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House of Commons

Monday 5 February 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Laboratory Employees (Intimidation)

1. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): What measures he is taking to protect the employees of laboratories conducting medical research involving animals from intimidation by militant animal rights activists. [147087]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): As I told the House last week during the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, we intend to give the police additional powers to ensure that businesses and individuals can go about their lawful business without fear of violence or intimidation. The measures will allow the police to take action to prevent extremists from protesting outside people's homes and will strengthen the law against the sending of malicious communications.

In addition, we are consulting closely with the police service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to achieve an effective and consistent approach to the enforcement of the law in this area.

Dr. Iddon: The Government have already done a great deal to cut out unnecessary animal testing, but is my right hon. Friend aware that if the current harassment of workers continues, animal testing will be driven abroad, where regulations are not as stringent as those in this country? That will not only damage a world-class pharmaceutical industry and defeat one of the prime objectives of the campaigners but will result in a loss of jobs.

Mr. Straw: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. So-called animal rights protesters are at best misguided, and, frankly, many of them are evil, both in their intention and their actions. We need to recognise that many medical advances are based on necessary animal testing.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Is the Home Secretary aware that there is a farm in Hall Cross in my constituency which breeds guinea pigs and other animals for testing, specifically to find cures for diseases and to create vaccines and so forth, and that its staff and owners have been intimidated? Does the right hon. Gentleman not

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think that such animal fascism practised by human beings is totally wrong? The irony is that British pharmaceutical companies will simply import guinea pigs and mice from abroad, where there are not regular inspections of the kind that the Home Office conducts here.

Mr. Straw: I do not know that particular farm, but I have great personal knowledge of a similar farm in west Oxfordshire, where I know the farmer and his wife. That farmer was subject to the most appalling intimidation by so-called animal rights protesters. In the end, he decided to close his cattery, with exactly the consequence, I imagine, that the hon. Gentleman has described; I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I concur entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about the importance of the work. One of the difficulties is the lack of public understanding of some of the important issues surrounding the processes used by pharmaceutical companies in developing drugs that are essential to our lives. Will my right hon. Friend consider liaising, through the Department of Health, with the chief medical officer to try to introduce into the public domain a simple guide explaining why animal testing is essential? Some of the activists are winning the argument unnecessarily, and I am sure it is possible to persuade the public otherwise.

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall certainly take the matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health; but British pharmaceutical companies could do more together, through their association, to publicise all the drugs and changes in medical and surgical procedures which have been dependent on animal experimentation, and I urge them to do so.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I endorse the Home Secretary's approach. Does he agree, however, that one of the underlying problems that allows such terrorism to take place is the public availability of the home addresses of directors and ordinary shareholders of public companies? I invite him to take the lead in trying to achieve joined-up government on this matter because I was advised by one of his ministerial colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry on 8 January that that Department is unlikely to consider introducing legislation to change the requirements to disclose home addresses until late in 2002 at the earliest. Does the Home Secretary agree that the terrorism and intimidation occurring at people's homes at the moment is utterly intolerable in a liberal or civilised society? I urge him to contact his ministerial colleagues to see whether other Departments can follow the lead that he is taking in Whitehall.

Mr. Straw: I agree that this problem is also faced by the directors and shareholders of the companies. My colleague at the Department of Trade and Industry, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, was right to say that the DTI is unlikely to introduce legislation until 2002. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are actively considering whether there is a vehicle in this Parliament which would allow us to take powers to do exactly what he, and I believe the whole House, wishes to be done.

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Crime Statistics (Northamptonshire)

2. Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): If he will make a statement on the levels of crime in Northamptonshire. [147088]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): In the 12 months to September 2000, recorded crime in Northamptonshire fell by 9.5 per cent. compared with the previous 12 months. Domestic burglary was down by 14 per cent. and vehicle crime by 15 per cent. Only two forces in England and Wales had a larger overall decrease than Northamptonshire.

Mr. Hope: The falling crime rate and extra police officers in Corby and east Northamptonshire are welcome news to people in urban and rural areas. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), visited the Kingswood estate in my constituency a few days ago and saw at first hand not only our problems but the way in which the police and the community are working together in partnership, and with the extra Government money, to reduce burglary.

Problems remain, however: cars continue to be vandalised and homes broken into. The effect on the victims is devastating. People's perceptions of whether the estate is a safe place to live are also affected. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he will consider seriously--and I hope respond positively to--the Kingswood estate's bid for CCTV cameras to help reduce the fear of crime?

Mr. O'Brien: We will certainly consider the bid seriously. Of course, I cannot guarantee the outcome. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South, who visited Kingswood recently says that he saw the partnerships between the police, local authorities and, indeed, my hon. Friend, who has contributed enormously to building those relationships. My right hon. Friend also said that those partnerships were dynamic and were seriously addressing the problems of crime in Corby. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that. We shall do all that we can to maintain the position that, under Labour, crime is falling and police numbers are increasing.

