik brands. There has been a lot of effort and a lot of work to counter Russian state disinformation.

Topical Questions

Fraud is a despicable crime that accounts for more than 40% of all crime in England and Wales. The Government’s fraud strategy will do far more to block fraud at source by working closely with the private sector and law enforcement. The Online Safety Bill obligates tech platforms to protect users from fraud, and we will consult on banning cold calling for financial products and clamp down on number spoofing. We will ban devices that let criminals send mass scam texts or disguise their number when making scam calls. New powers will take down fraudulent websites.

I have told police forces that I want tackling fraud to be a priority, and a new national fraud squad with 400 new investigators will go after the worst fraudsters. We will change the law so that more victims of fraud get their money back, and Action Fraud will be replaced with a state-of-the-art system.

My constituents Mrs L and Mr M, from Hong Kong, came to the UK on a British national overseas passport. They came to see me because they had been paying into a pension for the whole of their careers and sold their home before coming to the UK, but because of their BNO visa status, their bank account was frozen at the direction of the Chinese state, in contradiction to Hong Kong law. They are not alone; the Home Office has issued BNO visas to more than 160,000 Hongkongers who have moved to the UK. Does the Home Secretary think it is right that at the behest of the Chinese communist party, BNO passport holders are being denied access to their own money, from their own bank accounts—

Order. Topical questions have to be short. People cannot have full questions on topicals, please. I am sure you have come to the end and that the Home Secretary will have a grip of the answer.

I am very concerned by the issue the hon. Lady raises. We have welcomed more than 100,000 people from Hong Kong via our BNO scheme. We have also had similar reports and we have heard from a group of BNOs who have raised concerns of a similar nature. My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister, and potentially the Security Minister, will get back to her on the details, but I share the concern she is raising.

T2. For a long time, businesspeople in Africa have sometimes found it difficult to get visas for short visits to this country, because the system has been centralised and there are sometimes small errors on their application. Not only they but we lose business because of that situation, so will the Minister examine it to see what can be done to improve the system? (905060)

I would be happy to take a further look and to learn from my hon. Friend’s experience. I am pleased to say that UK Visas and Immigration is now processing all new visit visa applications within the service standard of 15 days, with 323,000 applications from those with African nationalities last year.

On a difficult anniversary, I pay tribute to the brave soldier Lee Rigby and to the innocent children, women and men who lost their lives, and the many more who were injured, at the Manchester Arena, as well as to their families, who remind us of the commitment to never let hatred win.

At the heart of the Home Secretary’s responsibility is to ensure that laws are fairly enforced for all. But when she got a speeding penalty, it seems that she sought special treatment—a private course—and asked civil servants to help. She has refused to say what she asked civil servants to do, so I ask her that again. Will she also tell us whether she authorised her special adviser to tell journalists that there was not a speeding penalty when there was?

As I said earlier, in the summer of last year I was speeding. I regret that. I paid the fine and I accepted the points. At no time did I seek to avoid the sanction. What is serious here is the priorities of the British people. I am getting on with the job of delivering for the British people, with a record number of police officers and a plan to stop the boats, and by standing up to crime and for policing. I only wish the Labour party would focus on the priorities too.

The trouble is that the Home Secretary is failing to deliver for the British people too, and everyone can see that she is not answering the basic factual questions on what she said to the civil service and to her special adviser. It matters because it is her job to show that she is abiding by the ministerial code, which she has broken before, on private and public interests, and to enforce rules fairly for everyone else. Time and again, she seems to think that she is above the normal rules: breaching security even though she is responsible for it; trying to avoid penalties even though she sets them; reappointed even after breaking the ministerial code; and criticising Home Office policies even though she is in charge of them and is failing on knife crime, on channel crossings, on immigration and more. The Prime Minister is clearly too weak to sort this out. If the Home Secretary cannot get a grip of her own rule-breaking behaviour, how can she get a grip on anything else?

I have some gentle advice for the right hon. Lady. The person who needs to get a grip here is the shadow Home Secretary and the Labour party, as they have wholly failed to represent the priorities of the British people. When, Mr Speaker, will the Labour party apologise for campaigning to block the deportation of foreign national offenders? When, Mr Speaker, will the Labour party apologise for leaving this country with a lower number of police officers—

T4. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration will know that Portland port, although in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), is very close to the constituency border of West Dorset. My constituents in Chickerell and wider West Dorset are becoming increasingly concerned about the absence of information on the risk assessment and on the additional resources that will be made available to Dorset Council and Dorset police. Has he any further information that he can share with the House today? (905062)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the manner in which he has defended his constituents on this difficult issue. Although housing asylum seekers in more rudimentary accommodation such as barges is undoubtedly in the national interest, we are acutely aware of the challenges faced by the local communities in which they will be moored. That is why we are working closely with Dorset Council, with the hon. Gentleman and with my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax).

My heart and the hearts of all those on the SNP Benches go out to those affected on the anniversary of the Manchester Arena tragedy, particularly the family and friends of Eilidh Macleod whose memorial trust stands as a legacy to her love of music.

