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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 743: debated on Monday 15 January 2024

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Asylum Application Backlog

Last year we cleared the equivalent of 90,000 legacy claims and processed a total of more than 112,000 claims—the largest volume in two decades. The total asylum backlog is now at its lowest point since December 2022. The improvement of processes continues, and we will continue to review and improve them to accelerate the decision making from hereon in.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that update, but there are still four hotels in and around Warrington housing asylum seekers. Will he give us an update on the closing of hotels, and will he also tell us what steps he is taking to speed up the processing of refugees when they are in hotels awaiting the outcome of their claims?

My hon. Friend made an important link between the speed of asylum processing and the need for asylum accommodation in various forms, including hotels. We are moving away from using hotels as that type of accommodation, thus reducing the cost to the public purse, and we will maintain recruitment levels and improve processes so that the speed of processing that we are seeing now can be continued. Although I cannot make commitments about the specific hotels in my hon. Friend’s constituency, he should rest assured that we are seeking to drive down the number of hotels on which we rely.

My constituent arrived in the UK 15 months ago and was interviewed, but has been waiting for more than a year to receive a final response. He is not alone: according to the Refugee Council, 33,085 asylum cases have been lodged in the last six months alone, putting ever more strain on a broken system. The Home Secretary said that the legacy backlog was going down, but what about those more recent cases? What is being done to deal with them?

The improved processes and the increased number of Home Office officials working on this issue mean that not only the legacy cases but the current ones will be dealt with more quickly, which will reduce the need for asylum accommodation of all types. I cannot comment on individual cases because the circumstances are different in each one, but the hon. Lady should rest assured that the lessons we have learned about the increased speed of processing will benefit those who are already in the system. Of course, we are also determined to drive down the number of people who come here in the first place, reducing the pressure on our asylum processing system in doing so.

The shambolic incompetence of this Government across every aspect of its disgraceful mismanagement of our country’s asylum system knows no bounds, but today I will highlight a particularly egregious example. We already knew that the number of removals of asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected had collapsed by 50% since Labour left office in 2010, but over the weekend it emerged that the Home Office had lost contact with an astonishing 85% of the 5,000 people who have been identified for removal to Rwanda. Where on earth are those 4,250 asylum seekers who have gone missing?

Will the Home Secretary drop all the smoke and mirrors and acknowledge that the Rwanda plan is just an extortionately expensive and unworkable distraction? When will he adopt Labour’s plan to recruit 1,000 additional immigration enforcement officers to a new returns unit, so that we can have a system that is based on common sense—

No, it is not “thank you”. I have to get a lot of people in and this is totally unfair. The question was very, very long, and I was coughing to get the hon. Gentleman to stop, not to continue. That is the signal we need to understand. If the hon. Gentleman does not want a particular Back Bencher to get in, I ask him please to point them out, because this is giving me that problem.

The mask has slipped. The Labour party has said that even if the Rwanda scheme were to be successful, it would not keep it. That shows what Labour Members really think about this. They have no plan, they have no commitment, and they have even said that if something was working they would scrap it. [Interruption.]


Apologies for my hesitation, Mr Speaker. I was so busy listening to the heckling opposite that it was difficult to focus on what was going on.

This question is about something of which we should be very proud. The fact is that fraud ruins lives, but this Government have managed to get it down by 13% year on year, online and offline. It is extremely important that we continue with that ambitious agenda and ensure that we continue to cut fraud so that we can bring it down completely by the end of the Parliament.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the key to reducing levels of fraud is to help people to understand what might be a fraud so that they are not taken in by it? Is there more that we can do to help people to spot the signs and not become a victim in the first place?

The question about what is a fraud is becoming all too prevalent. We have heard of many different kinds of fraud coming up in many different areas, which is why in a few weeks’ time we will, I hope, launch a new comms campaign about it. The truth is that fraud affects so many people in so many ways, and we are trying to make sure that people know what is going on so they can claim the help and support that they need, to make sure that we defeat this pernicious evil.

We simply do not have the resources or expertise to tackle fraud. I have a constituent who is still waiting for a charging decision five years after being the victim of fraud. Her retirement has been ruined waiting for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to make the charging decision. Durham constabulary has a single forensic account. Does the Minister believe, as I do, that a lack of specialist resources is leading to unacceptable delays in justice?

I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and that is exactly why this Government have introduced a new national fraud squad—which is now almost fully recruited, at 400—and increased the funding available to forces to fight fraud. Some forces are doing exceptionally well at this already. Avon is doing extremely well and the City of London police is doing exceptionally well in leading on fraud nationally.

