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Topical Questions

Volume 741: debated on Monday 27 November 2023

My mission and that of this Government, on behalf of all people in this country, is to secure our borders and keep people safe from crime and terrorism. Good progress has been made in driving down crime and stopping illegal small-boat arrivals, but there is, of course, more to do. The Home Office has been considering further measures to mitigate migration, including by preventing the exploitation and manipulation of our visa system and clamping down on those who take unwarranted advantage of the flexibilities we provide. We will announce further details on these measures in due course. Tomorrow, we have Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill, which will give police the powers they need for longer sentences for those who would harm others and will increase the trust in policing.

In my constituency, the antisocial and illegal use of fireworks continues to affect law-abiding citizens and our pets. Will the Secretary of State commit to reducing the legal limit for commercial fireworks from 120 dB to 90 dB or less?

I have not yet had the opportunity to read into that issue—it was not the angle I was expecting in this question—but the proposal seems a thoughtful one. I will give it due consideration, but I cannot make a commitment at this point.

T3. Off-road bikes are a growing plague across Hartlepool, and my constituents face the danger of young men in balaclavas driving recklessly along our streets. Will my right hon. Friend commit to increasing the support for Cleveland police to tackle this nuisance, beyond the anonymous tip-off system? Will he also perhaps come to visit some of the excellent Conservative MPs in our region? (900308)

I would be delighted to do that, and I support her call. To achieve precisely the objectives my hon. Friend describes, from April next year—in just a few months—every police force in the country will receive substantial funding commitments to conduct antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols, including against the scourge of off-road biking that she mentions. In forces where pilot schemes have been tried, including those in Essex, Lancashire and Staffordshire, we have seen reductions in antisocial behaviour of up to 30%.

The Home Secretary has been in post for two weeks, during which time he has used the same language to pick a fight with Stockton and show what he thinks of his own Rwanda policy, he has been attacked by his Back Benchers, and Downing Street has already been forced to confirm it still has full confidence in him. Twelve days ago he said the number of asylum hotel bed spaces are down, but four days ago Home Office figures showed they are up to a record 56,000—10,000 more than at the beginning of the year. Does he even know what is going on?

Yes, I do. Let me expand—that answer was a by-product of the right hon. Lady asking a closed question at the Dispatch Box. I have been in this job for 14 days, and I am conscious that my counterparts around Europe and the world are grappling with many of the same issues. I would love nothing more than to be able to resolve them all in 14 days—I am good, but I am not a magician.

Perhaps that mean an end to the magical thinking that the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor called for. We still have 10,000 more bed spaces than when the Prime Minister promised to end hotel use. The Home Secretary owes the House the facts. There is still no sign of anything on the failed Rwanda plan, because he knows it will not work, and nothing on the trebling of net migration to tackle the skills gaps that are driving work visas. The Government have been in power for 13 years and all we have is chaos and briefing wars. His Back Benchers are already calling him “Colonel Calamity”, and he has Corporal Chaos next to him on the Front Bench. Given the mess he has inherited and his penchant for profanity, does he accept that he is now up a certain kind of creek without a paddle?

The right hon. Lady is someone I admire hugely, and one of the things I admire most is how she has managed to be at the Dispatch Box twice but has failed to ask anything resembling a sensible question about the issues we are discussing. When her party was in government, it addressed the volumes of migration by simply redefining people, wiping the slate clean and pretending there was never a problem.

I have said this about the right hon. Lady’s party in broadcasts, and I say it from the Dispatch Box: there is a gaping vacuum where the Labour party’s policy on migration, whether it be legal or illegal, should be. Unless and until Labour Members come up with something approaching a policy, I will continue to do what we know to be right: driving down small-boat arrivals and reducing the number of hotel rooms needed. We have closed 50 hotels and we will do more.

My right hon. Friend asks an incredibly important question. I have made it very clear to the police forces of the UK that when members of a minority group in this country tell us that they are living in fear, we must take action. I am pleased that the policing response this weekend was more robust than on previous weekends—the police are clearly listening to the conversations we are having with them and I commend them for doing so. I have spoken with representatives of the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and I will be having a meeting with the Chief Rabbi to make it absolutely clear that the Jewish community in the UK has the right to feel safe and this Government will take action to ensure it is safe.

T2. Many of my constituents have faced significant delays when applying for biometric residence permit cards because of technical errors. One constituent, whose application was approved in July 2020, did not receive their BRP until January 2023 because of printing issues. What actions are being taken to address the technical problems contributing to delays in processing BRP applications? I hope the Home Secretary can answer that question. (900307)

I am pleased to report to the hon. Lady that that part of our Visas and Immigration service is now operating within its service standard, so there is a good service being offered to members of the public, but if she has any specific cases, she can bring them to my attention.

T7. As a local authority closely tied to Heathrow airport, the London Borough of Hillingdon has been doing great work to manage the impact of those currently in the asylum process. That is despite a funding imbalance in national rates, given the local population and the numbers of asylum seekers. Will my right hon. Friend commit to work with me to look at how we can ensure that those authorities, such as Hillingdon Council, linked with major ports of entry are given the resources to cope with such demands? (900312)

My hon. Friend raises an important matter for his constituents. As they live in the local authority beside Heathrow airport, it is true that his constituents bear a particular burden with respect to asylum seekers. We do provide £3,500 per asylum seeker to a local authority to help meet those costs, but a local authority such as Hillingdon does need our support, and I would be delighted to work with him in that regard.

T4.   The Home Secretary will be familiar with the invasive surveillance systems that authoritarian states such as Russia and China impose on their citizens. Is he comfortable with the Policing Minister’s push for similar live facial recognition systems to be used on innocent Brits, at a time when our colleagues in the European Parliament are legislating to abandon this technology? (900309)

We should be clear that retrospective facial recognition puts hundreds, if not thousands, of criminals in prison. For example, it was used to catch a murderer who had killed somebody in a Coventry nightclub who was then identified using an image taken on a mobile phone. That is a murderer who would not be in prison but for the use of retrospective facial recognition.

