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National Asylum Support Service

8. Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): If he proposes to develop the regionalisation of the National Asylum Support Service. [38880]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): The internal review into the operation of dispersal recommended that the National Asylum Support Service should establish a greater regional presence. While plans are at an early stage, we are considering how NASS can have the capacity to answer more inquiries and solve problems at local levels. We are also considering outreach so that people who have been dispersed in regional clusters can be visited by NASS employees.

Mr. Gerrard: My hon. Friend will know of the serious concerns about administrative inefficiencies in NASS that have led, in far too many cases, to people being left without support for weeks on end. I welcome what she has said about setting up a regional structure, but I would like her assurance that it will not be only administrative. We need local access points where asylum seekers or their representatives can contact NASS directly, with telephone numbers that—unlike at present—do not continually change. Problems that should be straightforward could then be sorted out at local level by direct contact, which does not happen at the moment.

Angela Eagle: I agree that we need to ensure that NASS works more efficiently in the service that it gives to people once they have been dispersed, but we are not considering establishing counter services in the regions at this stage. Such innovations as the voucher inquiries line have improved service from what was an unacceptable level. The line turns inquiries round within 48 hours of the call being made, so that aspect of the national service is improving, but we do recognise the need for more outreach in the regions.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): The success of NASS depends crucially on the degree of confidence that asylum seekers have in the Home Office. Is the Minister aware that that confidence is severely under pressure because of reports that the Home Office is still unable to give details of which asylum seekers were being held at the Yarl's Wood centre on 14 February, the night of the disturbances, and that the immigration service had refused an offer from Bedfordshire police to check the backgrounds of those likely to be moved to Yarl's Wood? Can she comment on that allegation and will she publish immediately a list of those detainees and asylum seekers who were at Yarl's Wood in order to dispel local rumours that, contrary to assurances, low-risk asylum seekers were

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held with those with criminal convictions, those who might be prone to violence and—possibly—those who might have terrorist connections?

Angela Eagle: The immigration service holds the definitive list of those who were in Yarl's Wood, although it is not my intention to publish it. The difficulties in providing a definitive list of those present at the time of the incident were the result of the destruction of the records that were held there and the fact that detainees had been transferred in and out of the centre after the last roll call at 6 pm but before the disturbance. We had to reconcile the figures that the immigration service holds because of that transfer. Group 4's records were destroyed in the fire, but I assure him that we have the immigration service figures.

It is true that there were approaches from Bedfordshire police to check the police national computer, but they wished to check for every single person. Many of those who present for asylum at the ports do not have police national computer issues. Those who present in-house would also not necessarily be checked in that way. There are data protection concerns as to why there was not a wholesale transfer of that information, but this is an issue that we are looking at.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My hon. Friend has seen the nasty, despicable little racist leaflet circulating in my constituency that has been promoted by a right-wing party in an attempt to raise fear within the community. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will condemn that activity. Will my hon. Friend seek to focus the discussions about the Government's proposals so that people in the community know that they have been told downright lies by that right-wing racist bunch?

Angela Eagle: I agree with my hon. Friend that attempts to exploit racial tension of the sort to which he refers and the despicable leaflets that he has shown me are unacceptable. Clearly, the sooner we are in a position to make choices about sites for accommodation, the sooner we will be able to dispel people's worries about this.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): Given that the National Asylum Support Service currently houses over 40,000 asylum seekers, does the Minister accept that the recent fire and break-out from Yarl's Wood removal centre has severely damaged the Government's ability to manage the asylum system efficiently? How many of those who absconded are still on the run? How many persons have been charged with criminal offences arising out of this incident, and how many people whose asylum appeals are still current have been moved from Yarl's Wood into prison? Finally, when will the official inquiry into these events be available and ready for debate in the House?