Legal Migration Rules

The Home Office engages with the devolved nations through the inter-ministerial group and recognises that each of the nations of the UK has varying immigration needs, reflected in the varied shortage occupation lists for each nation. Immigration will, however, remain reserved. It is not possible to operate distinct systems without effectively creating an internal UK migration border system.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics have revealed that the changes to the minimum income threshold for family and skilled workers disproportionately impact Scotland. Median earnings on the west coast of Scotland are £24,700 a year, which is far short even of the climbdown figure of £29,000. Did the Home Secretary even consider that this policy would effectively cut off migration to parts of Scotland that need and would benefit from inward migration?

The Government’s position is clear: the changes that we are introducing are the right thing. The numbers of dependents we are seeing coming is disproportionate. There will be an opportunity, through the review of the composition of the immigration salary list in the second phase, and through the call for evidence, for exactly those debates to be had and for those views to be made known.

The Home Office’s knee-jerk policy to raise the threshold and its sudden partial reverse ferret to bring it slightly back down again caused a huge amount of distress to people up and down these islands who now do not know what the future holds for them and their families. What equality impact assessment has been carried out on the policy which, as well as affecting Scotland, will disproportionately affect women?

When he announced the changes, the Home Secretary made a commitment to lay the information on the projected volumes in the House Library. It seems that the hon. Lady is criticising the Government for not taking the steps that we have taken to say clearly that the changes will not be applied retrospectively. We think that that is the right thing to do and that it has provided reassurance to people. Ultimately, we need to get net migration under control and we think it is a pragmatic and sensible package to take forward.

That does not answer the question that I put to the Minister at all. What equality impact assessment has been carried out on this policy? What recognition of wage levels in Scotland has there been in relation to the policy? He cannot tell me.

One of my constituents tells me that they are worried about their spouse, who works as a legal administrator, coming over from Australia. Also, a man is worried about his nephew and partner who will never be able to return from Canada if they want to come back to live in Scotland, and there are many more who are guilty only of falling in love with somebody of what the Government consider to be the wrong nationality. Will the Minister apologise to them for the chaos that these policies have caused?

The position is as I have set out. We think the number of people coming to the country in this way is not sustainable and that we are taking forward a pragmatic, balanced package. As I have said, the measures will not be applied retrospectively, so they will not affect existing applications that have been lodged.

Reported Thefts

4. What the average length of time was between (a) thefts being reported and (b) first contact with the police in the last 12 months. (900916)

The Government take domestic burglary very seriously, which is why, just over a year ago, we obtained a commitment from the police to attend every residential burglary. That is delivering results and, according to the crime survey, residential burglary has fallen by 8% year on year.

I thank the Minister for his response. In 2022, the cost of rural theft in the south-west rose by 16.6% from the year before. Has the Minister made an assessment of the success of the new national rural crime unit in improving police contacts with victims of rural theft?

I agree that combating rural crime is extremely important, and the national rural crime unit is designed to do exactly that. We have also legislated, of course, and we will implement that legislation to ensure that things like all-terrain vehicles and agricultural equipment have to be marked or fitted with an immobiliser. Overall domestic burglary has fallen by 57% since 2010.

Ten-year Drugs Plan

5. What progress his Department has made on implementing the Government’s 10-year drugs plan “From harm to hope”, published on 6 December 2021. (900917)

The commitments in the drugs strategy are being delivered, including investing more than £300 million in additional treatment capacity to create over 50,000 extra treatment places. We are also enforcing hard, such as by closing down more than 2,000 county lines since 2019.

Local police in and around Weston-super-Mare have had notable successes in disrupting drug dealing and supply, but new dealers quickly take the place of the old ones. The quantity of drugs and the number of addicts are not declining. Does the Minister accept that although enforcement and education are vital, they are not enough to solve this problem on their own, and that the underlying legal frameworks we use to control these dangerous chemicals have to be addressed, too?

Enforcement is important. Besides closing down those 2,000 county lines, Border Force seized about 19 tonnes of cocaine in the year ending March 2022—the largest amount seized in a single year on record. I have already mentioned treatment. The most important thing is to get people out of their addiction entirely, which is why we are investing so much extra money in treatment.

There are no plans to change the legal framework. Drugs are illegal for a reason. They are highly addictive and harmful, and the out-of-control public drug consumption in those jurisdictions that have liberalised significantly, such as California, San Francisco and so on, is not something we want to see in this country.

We are seeing escalating consumption and movement of drugs in Northern Ireland, and the drugs are coming from England and the Republic of Ireland. What discussions will the Minister have with the Republic of Ireland to ensure that we stop drugs crossing the border? We want to stop them coming from England, too.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Of course, one feature of the island of Ireland is that there is essentially no border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and he has alluded to the various challenges that poses. I would be happy to take up that issue and to see what more we can do to disrupt the supply of drugs north-south and east-west. I thank him for raising the issue.