Speeding can affect a person’s eligibility for leave to remain in the UK, so should not the same motoring offence and, indeed, the further breaches of the ministerial code by attempting to get special treatment affect the Home Secretary’s right to remain in her job?

As I said earlier, in the summer I was speeding. I regret that I was speeding. I accepted the points and I paid the fine. At no point did I seek to avoid the sanction. What I find regrettable, however, is the SNP’s wholesale failure to deliver for asylum seekers, to deliver for justice and to deliver for vulnerable people. Its Members are opposing our Bill to stop the boats, they are opposing support to break the people smuggling gangs and they are opposing a pragmatic approach.

T5. Will the Home Office ensure that the contracts for the use as asylum hotels of the Rothwell House Hotel and the Royal Hotel Kettering are terminated as soon as possible? (905063)

I know how strongly my hon. Friend feels about this issue. I will of course look into those contracts, but the enduring solution to this issue is to stop the boats in the first place. That is why we brought forward the Illegal Migration Bill.

T3. Members of Turning Point UK have protested three times in my constituency in recent months, attempting without success to spread hatred and division in our community. Does the Home Secretary have any concerns about this organisation and how it receives its funding? (905061)

I thank the hon. Member for her question. Full details should be coming to us to look into that. However, the Government take hate crime of any sort extremely seriously, which is why we have done basic policing and increased the number of police officers to more than ever before—over 200,000.

T8. The right to protest is a fundamental right in this country, but that right does not extend to deliberately blocking roads and stopping people going about their daily lives. Therefore, will the Minister support the police if they choose to use their full range of powers to stop those who abuse the right to protest? (905066)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The right to protest emphatically does not extend to trying to ruin or disrupt the lives of fellow citizens who are trying to get to hospital for treatment, to get their children to school or to get to their place of work. That is why this House recently legislated with the Public Order Act 2023. It is a great shame that the Opposition voted against it. This Government stand on the side of law-abiding citizens, and we fully support the police in using those powers.

T6. The more the Home Secretary tries to evade the question, the more the British public will conclude that something underhand and fishy is going on. Will she answer a simple question? Did the Home Secretary ask civil servants to arrange a private speed awareness course? (905064)

As I have made clear, last summer I was speeding, and I regret that I was speeding. I was notified of the matter, I paid the fine and I took the points. At no point did anything untoward happen and at no point did I try to avoid the sanction.

T9. Antisocial behaviour is a blight on the lives of too many of my constituents, and their frustration is often exacerbated because it is not always clear whether it is the local council or the police who can resolve their problem, despite the best intentions of both to help. How can my right hon. Friend ensure that people are not passed from pillar to post, and that when they make complaints about bad behaviour it is tackled swiftly? (905067)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Government recently published our antisocial behaviour action plan. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and her colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are jointly chairing a taskforce to ensure that action is taken. We are setting up a number of hotspot patrols around the country to ensure that the blight of antisocial behaviour is heavily policed against and that, where it occurs, it is dealt with quickly and thoroughly and no one is left behind.

T7.   If the Home Secretary insists on exempting private landlords from minimum housing standards for asylum seekers, local councils and fire authorities will not be able to enforce basic safety and overcrowding standards. Does that not mean that the worst landlords, instead of improving their properties, will make a fortune from Government funding while exploiting vulnerable families and young children who are waiting years for a decision on their asylum application? (905065)

I can assure the hon. Lady that our intention is that there will be no diminution in accommodation standards, whether for asylum seekers or anybody else, but it is critical that we get those people out of hotels, saving the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds per year, and house them in the most appropriate forms of accommodation.

My constituents are rightly appalled by the organised nature of so much immigration crime. Can my right hon. and learned Friend set out what work is being done to tackle those organised groups’ operations at source, and what impact that is having in reducing the numbers of arrivals of illegal immigrants?

Part of our plan to stop the boats focuses on causal factors such as serious organised immigration crime gangs, which are networked and highly resourced. We have had some success in arresting hundreds of people involved in those gangs and disabling several such gangs, but we are employing more resource in our National Crime Agency and increasing the numbers of officers working with the French so that we can clamp down on the problem at cause.

T10. In her previous resignation letter, the current Home Secretary wrote:“Pretending we haven’t made mistakes, carrying on as if everyone can’t see that we have made them, and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics.”Was she right? Has she made a mistake? Will she accept responsibility? Will she resign? (905068)

As I said earlier, in the summer of last year I was speeding. I regret that I was speeding. I paid the penalty and I accepted the points. At no time did I seek to avoid any sanction or consequence.

Given the 56% rise in transphobic hate crime between 2021 and 2022, are the Government concerned, and what strategies will they put in place to get that horrifying number down?

Transphobic crimes are hateful and, although people do not realise it, they represent as much as 3% of all hate crimes recorded. The Government are determined to stamp it out, which is why we are funding groups such as True Vision that are working hard in this area—I know my hon. Friend is working hard too—and funding initiatives such as the national online hate crime hub, an essential capability designed to allow individuals to have specialist intervention and work. We are also working on education, with £3 million of funding going to five anti-bullying organisations between August 2021 and March 2024. It is only with better education and the work of my hon. Friend that we will make progress in this area.