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House of Commons

Monday 19 November 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—

Antisocial Behaviour

1. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): What further plans he has to encourage the police and other responsible bodies to tackle the problem of antisocial behaviour and disorder in communities. [13339]

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): The Government are determined to tackle antisocial behaviour, such as loutish behaviour, vandalism, graffiti and all its other manifestations. Local crime and disorder partnerships must tackle antisocial behaviour with their local crime strategies. Each partnership has been asked to appoint a co-ordinator to tackle antisocial behaviour. We want partnerships to make use of the full range of measures available to them, such as antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts.

Mr. Jenkins: Does my right hon. Friend recognise that unfortunately, although we have given the power to those

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partnerships, we have not yet devised a method of presenting them with the will? We recognise that the key to improving the quality of life of many of our citizens is to get rid of antisocial behaviour, so does he have plans to introduce a league system to ensure that those partners, particularly the police, are monitored in connection with those important measures?

Mr. Denham: We have every intention of publishing information about which areas have used antisocial behaviour orders and which have not. We shall look closely at the strategies drawn up by crime and disorder reduction partnerships, which are meant to come into place next April, to ensure that they have given proper emphasis to that aspect. My hon. Friend is right to say that Parliament has made several tools available to local partnerships to tackle antisocial behaviour, and that where communities are still facing that problem yet those tools have not been used, people have every right to ask why not.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): Is the Minister aware of the work of the Bexley community safety partnership? I was one of those who might have thought that this was a sociologists' make-work exercise, but the partnership has done a tremendous job, particularly on the Ellenborough Road estate. If the Minister wants the opportunity to study somewhere where a partnership is working effectively, he need travel no further than the borough of Bexley.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing his local experience to the attention of the House. He is right: where every part of the local partnership is working together, and where there are agreed procedures for acceptable behaviour contracts and for amassingthe evidence for antisocial behaviour orders, as well as the use of other methods, that has a real impact on the problems that people face. If I have the opportunity to visit Bexley, I will undoubtedly do so.

Phil Hope (Corby): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the positive take-up of parenting orders as one

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approach to tackling antisocial behaviour. Where they have been piloted they have been successful. Most Members recognise that developing effective parenting skills that enable parents to take responsibility for their children who are committing offences plays an important part in a sustainable approach to reducing juvenile crime. Does he support the idea of broadening out parenting programmes so that all parents, whether their children are in trouble or not, have the opportunity to access those programmes, and young people and their parents can develop better skills and prevent the reproduction of juvenile crime from one generation to another?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right about the effectiveness of parenting orders. The Government want extended support to be available to parents to assist them with a job that most people find a challenge at times. We shall certainly look into his idea and see if there are ways of taking it further.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister not realise that what the Opposition predicted would happen when the Government were introducing antisocial behaviour orders—that they would prove far too bureaucratic to be heavily used—is exactly what has happened? At the time, the Government predicted that there would be thousands of orders. Can the Minister explain why so far there have been only about 300, and chief executives of local authorities and senior police officers are tearing their hair out over the wholly unnecessary bureaucracy associated with ASBOs?

Mr. Denham: One of the difficulties is that some people irresponsibly perpetuate myths about antisocial behaviour orders. In areas that have made little use of them, the belief that they are difficult and bureaucratic is far greater than in the areas that have made effective use of them, often as the pinnacle of a series of measures designed to tackle such problems. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and in the not-too-distant future we will publish research evaluation that shows that if people are properly organised at local level they can make effective use of antisocial behaviour orders. Moreover, as I hope to make clear in answer to a subsequent question, there have been more antisocial behaviour orders than the most recently published figures suggest. I hope to clarify that later this afternoon.

Oakington Detention Centre

2. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): What future role he envisages for the Oakington detention centre. [13340]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): Subject to the outcome of the appeal to the House of Lords, we intend that Oakington will continue to operate on the basis of detention in order to maintain our capacity to make speedy decisions in about seven to 10 days. We therefore propose no changes to its purpose or operation.

Mrs. Campbell: May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend's review of asylum, immigration and the voucher system? Will the change of name, from detention centre to secure removal centre,

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change the nature of what happens at Oakington? Will the jobs of the people from the refugee legal centre who work at Oakington be safeguarded under the changes?

Mr. Blunkett: It is not our intention to redesignate the Oakington facility as a removal centre. It is our intention to maintain the legal services, which were, incidentally, responsible for taking us to court in the first place.I congratulate those concerned on nearly, but not quite, doing away with their jobs. Their jobs will remain and will follow the same pattern as at the moment, which has helped us enormously in providing speed and clarity in dealing with applications. Some 99 per cent. of initial claims are refused and, after adjudication and the initial appeal, only 5 per cent. are found to have been justified. The legal provision is helping us to achieve credibility and speed in dealing with applicants.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): Does the Home Secretary agree that the first 10 days of any asylum application are the most critical? Will he therefore confirm that the best possible legal advice and help will be made available at each and every induction centre?