Asylum Seekers: Hotels

We are making significant progress on closing hotels, with 50 due to be closed by the end of January and more in the coming months. We are also working to move asylum seekers into alternative, cheaper accommodation and have successfully cleared the legacy backlog by deciding more than 112,000 cases, while maintaining the integrity of the system.

Last year, after the police, the fire service and I raised concerns, the Home Office closed the OYO hotel in Earl Shilton. However, Leicestershire still has asylum hotels open, including just over the constituency border in Appleby Magna, for example, and my constituents are concerned. Will the Minister set out a timeline for when the hotels may close or, more likely, will he set out how the least suitable hotels will be closed first so that, as the backlog is dealt with, the closing of hotels falls in line, too?

As I set out, we are making good progress. I hear calls from colleagues from throughout the House for closures in their constituencies. We need to stick the course on delivering that, taking into account a number of factors including the ease of exit, the speed of exit, the fact that notice periods come into play and, crucially, value for money, which the taxpayer would rightly expect.

In welcoming my hon. Friend to his new position, may I urge him finally to make good on his predecessor’s promise to close the temporary accommodation centres in my constituency and restore the two hotels back to their intended purpose? Will he also work with his colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that the “local links” rule relating to social housing is amended to prevent Erewash from being disproportionately burdened by new applications once residents are awarded asylum?

I hear my hon. Friend’s calls for the specific hotels in her constituency to be closed. She can be reassured that we will continue to work closely on this issue with colleagues from across Government to get it right and make sure that we can exit hotels as quickly as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answers. As he knows, I received official notification today that Newton Park hotel, which was a four-star hotel in my constituency before it was taken over entirely for use by asylum seekers, is to have the contract ended at the end of February. That is an enormous relief to those in those in the small village there and to those in other villages that the important V3 bus route goes through. I thank him for keeping to the word of his predecessor that the hotel use for asylum seekers would end in the second tranche of closures.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the representations she made on this issue. The situation in her constituency demonstrates that the Government’s plan is working and we are seeing hotel exits happen. That is a direct consequence of getting on and making decisions, bringing forward alternative accommodation and also, crucially, reducing in-flow into the system in the first place.

I welcome the progress that has been made on tackling illegal small boat crossings, which has meant it has been possible to end the use of the North Stafford hotel in Stoke-on-Trent. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only through the most unequivocable legislation on Rwanda that we can deliver proper deterrence that will mean that numbers will come down further?

The point that my hon. Friend makes gets to the nub of the issue. One of the most important factors in sustaining the progress we have made is reducing the number of in-flows into the UK, particularly via small boat crossings of the channel. That is why my message to the House is clear: if Members want to see hotels close and the progress sustained, they need to be in the Lobby to support the Bill this week.

My constituents and I were delighted at the end of last year to see the end of the Ibis hotel in Bramley being used to house illegal immigrants and its return to normal service. Will the Minister reassure me that any forthcoming immigration legislation passed in this House will make sure that this situation will never happen again, by banning the use of hotels outright and making sure that illegal immigrants are sent to Rwanda for processing?

As I have said, the key principle behind the Bill is to help us to bring to an end the egregious crossings of the channel organised by evil criminal gangs. It will help us to ensure that there is greater control of our borders and that there are not these in-flows into the system, which have undoubtedly had the consequence of our needing to respond to that challenge through the opening of hotels. That is precisely what we are trying to put a stop to.

Last week, The Times reported that there are 10,000 hotel beds going unused, at a cost of £1.5 million a day—that is in addition to the 3,500 buffer of empty beds held as a contingency in case of Manston being overwhelmed. Are those figures actually correct?

The right hon. Lady will recognise that it is of course important for there to be a buffer, to make sure that operationally we have the bed spaces required in a contingency situation to be able to respond to any surges and particular challenges. That is a difficult area but one that we are looking at carefully. Within the hotel estate, we are of course maximising the use of bed spaces wherever possible, which again helps us to get on and close the hotels, in a way that I think she would like to see.

The downside of the volume of asylum applications being granted is the pressure that that is putting on the local authority homeless sections. Will the Minister have another look at the time given to asylum seekers from the date on which their application is accepted to the date on which they have to move out of Home Office accommodation? Will he consider the issue of 28 days versus 56 days, which is the recognised limit under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017? Otherwise, all we are going to do is transfer people from Home Office-funded hotels to local authority-funded ones, with all the extra pressure of financial problems that that creates for local authorities.

