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House of Commons

Monday 14 December 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked-

Police Community Support Officers

1. Hazel Blears (Salford) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of police community support officers in tackling antisocial behaviour; and if he will make a statement. [306215]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): The White Paper on policing, published on 3 December, places police community support officers at the centre of the Government's efforts to reduce antisocial behaviour, including proposals shortly to give extra powers to PCSOs to tackle firework abuse and graffiti.

Hazel Blears: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. PCSO Ryan Carroll, with whom I was out last Saturday in the Weaste area of Salford, will be absolutely delighted that this Labour Government are committed to funding our police community support officers. This is in marked contrast to the policies of the Opposition, who wish to make deep and savage cuts to our public services. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Labour Government's support for the fantastic work of our PCSOs remains firm and unwavering?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her support. She will know that it is Labour Government money that has introduced 16,000 PCSOs across the country. Indeed, we have not done just that: for next year, we have committed some £332 million-a 2.7 per cent. increase-to help to support them still further. She will also know, I hope, that in her borough of Salford we have committed a range of support for next year, including part of a £2.5 million package to help to support work against antisocial behaviour. That is all Labour Government money, and it will all be under threat under the Tories.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am not going to try to score political points. I pay tribute to the role of community support officers, but is the Minister aware that quite a lot of their salary is paid by local town councils, parish councils and borough councils?
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These councils are finding it increasingly difficult to continue to pay this part of the PCSOs' salary. As a result-certainly in Cheshire-a number of community support officers are going to be put out of work. Is that not a shame? What will the Government do about it?

Mr. Hanson: I agree that partnership with local authorities is extremely important. I know that the hon. Gentleman would wish that support to continue, and we have committed a considerable amount of money- £332 million next year. That partnership work is important and some authorities are considering it.

I hasten to say, without being party political, that it is not Labour authorities that are doing that.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that in my part of Sheffield, the incidence of criminal damage has gone down, with 200 fewer victims last year. Police community support officers are playing a key role in that. Is he committed to continuing with the neighbourhood policing model? Police community support officers function really well when they are supported by other agencies and organisations that focus on neighbourhoods.

Mr. Hanson: Indeed, the neighbourhood policing model was reconfirmed in the White Paper only 10 days ago. The funding of £332 million for next year includes PCSOs and neighbourhood support for policing. It works, because antisocial behaviour perceptions and concerns among individuals across the country have fallen from 21 per cent. in 2003 to only 16 per cent. in 2009, largely because of the 16,000 PCSOs on the doorstep.

Detention of Children (UK Border Agency)

2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the UK Border Agency on its policy on detention of children. [306216]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I have recently assumed responsibility for this area of policy and I most recently met officials on 8 December. However, clearly I meet regularly with officials on this issue.

Mr. Carmichael: The report published last week by the coalition of the royal medical colleges made it clear that children who are detained in immigration removal centres suffer from mental health problems and consider self-harm and occasionally even suicide. There can be no other area of law or public policy where the interests of the child lag so far behind considerations of administrative convenience or political expediency. When will the Government act to end this disgraceful practice?

Meg Hillier: Clearly, we do not wish to detain families with children where that is avoidable. However, detention is considered when a family has reached the end of the line-when appeals have been made and refused-and they are only detained for a matter of usually a few days immediately prior to a flight being taken. Let me point out that the report in question considered only 24 cases out of those of the 382 children who were in detention
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during the period of the report-fewer than 10 per cent. It did not take into account the views of the clinicians who worked with those children and who know them. There are many pressures on children, and it is not clear that those pressures and problems arise merely from detention.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families recognises that this is a very difficult area, but the whole issue of people in prison and children in prison has not been wonderful under any Government of any party. Could we be more sensitive in the way we treat these children and ensure that they have the full package of support, even for a short time?