Live facial recognition has been used extensively by two police forces and experimentally by two others, including by South Wales, which has an excellent Labour police and crime commissioner, Alun Michael, who has led the way in this area in a way that is safe and that respects privacy. Critically, if someone’s face is scanned and they are not on the wanted list, their details are deleted immediately, which I hope provides reassurance on the questions of privacy. Where it has been used, wanted people, including a wanted rapist and a wanted sex offender, have been apprehended who otherwise would have gone free. I would hope that the entire House can agree that catching wanted rapists is something that we can all get behind.

T8. During the recent protests, we have seen politicians hounded out of their offices and even needing a police escort at a train station. What more can we do to ensure that people who make decisions are doing it fairly and not from intimidation? (900313)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is exactly why we are having an emergency meeting of the Defending Democracy Taskforce tomorrow to assess these issues. The incidents that we have seen in this country since 7 October—absolutely hateful incidents—have left some people feeling unable to make the arguments that their constituents would expect them to make because they feel vulnerable or they feel threatened. That is why I have been engaging on a protective security review not just for the Government, but for all Members of this House, and for other elected officials around our country. It is completely wrong for our democracy to be silenced by anyone, and it certainly should not be silenced by cowards.

T6.   My constituent, Dr Lubna Hadoura, has given almost 30 years of service in a specialised role to our NHS. Today, all she can think about is her 84-year-old mum and other members of her family who are stuck in Gaza with no hope of escape. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet urgently with me and Dr Hadoura so that she can set out to him more powerfully than I ever could the urgent humanitarian and moral imperative to get the families of UK citizens out of Gaza before it is too late? (900311)

The Government have a duty to British nationals, which we take very seriously. I recognise the plight of many non-British nationals in Gaza, which is why, in my previous role and now supporting the current Foreign Secretary, we have long pushed for a humanitarian pause. I am pleased that that is in place. We will continue to work with the international community and the countries in the region to ensure that support is given to the people in Gaza who need it and that action is taken to end this conflict, so that Israelis as well as the Palestinian people can live in peace and security.

As we seek to reduce the backlog of asylum claims, there is a temptation to grant more economic migrants the right to remain here. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be no slackening of the rules to root out economic migrants so that they can be returned to where they came from?

The whole point of having border control is that we can ensure that our migration system supports our economy and our social cohesion. Both those things are important. We want to ensure that we are choosing the right people, in the right numbers, at the right pace. I give the House a categoric assurance that that will always underpin our thinking with regard to what future changes we might make to the legal migration processes.

T9. It is not simply the decibel level of fireworks that is causing an issue; police officers in Scotland have been coming under attack, with fireworks used as weapons. The Scottish Parliament has control over the sale of fireworks but not their manufacture, as they are classified as explosives. Will the Minister guarantee that steps will be taken to tighten things up in order to reduce the use of these weapons? Failing that, will he simply devolve the powers so that the Scottish Parliament can act, as it has done on air weapons and drink-driving? (900314)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. The control of products is often a matter for the Department for Business and Trade, but since he has raised it at Home Office questions, I will happily take his point away and look into it carefully.

As was referenced earlier, there is growing concern in the retail trade about increases in shoplifting and, in particular, violence against shop workers. Does the Minister agree that we need custodial sentences for persistent offenders?

Persistent offenders should certainly get sent to prison. There is no question about that. Of course, it is now a statutory aggravating factor if the victim of an assault is a retail worker. We are concerned, though, about retail crime. We do not want to end up in the same place as some American cities, such as San Francisco, with out-of-control looting. We want a zero-tolerance approach. That is why just a few weeks ago we launched with police a retail crime action plan, which will see police always follow up evidence, including CCTV evidence and the use of facial recognition technology; always attend where necessary to investigate, or where someone has been assaulted; and particularly target prolific offenders and criminal gangs.

T10.   Given the revelation in recent weeks that the Home Secretary’s predecessor struck a deal with the Prime Minister before she took up the post, and given that it is well known that the Home Secretary was very much enjoying his role as Foreign Secretary, will he tell the House what deal he might have struck with the Prime Minister before taking on this role? (900315)

A fantastic question, well worth asking. The contract that all Ministers have is with the British people, to work hard on their behalf and to focus relentlessly on their priorities. That is something that every Government Minister takes seriously, and something totally lacking in the narrative coming from the Opposition Benches, including the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The award-winning Cotswold Canals Trust volunteers have had enough of antisocial behaviour such as graffiti, dog mess and worrying drug paraphernalia everywhere. It is ruining their hard work on the canal network and is putting them at risk. Part of our successful approach to trying to tackle it is getting CCTV down the canals. Will my right hon. Friend let us know what is happening with the safer streets funding? Police and crime commissioner Chris Nelson and I have made an application, and we are waiting to hear about it.

A round of safer streets funding was distributed for the current financial year, and we will make an announcement shortly about the following financial year. More money will be available, and it will be up to police and crime commissioners to decide how they spend that money. We will also confirm shortly the roll-out of antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols across the entire country—across all 43 police forces in England and Wales. Where those have been trialled so far—in Essex, Staffordshire, Lancashire and elsewhere—we have seen 30% decreases in ASB. Pretty soon, that will be available in Gloucestershire as well.

Order. I will take points of order after the urgent question, unless they are directly relevant to what has just been said.

It is not directly relevant to a question that has just been answered—well, I am guessing it is not. [Interruption.] Order. We are moving on to a very important matter and I expect the House to be quiet to listen to the urgent question from Mr David Lammy.