On the dates, we are working with local authorities to give them as early visibility as possible about the anticipated number of people with decisions that have been granted that they should expect to see. That helps to forward-plan and we are mindful of those points. As things stand, there is no intention to change that 28-day period. Clearly, planning and working with local authorities is critical, but in many cases people have more than 28 days within which to vacate.

Oldham has a proud history of supporting the persecuted. As of March last year, our town is home to 910 asylum seekers, 145 of whom are in hotel accommodation, but there the housing crisis meets the homelessness crisis: 1,000 people in temporary accommodation, including 500 children. Is it not time that the Government reviewed the dispersal policy, to ensure that every part of England plays its fair share? I gently point out that Braintree is home to just two asylum seekers, as opposed to Oldham’s 910.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I and my officials are carefully considering what more can be done to ensure that there is equitability in the approach to dispersal. That is critical, and we need to work carefully through some of the pressures and challenges that these issues present, but I gently say to those on the Opposition Benches that a key part of the response is to get the flows into the system down, and they do not have a credible plan for doing that.

There are currently 56,000 asylum seekers in hotels. The Prime Minister promised to close those hotels some time last year, but since then the figures have gone up by 10,000. Can the Minister confirm that that figure is correct?

I am clear in my mind that the figure that the hon. Gentleman has cited, and that the shadow Home Secretary used last week, does not represent the picture as it stands today. They will recognise that there is periodic reporting on statistical releases, but the figures they cite are not representative of the position on the ground today.

Reducing Migration

On 4 December, I announced a new package of measures to further reduce legal net migration, including limitations on family dependants being brought in by workers and students, creating a salary threshold and raising the minimum income requirement progressively over the next few years.

My right hon. Friend will know that the net migration figure of over 700,000 is completely unsustainable. Were it to continue, that would represent the creation of 10 new parliamentary constituencies each year. What co-operation does his Department have with the public services that have to meet the demands from the newcomers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must be conscious of the impact of the level of net migration on local populations and local authorities. We recognise that the figure is too high and we are taking action to bring it down. We work closely with other Government Departments to deliver on that, but while Opposition Front Benchers criticise the headline figures, they also oppose every single step we take to bring that figure down.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border for all their work towards delivering on our manifesto commitment to reduce net migration. My constituents are now looking for the results of all their hard work. Will the Home Secretary outline how his new legal migration package will make the most of our post-Brexit points-based immigration system?

This country has always had a global outlook: the ethnic composition of the Government at the most senior levels is a direct reflection of our global connectivity and those human bridges across the world. We want to ensure this country is able to benefit from the expertise, knowledge and work of the brightest and best from around the whole world in a manner that is controlled, fair, predictable and well enforced.

It is good that the Government want to ensure that the brightest and best can continue to come to the UK to study, but does my right hon. Friend recognise that the changes to the family dependant rules for students risk causing enormous damage to some of our elite business schools, which compete in the global marketplace for experienced, outstanding professionals? What work is he doing with the sector to try to overcome some of those challenges?

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that we are in a globally competitive environment when it comes to this country’s quality higher education postgraduate offer. I have no doubt that we are still highly competitive. We will continue to work with the university sector on this and ensure that the people we bring to the UK are here to study and add value, and that no institution in our higher education sector mistakes its role—they are educators, not a back-door visa system.

I beg the Home Secretary to spread those more enlightened views to some of his colleagues. Migration should not be a dirty word. I am the son of a migrant. I migrated myself to the United States at one stage. My DNA tells me that I am 34% Irish and 32% Swedish. Can every Member of this Parliament have their DNA published so that we can bring some sense to this discussion about migration?

I am not sure that the Government are able to compel such widespread disclosure—perhaps the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority might have a view on such things. Both sides of my family are of immigrant stock: my mother came to the UK in the 1960s, and my father’s family in 1066. This country has benefited from controlled immigration in a fair system, where people who play by the rules are rewarded and we say no to those who refuse to play by the rules.

I am a legal migrant, too. Bath has a vibrant hospitality industry that caters for local people and tourists from all over the world, but many of our hotels, restaurants, bars and pubs are already struggling to find enough staff or are under threat of reduced working hours and closure. How will the Home Secretary ensure that the proposed new salary thresholds and measures to reduce legal migration do not worsen those staff shortages?

We liaise very closely with other Government Departments to ensure that our system, which is transparent and fair, also supports the British economy. We work particularly closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that those who have talent and ambition but who, for whatever reason, are currently unable to fully engage in the job market are enabled to do so. I myself have a background in the hospitality industry, and we want that industry to continue to thrive. It is not the case that we should automatically rely on overseas labour for that; we can have home-grown talent as well.