Mr. Blunkett: As the hon. Member is aware, support and advice are given immediately through the voluntary organisations. We have taken steps to ensure that those giving advice are properly registered, so that checks are made on the quality and nature of the advice. That ensures that the money provided from the public purse, as well as that provided by those seeking asylum, is not abused.

Asylum Seekers

3. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Whether asylum seekers whose applications have taken longer than six months to process are entitled to apply for permission to work. [13341]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): Under the terms of the employment concession, adult asylum seekers can apply for permission to work if their application has been outstanding for longer than six months without a decision being made on it. Once such permission has been granted, the asylum seeker is entitled to take employment.

Paul Farrelly: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. The partner of one of my constituents, Angela Giray, was refused permission pending an appeal against the refusal of asylum. It is distressing when the situation is confused, and both employers and asylum seekers are confused. Could the Minister outline what measures she will take to ensure that people are better aware of the rules in future, given the recent changes?

Angela Eagle: There has been no change, and none is intended, to the employment concession. Any individual asylum seeker who is concerned need only check with the authorities to see whether he or she has been given permission to work. It is also an offence for employers to employ an asylum seeker who has no such permission.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Does the Minister agree that the only reason why permission to work is a major issue is the 40,000-plus backlog in the system?

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Does she accept that my constituents in Eastbourne are not filled with confidence by the Government's belated conversion to the need to set up more centres to deal with asylum seekers when Home Office Ministers are consistently unable to tell me how many asylum seekers currently reside in my constituency?

Angela Eagle: We can say how many asylum seekers reside in the hon. Gentleman's constituency under the national asylum support service dispersal scheme, but he will be aware that his local authority runs the interim scheme that preceded dispersal and so may be able to help him. We do not have national figures available by constituency that take account of the pre-1999 scheme and the NASS dispersal scheme. I wish that we did, and we are trying to compile them, but we can give him only the figures that we have.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does my hon. Friend agree that it depends on how we define "work"? Will she commend the interesting work of Time Banks UK with regard to paying refugees and asylum seekers in time currencies so that we can truly value their worth in this country?

Angela Eagle: Once people have been granted refugee status, they are certainly available to work. However, I reiterate that if all asylum seekers were to work, that would be a big pull factor which would encourage more people to apply for asylum in Britain. At the same time, we are more than happy to encourage those who are in the middle of the asylum process to do voluntary work, if that is what my hon. Friend is talking about.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Notwithstanding the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) about the backlog of some 40,000 cases waiting to be decided, does the Minister agree that it is deeply worrying that more than 300 people have been kept in detention for more than 100 days? Will she address that issue as a matter of priority?

Angela Eagle: I can announce that we have successfully taken all asylum seekers out of detention at Cardiff prison, as I undertook to do following a recent Adjournment debate. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced our intention to ensure that no asylum seekers are kept on remand in prison by the end of January. It is important to realise that some asylum seekers are detained because it is thought that they may abscond or be about to be returned to their country of origin, and that some of them are in prison for other reasons, such as criminal offences. There will always be a reason to keep a certain number of asylum seekers at particular parts of the process in detention, and I do not apologise for that.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Are any of the asylum seekers currently held in prison ever likely to be granted permission to work? I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement that Cardiff prison has been cleared of asylum seekers as a result of the commitment that she gave in the Adjournment debate organised by my hon.

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Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). The fulfilment of that pledge is well ahead of time.

Angela Eagle: I accept my hon. Friend's congratulations on that matter. On his first point, people often spend small amounts of time in detention, while we establish their identity, for example. It is difficult to generalise about whether anyone who has been in detention while we establish their identity may then have a valid claim for refugee status and end up working. That may well be the case, but the figures as we collect them do not allow me to give my hon. Friend detailed information.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Does the Minister accept that the policy of accommodation centres will have failed hopelessly if it takes as long as six months to process the applications of asylum seekers?

Angela Eagle: The key to the success of our asylum changes is how quickly we can manage to get an individual from the beginning of the process to the end. The longer that takes, the more difficulty any system will have.

Mr. Letwin: I suppose that I should say that I am grateful for that answer, but as we have not received one, I would be even more grateful if we did. Meanwhile, can the Minister guarantee that the accommodation centres will provide doctors, lawyers, immigration officials and adjudicators? They are needed on the spot if decisions are to be made in a lot less than six months.

Angela Eagle: I can guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that the accommodation centres will be the focus of all the help that is appropriate to give asylum seekers—on legal, health, education or training matters—as they go through the process.

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