Meg Hillier: I can reassure my hon. Friend on two counts. First, children who are detained have a full package of support, including education and access to health care. Crucially, they are with their parents, from whom I would not want to see them separated. Secondly, my hon. Friend raises a wider point about how we deal with such children. We have a pilot running in Glasgow, with Glasgow city council and the Scottish Government, to try to find alternatives. That pilot follows on from one in Kent, and we believe that it is much better and might achieve better results.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): This is not as small a problem as the Minister seems to be suggesting. It was revealed in parliamentary answers in June that 470 children, most of whom were under five, were in such detention. Contrary to the impression that the Minister has given, a third of them had been incarcerated for longer than a month. Does she accept that being locked up is traumatic for many young children and is likely to leave psychological scars? Does she accept that the practice of incarcerating children so young is in contravention of the UN convention on the rights of the child? Will she now agree with me-

Mr. Speaker: Order. Two questions are too many, but asking three really is overdoing it.

Meg Hillier: I am not sure where to begin! Seriously, though, I must first correct the hon. Gentleman's figures. Up to 30 September this year, 25 children were detained for seven days or less-in time for a flight-five were detained for eight to 14 days, and five were detained for 15 to 28 days. A further 10 were detained for 29 days but for less than two months, and none were detained for longer than that. That is an average of just under 16 days. This is always a difficult issue, but we are a Government who are not afraid to duck the tough challenges. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, we are not. It is important that children are not separated from their parents, and I am not sure what the alternative is. If a parent repeatedly refuses to go when their case reaches the end of the line, they have some responsibility. They are offered many packages, but some choose not to take them and are then detained. I would not want to see young children separated from their parents.

Chris Huhne: I am glad that the figures have been updated, but the figures that I quoted were from the Home Office. Why has the Home Office not learned lessons from Canada and Sweden, which have abolished the practice of holding children in custody while their
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parents await clarification of their status? Surely, any means other than custody of ensuring that those people do not abscond would be preferable-the tagging of adults, for example.

Meg Hillier: We go to great lengths to make sure that we do not detain children. It is only in extreme cases in which parents repeatedly refuse to leave of their own accord that we do so. It is important that the family are a united group at the point at which they are destined for removal. I repeat the simple but important point that I, as the Minister responsible, would not want to see young children separated from their parents.

DNA Database

3. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): How many records have been removed from the national DNA database in the last 12 months. [306217]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): In the past 12 months, 98 under-10s were removed, and 350 individuals in England and Wales, under the exceptional case procedure.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Minister for that answer. Across the Thames Valley police area, DNA data for 10,500 under-18s, a good number of whom are children from my constituency, are held. I accept that it is useful to have a DNA database, but we need to be careful that we do not stigmatise children. What steps is he taking to remove the records of innocent children from the DNA database?

Mr. Campbell: We are bringing forward proposals in the Crime and Security Bill to address the concerns of the European Court of Human Rights. We are introducing measures regarding children that we believe are more proportionate and that will meet the Court's requirements, but it is important to recognise that the presence of the DNA of people who have been arrested but not convicted forms an important part of the DNA database, which helps to detect up to 40,000 crimes a year.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Last month, a black rock band from Brixton who were playing at The Oak public house in Burntwood, Staffordshire, were wrongfully arrested after their gig-vehicles, dogs and a helicopter were used-because of a false alarm with good intent. The chief constable of Staffordshire rightly withdrew their DNA samples because no offence had been committed. Is the Minister happy with the Association of Chief Police Officers' guidelines, and is he confident that other police officers in other circumstances would be able to respond as rapidly and rightly as the chief constable did in that case?

Mr. Campbell: We are looking at the guidance that is currently available, but as part of the Crime and Security Bill we are also bringing forward measures to make sure that the deletion of people from the database is put on a statutory footing for the first time, which will be an important step forward.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The proposals the Minister talks about are clearly designed to be the minimum change possible to avoid being declared in
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breach of the European Court of Human Rights again. Instead, the Minister could adopt the Scottish system, which allows records for the innocent to be kept normally for only three years. Will he admit not only that his proposals will continue to alienate respectable people from the police, but that crucially the Scottish system has a 16 per cent. higher success rate than his system in matching profiles from crime scenes to names on the database? It is not only fairer, but actually more effective in combating crime.