The Home Secretary talked about people coming to UK universities to study. Many people also come to our universities to carry out ground-breaking and economically important research, and they are worried about the rise in the minimum income thresholds, because that means they will be unable to bring their families with them. What assessment has he made of the impact of the new changes on our universities’ important research work?

We recognise the contribution of the international pool of talent. Indeed, when I was Foreign Secretary I signed up to a deal with India for talented postgraduates to exchange experience in our respective countries. We will always look to support the genuine draw on talent, but we will also ensure that the higher education system is not used as a back-door means of immigration. The system is about research and education, not a back-door means of getting permanent residence in this country.

Neighbourhood Policing

8. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of neighbourhood policing levels. (900920)

Giving the police the resources they need to police local communities and fight crime remains a Government priority. We have delivered on our commitment to recruit 20,000 additional police officers; indeed, we have surpassed that. Decisions about how they are deployed are, of course, a matter for discussion between chief constables, police and crime commissioners, and mayors, who are responsible for their local communities.

The legacy of Government cuts has left police forces across England and Wales with a £3.2 billion cash shortfall, and 6,000 officers have now been taken away from frontline policing duties in order to fill the roles of former police staff. Can the Home Secretary start to acknowledge the effect of Tory cuts? How will he rectify that and get more frontline police back into our neighbourhoods across the United Kingdom?

As I said, decisions on how a police force balances its important back-office roles and frontline policing roles are rightly decisions for the chief constable. We have given additional resource, and we have delivered on our commitment to have more police officers. Of course we are looking at police funding formulas to ensure that they remain well resourced, but there are more than 20,000—in fact, 20,947—additional police officers in England and Wales. That will ensure that there are more police on the frontline.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said, to this day we are feeling the devastating impact of the Tories’ decision to cut 20,000 police officers. Ministers such as the Home Secretary seem to expect credit for desperately trying to reverse it, but the National Police Chiefs’ Council was right that the efforts at reversal have moored 6,000 warranted officers in roles traditionally filled by civilians. Again, we have heard from the Home Secretary that we have never had it so good, but there are still 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police. Why will the Government not match our commitment to get 13,000 more police officers and police community support officers out on the beat?

Unless Labour has a plan for paying for those figures, it is just empty rhetoric. The simple truth is that there are record numbers of officers in police forces across the country, including Essex Police, which I visited this morning—it has never had more police officers than it has currently. It is right that chief constables decide how to deploy those police officers. Again, unless we hear a plan to pay for those additional officers, I will not trust Labour’s figures.

Visa Income Thresholds: Universities

9. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of proposed changes to visa income thresholds on the university sector. (900921)

We have been mindful of the need to balance the impacts on individual sectors with economic growth, and the needs of the labour market with the need to reduce levels of immigration. As part of our policy development, we undertook analytical work across Government that supports our decisions. A regulatory impact assessment will be developed in due course.

The director of Universities Scotland, Alastair Sim, has expressed concern that changes to the Government’s visa income threshold could affect universities’ ability to attract global talent. International students and academics make a contribution in excess of £5 billion annually to the Scottish economy. If the Government recognise the contribution of international students and academics, as they say they do, why are they introducing a policy that threatens to prevent future cohorts of them from making a similar contribution?

Individuals will still be able to make a valid contribution in the years ahead, but in a sustainable and managed way. There are no immediate plans to introduce further exemptions to the increased salary threshold, but the salary discounts remain in place. We will continue to engage as the measures are introduced. There are also opportunities domestically for recruitment. At every opportunity, we should be trying to support domestic recruitment wherever we can.

Police Funding Formula

Work to update the funding formula is continuing, and I will update the House as soon as I can. The House should be aware that next year, 2024-25, police and crime commissioners funding frontline police will see their budgets increase by up to £922 million, which is an increase of about 6%.

There is cross-party agreement that the current funding formula is unfair for police in Bedfordshire, with the Conservatives’ own PCC acknowledging that there is simply no meat left on the bone for local police. My constituents are fed up with being told that they have never had it so good, or being fobbed off with one-off grants. Will the Minister commit to a date to finally deliver a fair funding formula for my communities?

What I will commit to, as far as the people of Bedfordshire are concerned, is an increase in funding of £10.2 million for next year, 2024-25. That is an extra 6.5% compared with this year. They will also have 1,455 police officers. That is about 200 more than Bedfordshire’s police force has ever had at any time in its history.

It is not unusual to hear from two Bedfordshire MPs when it comes to the police funding formula, because this goes all the way back to the last Labour Government, but there is a cross-party view in Bedfordshire that our police force is underfunded. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet all Bedfordshire MPs so that we can press the case for increases in funding for Bedfordshire Police?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these issues. As I say, Bedfordshire Police will receive an extra £10.2 million next year—an increase of about 6.5%—which I am sure will be welcome up and down the county, but I am of course happy to meet my hon. Friend whenever he would like.