Asylum Support

3. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): What discussions he has had with local authorities regarding the dispersal of asylum seekers. [147089]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I regularly meet local authority representatives to discuss issues that arise from the introduction of the national asylum support service. I visited Newcastle recently to meet representatives of the north-east regional consortium for asylum support.

Mr. Randall: The Department's dispersal strategy does not cover unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. My local authority, the London borough of Hillingdon, is currently suffering a funding gap of £3 million in providing services for those children. Now that the Department has

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responsibilities for such funding, can the Minister assure my constituents that adequate funding will be available to my local authority?

Mrs. Roche: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the important matter of unaccompanied asylum- seeking children. Last year, Hillingdon received £500 per week for each unaccompanied minor aged up to and including 15, and £300 per week for each asylum seeker aged 16 or 17.

We will consider the responses to the consultation document. The Department is in active contact with local authorities. The subject is important, which is why I have taken a close personal interest in it.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): My hon. Friend knows that unaccompanied minors become the responsibility of the NASS when they are 18. Unlike other children who are in local authority care, they are not subject to the provisions of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, under which we expect local authorities to follow children up when they become 18. Dispersal causes problems for children who have been in care and who are subsequently moved, thus losing the support of the area in which they lived. Will my hon. Friend discuss the matter again with local authorities to ascertain whether we can devise a better system for those children?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend makes an important point based on his knowledge as chairman of the all-party group on refugees. My officials are in contact with other officials on the matter. We are considering whether children can be catered for when they go on to the NASS. I assure my hon. Friend that we take account of people's location for the purposes of examinations and the educational cycle.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): Does the Minister believe that it is humane, as part of the dispersal technique, to require a young Rwandan refugee who lives in Beckenham to attend an interview in Liverpool at 9 am? That means that she has to catch a train that leaves London at 3 am. She speaks only French, and is traumatised by her brother's death in front of her in Rwanda. Is the Government's policy truly humane?

Mrs. Roche: We must ensure that people are interviewed as quickly as possible. I understand the hon. Lady's interest in the matter, but nothing is more detrimental to those seeking asylum than facing years of delay. That is why we have made resources for hearing cases available in other parts of the country. We certainly consider people's travel arrangements.

I have had correspondence with the hon. Lady on a number of other matters. She has now brought this issue to my attention, and I shall certainly consider it and get back to her. The key issue is that we must ensure that people have an early resolution of their cases. We have expanded the operation to Liverpool and Leeds in the interest of clearing the backlog which, sadly, the hon. Lady's Government left us.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I thank the Minister for attending a meeting with me and Slough borough council about support for asylum seekers. Will she assure me that

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she will consider carefully our case for additional resources, so that the local residents of Slough will not be expected to pay for asylum seekers out of their council tax?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend will know that we have made increased sums of money available. She will also know that Slough has benefited from special increases such as those that we gave to London. Slough was the only other place to receive them, because of the particular nature of its circumstances. We shall consider carefully what the Audit Commission has to say about the variations in grant.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Will the Minister tell us what percentage of those who have not only failed to make a case for genuine asylum but have failed even to make a case for exceptional leave to remain on compassionate grounds have been returned?

Mrs. Roche: As I have frequently said to the right hon. Lady, we need to increase the rate of return. Last year, we returned more than 8,000 people, which is much more than her Government were able to do. The way to affect the return rate is to have more detention space at the other end of the process. I am therefore disappointed that the Conservatives oppose the increase in detention space. I am afraid that when it is in their own back yards, they simply will not have it.

Miss Widdecombe: Perhaps the hon. Lady has missed the point. We are proposing that all new applicants for asylum should be detained in secure reception centres. She could not give us the facts, so let me give her some. Last year, there were 76,850 refusals and only 7,610 removals. Is it not true that the Home Secretary and his friends do not know where those who have been refused are; have not a clue how to find out where they are; have no plan to work out a way of finding out; and therefore could not remove them even if they had the will to do so, which patently they do not?

Mrs. Roche: Let me assist the right hon. Lady. I am anxious that she should be in possession of the full facts, although I realise that they will not alter her view. In 1996, 3,190 people were removed. In 1999, more than 7,600 were removed. In 2000--[Interruption.] These are provisional figures. [Laughter.] Opposition Members laugh, but the thing about provisional figures is that they can go up. In 2000, 8,971 people were removed. That is far more than before. We have doubled the figure and we are reducing the backlog.

I shall deal with the right hon. Lady's point. It would cost billions of pounds to activate her proposals. Not only that, but she has backed away from them and now talks about applying them only to the white-list countries first. There has been a 47 per cent. reduction in that area, and we now have to deal with the difficult countries. The right hon. Lady proposes to detain people for years, which is not only expensive but inhumane and wrong.

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