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Asylum Seekers

8. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): How many asylum seekers supported under section 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 were in emergency hotel accommodation in (a) the London borough of Croydon and (b) England and Wales in the last period for which figures are available. [242972]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): As at week ending Friday 5 December 2008, there were 156 asylum seekers supported under section 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 in the London borough of Croydon and just over 1,000 supported under the same section in England and Wales. Section 98 accommodation is predominantly provided in blocked accommodation, such as former hotels and hostels.

Mr. Pelling: The Home Department should be congratulated on providing such accurate information. In the constituency that neighbours mine—the constituency of the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks)—there was an unfortunate incident where an asylum seeker sought to be fed but ended up being involved in a contretemps where he was hit with a chain. What is done by the Government to ensure that reasonable service is provided to section 98 asylum seekers and what is done to oversee the quality of the contracts that are delivered?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. On sight of his question, I asked for information and I shall write to him with the details of that investigation. I am satisfied that our officials and officers acted properly. It would appear that there was provocation and I shall give the hon. Gentleman details in my letter.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Would the Minister not agree that it might be better to house people in emergency or local accommodation where they are allowed to remain for some time? We all come across cases where asylum seekers are frequently moved, which means that schools for children, access to GP services and other essential services that are required are often simply not available or that the lives of those asylum seekers are subject to incredible disruption. Would it not be better if they were given a more stable living?

Mr. Woolas: The best thing to do is to deal with the asylum applications quickly, effectively and fairly. The improvements that we are making in that regard have been quite rightly applauded. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, the section 98 people to whom the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) referred are, of course, immediate applicants. The dispersal policy strives to meet the objectives outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and it is important that we have as many local authorities in partnership as possible in order to achieve that fairly.

Police (Beat)

10. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What recent estimate she has made of the proportion of time police officers spend on the beat. [242974]

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The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The Government are committed to delivering a visible and reassuring police presence. At the end of March 2008, 64.9 per cent. of police officer time was spent on front-line duties, the fourth successive annual improvement since 2003-04. Since April 2008, there has been a neighbourhood policing team in every area. The policing pledge includes a commitment for neighbourhood policing teams to spend at least 80 per cent. of their time visibly working on their patch.

Mr. Holloway: What does the Minister think the Government’s Green Paper means when it says that the target culture in the police has created a perverse incentive that is distorting police action?

Mr. Coaker: It means that it is time for us to look at how we measure what the police do and the progress that has been made, particularly in terms of reducing crime across the country, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He will know that as a consequence of review we have a single, top-down target that will simply relate to the confidence of local people in their police. I think that is the target the police want and the target the general public will want as well.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aware that the general public—everybody out there—want high-visibility policing. What more can he do to ensure that there are more police on the beat and that there is less form-filling and less time taken locking people up in long-distance lock-up centres instead of using local cells more efficiently to ensure that the police are back on the streets to lock up more problems. Will he do something about it?

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend has been a long-time advocate of ensuring that there is a greater visible police presence on the streets. In his area—as in every area across the country—there are now neighbourhood policing teams, with dedicated police officers and police community support officers, out there on the street. He will have heard earlier about the measures we are taking to ensure that we reduce bureaucracy and the amount of form-filling that police officers have to do so that they can spend more time out on the street. The work I saw in Staffordshire, which has also been going on in Surrey, the west midlands and Leicestershire, shows that we can reduce the amount of form-filling. That empowers front-line officers and means that they can spend more time out on the street, where I know my hon. Friend wants them—as indeed we all do.

Topical Questions

T1. [242988] Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): Domestic homicide of women is at the lowest rate for 10 years. Conviction rates for domestic violence cases have risen from 46 per cent. in 2003 to 72.5 per cent. in 2008. Between 1997 and 2007-08, there was a 58 per cent. fall in domestic violence incidents. Despite all that, we know we must do more, particularly
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at the Christmas period when women are at increased risk. For many, Christmas is a family time but for some it is a time of fear, violence and isolation. A new advertising campaign supported by the Home Office, Women’s Aid and Refuge begins today to encourage domestic violence victims to seek support and not to suffer in silence. It supports a Home Office-funded enforcement campaign over Christmas in 10 police force areas; it includes innovative tactics such as the use of body-worn video cameras by police, dedicated domestic abuse response vehicles and increased front-line policing, targeting the highest risk domestic violence victims and offenders.