Angela Eagle: I do not accept that the events at Yarl's Wood have made it harder or impossible for us to control the asylum system. Off the top of my head, 41 people were moved back into prison following the events at Yarl's Wood. The hon. Gentleman will know that a search is ongoing in the debris of the part of Yarl's Wood that was destroyed by fire to check the forensics. The last count that I saw—again this may not be the most up-to-date figure—showed that 22 people were missing,

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presumed on the run. I will check the list of the hon. Gentleman's other questions and write to him, but he has to realise that we are in the middle of an inquiry about this. There are also ongoing police inquiries. We are simply not in a position at this stage to give the hon. Gentleman detailed answers to his questions. However, I assure him that, when the answers come out of the inquiries, they will be made public.

Police Service Reform

10. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): What recent discussions he has had about the reform of the police service. [38882]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We have been in discussion with key stakeholders since October 2000 and that will continue as the reform programme is taken forward. The Police Reform Bill makes provision for some of the measures in the White Paper, but the reform agenda is much wider than that. The steering group is due to meet on Thursday, and will include representatives of all the key stakeholders. Reform of police pay and conditions of service is an important part of our agenda. We are in conciliation with the main organisations on the Police Negotiating Board.

Mr. Boswell: I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he recognise that for the reform programme to be a success it is essential for him and his colleagues to regain the confidence of community beat officers, whether urban or rurally based, and their sergeants? In that connection, will he pay particular regard to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) about the propensity of the Metropolitan police force to recruit from county forces because of its more attractive pay and conditions and also to the growth and proliferation within county forces of specialist police units, often with more attractive terms and conditions, which are tending to suck officers away from the beat?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman heard the answer that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave earlier. Some of the issues raised are exactly those that we wish to address in our reform agenda with regard to pay. We want to get money to people when it is appropriate, when they are doing a job at the front line in the police service and when they are doing a particularly onerous duty. People in those situations should be recognised and rewarded. We accept that there are problems, which we are addressing as part of our proposals on the table. It is unfortunate that we must go to conciliation in order to get those proposals across and to get them agreed.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): The vast majority of hon. Members and of people in the country support my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's reform programme for the police. In connection to earlier questions, one important part of that reform programme will be to ensure that there is a proper career structure for the ordinary policeman on the beat—the beat manager, the bobby or whatever—so that they can gain promotion and obtain better pay and conditions. A constable could therefore be rewarded simply for being a good policeman on the beat, dealing with antisocial behaviour, street crime and so on,

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without having to be rewarded by being promoted to a desk job or to a role other than that in which he has proved his worth.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend has hit on an important point, which applies in other professions as it does in the police. One of the most important jobs in the police service is that of constable, and one of the most important parts of the police reform programme is to give that job due recognition.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Does the Minister recognise that, although the Police Reform Bill contains many good proposals, genuine concern exists in all quarters about the proposals to give the Home Secretary of the day more power to intervene in operational police matters? Does he recognise that that challenges the traditional tripartite structure between the Home Secretary, police authorities and chief constables. As a consequence, the axis is being moved very much in the Home Secretary's direction. Will consideration be given to changing those proposals, particularly with regard to the draconian authority that such operational proposals might give to a right-wing Tory Home Secretary in the future?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. There are no proposals in the Police Reform Bill to take over operational issues. The hon. Gentleman ought to accept that the Home Secretary and Ministers are accountable to Parliament, and, through Parliament, to the nation. On the subject of right-wing Home Secretaries, surely he would not want to return to the days when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was in office—the days of the "Not me Guv" Government. We are responsible for policy in the broadest terms, and we therefore need to have the powers that go with that accountability.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Given wider police powers and the wider police community, does my hon. Friend believe that the police will have better facilities to deal with disturbances and violent crimes such as those which took place in Burnley in June last year? In particular, will police be enabled to get to know those who are stirring up that type of trouble and to take action before problems of that type arise on the street?

Mr. Ainsworth: During meetings up and down the country to discuss police reform, we have tried to say simply that it is the police, not the Government, who need that reform. They are stretched in every direction by the expectations placed on them by the public, who expect them to be everywhere, to meet response times, and to be able to tackle the kind of serious problems that occurred last year in my hon. Friend's constituency. The police reform package is about enabling the police to deal with all those issues as effectively as possible.

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