Police forces are not being listened to when they raise serious concerns about the funding formula and how it limits their ability to tackle town centre crime. The British Retail Consortium reports that more than 850 acts of violence or abuse against shop workers happen every single day. Everyone has a right to feel safe at work, so when will the Home Secretary accept that retail crime is out of control and accept Labour’s plan to introduce a new law to protect retail workers from violence and actually stand up for shop workers?

Theft offences are down by 47% since 2010, of course—those are the crime survey figures—but we have recently launched a retail crime action plan, where police are committing to prioritising attendance at incidents of retail crime and always following reasonable lines of inquiry in relation to shoplifting, assaults against shop workers and other forms of offending. In addition, we legislated in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022—

Neighbourhood Crime

This Government recognise the impact of neighbourhood crime. It is the crime that most affects people’s confidence—the confidence of individuals, businesses and communities. The strategic response to this is evidence-based and targeted, and getting policing right in this area is incredibly important for maintaining community confidence.

I have seen for myself how successful the Government’s safer streets fund was in Barnstaple, and I am delighted that it will be extended into Ilfracombe this year. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that councils have the funding to help support those schemes?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that point. I am proud of the fact that, since 2010, neighbourhood crime is down by 51% because of the kind of interventions that she highlighted. I reassure her that we will continue to look at what works, to fund and support, and to make every effort to drive down neighbourhood crime even further.

Police numbers across Devon and Cornwall are at record levels and deserve our praise. In a recent survey, my constituents in East Devon said that tackling neighbourhood crime is an absolute priority, as ranging from burglaries to thefts from vehicles. Will my right hon. Friend outline what progress this Conservative Government have made on cracking down on neighbourhood crime?

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend’s local community is feeling the positive impact of the decisions we have made. Since coming into Government, we have seen serious violence reduced by 26%, and neighbourhood crime down by 27% since the start of this Parliament. We have seen a 36% reduction in domestic burglary, an 18% reduction in vehicle-related theft and a 61% decrease in robbery. We have reduced homicide by 15%, have taken action on drugs and are committed to—

Order. Secretary of State—I said the same to the Minister—please, you were very slow at the beginning; you will not be slow at the end, I am sure.

On Friday I visited five Co-op stores and every one of them had daily experience of theft, with one losing £35,000-worth of goods over six months and staff experiencing assaults. In light of Labour’s pledge to introduce 13,000 more community police and a law on retail crime, what is the Secretary of State really doing? Clearly his plan is not working.

We have a retail crime action plan. We have ensured that assaults against shop workers is an aggravating factor and we have made it clear to police forces across the country that we expect them to take action on neighbourhood crime like that and to pursue every reasonable line of inquiry. We are determined to drive down retail crime.

Safer Streets Fund

17. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the safer streets fund on the safety of women and girls. (900929)

The objective of the safer streets fund and the safety of women at night fund is to enhance public safety in a direct and targeted way, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Since 2020 the Government have invested £150 million across the two funds and the evaluation of round 1 of the safer streets fund, published in January last year, showed that the investment was boosting trust in the police and making communities feel safer.

Does the Minister justify the Government cut of 38% of the funding for projects to reduce violence against women and girls in Merseyside? They have cut £400,000, and one project will have to cease.

What I can tell the hon. Lady is that under the safer streets fund, £3.9 million has been allocated to Merseyside, including for a project in St Helens town centre. Let me remind her very gently of what that is funding. It has gone towards lighting, signage and improvement to taxi ranks, and one of the most radical measures of all is that it provides women with a free taxi service home, where the safer streets fund will reimburse the taxi driver the money they would otherwise have received, so that a woman does not have to find herself standing at a windy bus stop or walking home.

We welcome the safer streets fund, which will go some way to supporting the night-time economy that has been badly hit over 14 years. The Government’s efforts to tackle spiking have been completely undermined by the Home Secretary. Spiking is a serious and devastating offence. Why did the Home Secretary think it was appropriate to joke about spiking his own wife, and can he confirm exactly how many drops of Rohypnol he considers to be illegal?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think it has been widely reported that the Home Secretary was making a joke about not being good enough for his wife. The point is that we are the first Government who have done something about spiking—it is not a new offence, and the measures to change the statutory provisions in the Offences against the Person Act 1861 could have been taken by the last Labour Government. The reason we have sought to clarify the matter in law is that we do not think that enough victims are coming forward, and the reason there are not enough prosecutions is the time lag in getting effective toxicology reports. That is why we are investing so much money in rapid drinks testing kits, so that hopefully we will be able to get the test done on site on the night, and get more of those offenders behind bars.