Mr. Pelling: I was very impressed that a member of the Home Office ministerial team spent a long time listening—not speaking—on the issue of knife killings in Croydon, although mentioning them is unfortunately not a proud boast for any Member of Parliament. Does anyone in the ministerial team feel that there is any good practice that could be copied in terms of providing additional resources for policing in Croydon, bearing in mind that since the Minister visited there have been two more street killings? I know that it is a devolved matter, but by following good practice elsewhere could the formula for funding for extra police officers be changed after such a significant increase in the number of street killings in a particular place?

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I was delighted to visit the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and to see him talking to young people in particular about the work they are doing to tackle knife crime in their area. The work done in Croydon shows that the police cannot solve the problem on their own through enforcement. Of course, police enforcement is essential, as we have seen in the success of stop and search and the increased number of people going to prison for possession, but alongside that, we need the involvement of local authorities, local residents and young people. From my visit to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I learned the value that young people can bring to that process. We need to remember that the vast majority of young people are decent—they are not involved in knife crime; but in terms of the solution, if we listen to what they say, they have part of the answer. As much as anything else, that is what I learned from my visit and I know that the hon. Gentleman was impressed as well.

T2. [242989] Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Given the return last week of a charter flight that was taking failed asylum seekers to Iraq—it seems to have been refused permission to land; certainly it did not land—can the Minister tell us which countries are receiving charter flights of people who have been forcibly removed from the UK, and whether there have been other instances of planes being refused permission to land?

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): I think that the report to which my hon. Friend refers concerned the joint UK-French flight. The UK is able to return people to both Iraq and Afghanistan in that way, and we continue to work with our partners in the French and Belgium authorities towards that end.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the Home Secretary commend Essex chief constable Roger Baker’s policy of ensuring that a police officer attends whenever there has been a crime, and does she think that the policy could be spread to other constabularies as good practice?

Jacqui Smith: I was very pleased to visit Essex constabulary at the beginning of December, and to praise chief constable Roger Baker and the Essex police force for being the first to commit publicly to the police pledge. At the heart of the police pledge is how we can ensure that local people have the information, support and ability to have an input into the policing that they want. Chief constable Roger Baker is doing an extremely good job in Essex.

T4. [242991] Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend considered the damage that could be done to public confidence in policing if direct elections to the police authorities meant a rise in the sort of irresponsible behaviour displayed by the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Durham? They have sent out leaflets saying that crime has increased massively in the area, but that is not the case. Is my right hon. Friend looking at a range of measures to improve—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for the Home Secretary to consider.

T3. [242990] Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Home Secretary will remember the House’s overwhelming support for the idea that hon. Members’ home addresses should not be revealed in response to freedom of information requests. A consultation, organised by her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, is under way on whether such addresses should be replaced by just the first half of the postcode, which, at election times, could be included on nomination and other relevant paperwork. Does she agree, from the point of view of her work on fighting terrorism, that that would be a good, sensible compromise that would add to the safety of hon. Members?

Jacqui Smith: Clearly, I do not want to pre-empt the consultation, but the hon. Gentleman makes a very important point that I know is being borne carefully in mind by my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. He has made it forcefully on numerous occasions, and I think that he has significant support from across the House on the issue.

T6. [242993] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): When people expressed concerns about the vigour shown, and resources devoted, by the police in relation to the Kingsnorth climate camp, we were told that it was justified because dozens of injuries were incurred. We have now found that those injuries were of a more prosaic origin—they were due to things such as insect stings and sunstroke. Unless the protesters are to be held responsible for wasps and the weather, are we not to conclude that the justification used at the time was wholly bogus and vacuous?

Mr. Coaker: I have written to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) on the issue. I was informed that 70 police officers had been hurt, and naturally
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assumed that they had been hurt through direct contact, as a result of the protest. That clearly is not the case, and I apologise if that caused anybody to be misled. I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and other Members that the National Policing Improvement Agency is currently considering the lessons to be learned from the Kingsnorth climate camp protest. I will meet the public order lead of the Association of Chief Police Officers to discuss the report, so that we can share the lessons to be learned from Kingsnorth with police forces across the country.