Mr. Campbell: The Scottish model was not based on any research because none was available at the time. The hon. Gentleman talked about deletion after three years and used the word "normally". In fact, it can be three years plus two years, plus two years ad infinitum. Thus, by comparison, that system could for some people be more draconian than our proposals. It is also based on keeping samples rather than profiles, which is one of the most significant criticisms that the European Court made.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Although undoubtedly there are arguments for what the Minister says, and the Home Affairs Committee recognises that, people have been arrested when there was no evidence against them and they feel there is a stain on their character. That should very much be borne in mind in this controversy.

Mr. Campbell: That is why we are bringing forward statutory provisions in the Crime and Security Bill to make sure that when deletions are appropriate, they are made easier.

Police Services (Administrative Burden)

4. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the administrative burden on police services. [306218]

9. Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the administrative burden on police services. [306223]

10. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the administrative burden on police services. [306224]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): This issue is frequently discussed in meetings between Ministers and police organisations. It has also been recently addressed in the report by Jan Berry entitled "Reducing Bureaucracy in Policing", published on 2 December 2009.

Mr. Gauke: The Minister mentioned Jan Berry, the Government's adviser on reducing police bureaucracy. She was recently asked whether the police were spending more time away from their desks. Her answer was:

Does the Minister agree?

Mr. Hanson: We are trying to ensure that we reduce the amount of unnecessary paperwork that police officers do, and in fact it has fallen over the past five years. Jan
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Berry's report, published just over 10 days ago, gave us 43 recommendations. We have accepted 13, we shall be looking at 22 with her over the next year and we are still examining a further eight. There is a lot of work to be done, but we are committed to reducing unnecessary bureaucracy.

Justine Greening: The Minister talks about unnecessary bureaucracy. Surely part of the unnecessary bureaucracy has been processing reoffending criminals let out under the early release scheme. Has the Minister made an assessment of how much that has contributed to police bureaucracy?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady will know that there have been and continue to be pressures on the prison system. I was Prisons Minister at the time, and the early release scheme is a temporary measure, which is determined to ensure that we release individuals 18 days early. The reoffending rate on that is extremely low, but it obviously remains a matter of concern and is under review by my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, and will be ended as soon as practicable.

Mr. Holloway: Jan Berry also said that

referring to the Government's fixation on targets. They have been promising to sort these things out since 2001. Why do they think it will be different now?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman should keep up. There is only one target on policing from the Government -the confidence target of 60 per cent. by 2012. We have improved from 45 to 50 per cent. over the past year and we are on target to reach it by 2012. I suggest the hon. Gentleman goes back to his constituency and looks up the facts in future.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): If it appears that the administrative burdens of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 contributed in any way-however small-to the tragic death of four-year-old John Paul Massey in my constituency last month, will my right hon. Friend agree to review it? Will he also call for a detailed report from Merseyside police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who are investigating the matter, so that we can fully understand how complaints made to the police were not followed through and the Government can respond where possible?

Mr. Hanson: My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important issue. That was a tragic death. She will appreciate that there is an ongoing police investigation by Merseyside police. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about what steps, if any, we need to take to ensure that we prevent such an incident from occurring again. We will certainly look at the lessons and make sure we do all we can to stop the use of dangerous dogs in this way.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Of the 33 recommendations made in the final Flanagan review to cut bureaucracy published in February 2008, only one has been implemented, according to Jan Berry. Can the Minister tell us why?

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Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know that we are working through a range of recommendations. If he looks at the stop and account forms, for example, he will find that we have saved 690,000 hours of police time on such stoppages. We have reduced or removed 27 of the 36 data streams from the Home Office. We are making real efforts to reduce police bureaucracy. Jan Berry accepted that in her recent report, and we will continue to do so. Every step we take reduces police time-for example, there are 6,000 more officers on the front line, whom we have been able to release just by tackling bureaucracy since 2003-04.

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