Topical Questions

This year, the Home Office will continue to build on our progress on the public priorities: a 36% fall in small boat crossings last year, 86 arrests of small boat pilots, 246 arrests of people smugglers, the biggest-ever international operation resulting in 136 boat seizures and 45 outboard motors being seized, the illegal migration package announced, more than 2,000 county lines drugs lines smashed and the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill to give police leaders more powers. We are relentlessly focused on delivering community safety on behalf of the British people.

Now that we have the Home Secretary here to answer for himself, can he tell us whether he is aware that the police are receiving more than 560 reports of spiking every month, and in December the Home Office said that the reason the crime is so prevalent is that it is seen as funny and a joke? How can we have any confidence in the Home Secretary to deliver action on spiking when he thinks it is a joke?

I am the Home Secretary who has actually introduced action on this. In my first week in the job, I visited Holborn police station to see the work of the Metropolitan police in tackling violence against women and girls. I made it clear to the Home Office that my priority was the protection of women and girls. I am taking action on this issue, and I am absolutely determined to continue doing so.

T3. I am sure the Home Secretary would agree that anti-extremism training in Departments is extremely important. What more can the Government do to ensure that it is training to tackle extremism, rather than anti-Government and party bias training? (900941)

My hon. Friend will have seen recently a pretty extraordinary report on allegations about extremism and the failure to train properly, and what is going on in universities around the United Kingdom. In one recent problematic case, it was said that it is very hard to define what a terrorist is. We know what a terrorist is, the law knows what a terrorist is and this Government know what a terrorist is, and that is exactly why we have just proscribed Hizb ut-Tahrir.

We welcome the proscription of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Five more lives were tragically lost in the channel this weekend. As criminal gangs profit from those dangerous boat crossings, it shows how vital it is to stop them, but we need the Home Office to have a grip. The Home Secretary gave no answer earlier on the 4,000 people he has lost from the Rwanda list. Can he tell us if he has also lost the 35,000 people he has removed from the asylum backlog? How many of them are still in the country?

I join the right hon. Lady in expressing sadness and condolences for those who lost their lives in the channel. That reinforces the importance of breaking the people-smuggling gangs. The fact is that we are driving down the numbers of people in the backlog: we are processing applications more quickly and ensuring that decisions are made so that those who should not be in this country can be removed either to their own country or a safe third country. That is why the Rwanda Bill is so important, and why we will continue working on these issues.

Returns have dropped 50% since the last Labour Government. The Home Secretary is still not telling us where those missing people are. He appears to have lost thousands of people who may have no right to be in the country, and lost any grip at all. In the ongoing Tory asylum chaos, we have Cabinet Ministers, countless ex-Ministers and the deputy Tory chair all saying that they will oppose the Home Secretary’s policy this week—a policy that we know he and the Prime Minister do not even believe in. If the deputy Tory chair this week votes against the Home Secretary’s policy, will he be sacked, or is the Prime Minister so weak that he has lost control of asylum, lost control of our borders, and lost control of his own party, too?

Conservative Members of Parliament are absolutely united in our desire to get a grip of this issue. I am not the person who has held up a sign saying, “Refugees welcome”; I am not the person whose colleagues oppose each and every rhetorical flourish. Until the Labour party comes up with a credible plan, I will not take its criticism any more seriously than it deserves.

T4. The British people welcome people who come to this country to work and contribute to our economy. But those who abuse our hospitality, commit violent offences and are then sent to prison need to be deported at the end of their sentences. Will my right hon. and learned Friend update the House on how many were deported last year, and what action he will take to ensure that foreign nationals who are violent offenders are automatically deported when they leave prison? (900942)

We are clear that foreign criminals should be deported wherever possible, and we will continue to do so, in stark contrast to the calls to stop the deportation of foreign national criminals from the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour party. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that foreign national offender returns have increased by 19% in the last 12 months.

T2. My constituents often have to wait months to elicit a response for their asylum or Home Office queries. Given the Conservative Government’s persistent failure to effectively manage the asylum system, resulting in a backlog of almost 100,000 cases and the excessive use of expensive hotels, does the Home Secretary not feel that now is the time to adopt Labour’s comprehensive plan, which would end the use of expensive hotels within 12 months and significantly reduce the backlog? (900940)

I think the hon. Gentleman means Labour’s non-existent plan. The fact is that last year, we made 112,000 initial decisions; if the hon. Gentleman has specific cases that he wishes to raise with me as the Minister, I am very happy to have a look at those, but the productivity improvements that we saw last year carry through a lot of learning as we now get on and deal with the backlog. A lot of positive work has gone on, and he should recognise that point.