T5. [242992] Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): In an earlier answer, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said that local people’s confidence in the police was a key indicator, so can he tell me why people are increasingly not bothering to report crimes to the police?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As we have frequently said, local people are one of the best weapons in helping to fight crime. It is precisely to give local people the confidence to report crimes to the police that, working alongside ACPO, we are pleased that the policing pledge, which provides monthly local information, monthly opportunities to feed in concerns, and much better communication between neighbourhood policing teams and local people, will be in place across the country by the end of the year. That will help to ensure that local people know that they can and should play their part in tackling local crime and antisocial behaviour.

T10. [242997] Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): We have heard today how much social disorder in town centres is caused by excessive alcohol and irresponsible selling by clubs and bars, which are still doing offers such as “women get in free”, and “drink as much as you can for seven quid”. What is my right hon. Friend doing to make sure that licensing laws are enforced effectively?

Jacqui Smith: I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the sort of irresponsible promotions that she outlined, which is why, having commissioned KPMG to look at how the industry was fulfilling its responsibilities under a voluntary code, it became clear that in some cases those responsibilities were not being fulfilled, so we are now proposing to introduce in the policing and crime Bill the ability to provide a mandatory code, which would outlaw precisely the type of irresponsible promotion that she outlined.

T7. [242994] Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The last time that I raised an issue in topical questions with the Home Office, it was on the subject of a heavily fortified cannabis café that operates in my constituency. Alas, it is still a topical question, because 20 months on, a heavily fortified cannabis café is still a cause of blight for the local community, despite the best efforts of the police. Without going into details, because charges are pending, the café is still operating, so can the Minister give me some assurance that the law can be looked at to make sure that that nuisance
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can be properly addressed and the police given proper powers, because of the enormous inconvenience and concern in the local community?

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me on a number of occasions, and what is happening in his constituency is absolutely deplorable, as is the inability of the law—not the police—to tackle that problem and deal with it. If it would be helpful to have a further meeting to discuss with officials what further action we might take to try to bring an end to that totally unsatisfactory situation with the cannabis café in his constituency, I am perfectly happy to have one. Where the law needs to be changed, that should be looked at, and it should be changed.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Returning to the issue of Kingsnorth policing, I thank the Minister both for what he has just said and for the letter that he wrote to me. However, in the light of the new information available to the House, would he care to revise his conclusion that the policing of Kingsnorth was proportionate and appropriate, especially as we also know that large numbers of protesters were injured at the hands of the police, especially by batons?

Mr. Coaker: I have apologised to the hon. Gentleman for that, and as he quite rightly said, I have written to him. I think it would be best for me to wait for the NPIA report on what happened at Kingsnorth, and to review it with the ACPO representative responsible for public order to see what lessons can be learned. I would then be happy to share those conclusions with the hon. Gentleman.

T8. [242995] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How does the Home Secretary respond to the charge that when she has good news from her Department she rushes out, for example, selective knife crime statistics, but when there is bad news, such as a cut to police funding for North Yorkshire, it is sent out in the most ponderous, opaque and obscure language that no one can understand?

Jacqui Smith: There has been no cut in funding for North Yorkshire police, so I hope that the hon. Lady will make that clear as well. All police authorities are getting an increase of at least 2.5 per cent., alongside the other grants that they receive.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Does my friend intend to implement the recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that it is quite wrong for DNA to be taken, and held, from people who have not been convicted of any crime?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime. We are carefully considering how best to give effect to the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, but I remind the House that in 2007-08 there were more than 37,000 crimes with a DNA match, 363 homicides and 540 rapes. We will not rush to judgment, and we will not be rushed, either.

T9. [242996] Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): We are all aware that an obesity epidemic is spreading across our country. Not only do
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police officers appear younger, but many of them appear larger as well. What assessment has the Home Office made of the effect of declining levels of physical fitness on the operational effectiveness of our thin blue line?

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Jacqui Smith: I have seen no evidence that our police officers are not able to carry out their responsibilities fully, actively and with great fitness. I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not mean to imply that, and I do not believe that it is the case.

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