T7. Humber-side police now has over 800 more officers than in 2010, which obviously enables it to provide a better service to my constituents. Crucially, it also has top-class leadership, currently provided by Jonathan Evison, the police commissioner, and until recently by Lee Freeman, the former chief constable—I am sure his successor will also provide that leadership. Does the Minister agree that top-class leadership is important, and what is he doing to ensure improvements are made to the present leadership training scheme? (900945)

I join my hon. Friend in commending Humberside police force on the progress it has made, particularly under recent chief constable Lee Freeman. In terms of improving leadership, of course, Lee Freeman is now one of His Majesty’s inspectors, and he can apply what he learned and put into practice in Humberside across the whole country.

T5. On 17 October, the Government pledged in the House to make changes to the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme pathways 1 and 3. When can the House expect an update and a plan? (900943)

Of course, we are continuing to work very collaboratively across Government on the response to the situation in Afghanistan, fulfilling the commitments we made to provide that sanctuary in the way that we all want to see. We will say more about those efforts as soon as we are able.

T8. We heard earlier about the effectiveness of the safer streets fund. Falmouth in my constituency, where most of the students live, recently received £67,000; in addition, our brilliant police and crime commissioner Alison Hernandez has been working with Dawn Dines, who helped to successfully change the law on spiking. Can my hon. Friend demonstrate to my Truro and Falmouth constituents how those positive changes will improve conviction rates in the Devon and Cornwall area? (900947)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and congratulate her police and crime commissioner on the excellent work she is doing. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have amended the Offences against the Person Act 1861 so that the offence of spiking is captured specifically and comprehensively in law, in part because we want more victims to come forward, but we are told time and again by the police that the most significant barrier to conviction is the length of time between the offence taking place and a toxicology report being received. We are therefore investing in rapid drink testing research, and we hope to bring testing capacity on site.

UKHospitality estimates that 95% of skilled worker visas that were gained last year would be lost under the new regulations. That is a vital sector for my local economy in Edinburgh and for Scotland, so when will the Government recognise that the revision to the salary level was not sufficient and bring it down to a reasonable level?

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s interpretation of the situation. We should be working in a collaborative cross-Government way, particularly to support domestic employment wherever possible. Comprehensive steps are being taken through the back to work plan to help deliver on that, and there are many people here on other routes who are perfectly able to work and, with the right support, would be doing so. That is precisely where we are going to focus our efforts.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to provide advice to police forces across the country to help them support communities during the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas?

My hon. Friend is right to ask that question, because sadly, we have seen an absolutely vile upsurge in antisemitism on our streets. We have seen people who claim to be speaking out for equality and justice actually defending people who take slaves, who violate women’s and girls’ rights, and who here in our own country make the Jewish community feel uncomfortable. That is exactly why this Government have committed £18 million to the Community Security Trust. Very sadly, we have also had to commit £7 million to academic security, because there has also been a massive increase in antisemitism in universities. We are combating all of that.

How many times must a demonstration in the same cause be repeated, week in and week out, before the well-funded organisers become liable to pay for at least part of the policing costs?

Of course, we recognise that there is legitimacy to public protests. We also recognise that the unprecedented and unwarranted pressure that this is putting on policing around the country is having an impact on communities. My view is that the organisers have made their point, and repeating it does not strengthen their argument. Unfortunately, we are also seeing some deeply distasteful people weaving themselves in among those protesters, who are protesting on issues that they feel passionately about, but whose good will is being abused by others.

Will the Home Secretary urgently meet his hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and me to speak about why it is that, although the whole House passed the Public Order Act 2023 with an amendment to ensure safe access zones for women using abortion clinics, this is now subject to a consultation that would gut the legislation? Can he meet us urgently? The consultation is due to end on 22 January, and it would not actually do what all MPs in this House voted for.

If the hon. Lady writes to me on this issue, I will endeavour to find out the details of the point she has made.

Last week, the Home Secretary produced a report on safe and legal routes to comply with section 61 of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 and the amendment I tabled last year. It is very long and generous on the existing legal routes, but can he tell me how my 16-year-old orphan from an east African country with links to the UK, who is a genuine asylum seeker, will be helped to come legally and safely to the UK by what the Government have published so far?

My hon. Friend is a very passionate advocate on this issue, and we had a conversation last week about this very point. The fact is that, since 2015, we have welcomed over half a million people through our safe and legal routes. We are introducing the cap precisely because we want to see that generosity extended in the years ahead, but the pressures of illegal migration in particular make that very challenging and difficult. This is precisely the sort of issue I want to study with him as we move forward with the cap, to make sure that we continue to help the most vulnerable people from around the world, working particularly with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others.