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Police Funding

11. Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): What research he has commissioned on the impact of increases in funding of police forces on their performance. [85575]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): The Audit Commission publishes an annual report on police performance. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary visits each force every year and conducts full inspections of each force every three years, along with regular thematic inspections across forces. The last Audit Commission annual report, published in January this year, found that there was no direct link between increased spending and improved performance in police force areas.

Mr. Thomas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. If there is no such direct link, presumably efficiency has a large part to play in terms of performance.

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That being so, what steps does my right hon. Friend suggest could be taken to improve the operational efficiency of the police with a view to making them more visible, particularly in market towns?

Mr. Straw: We have set a challenging but realistic efficiency agenda for the police service. We are asking it to find 2 per cent. efficiency savings, which it then reinvests in its own front-line operational performance. There are many ways in which the police service can improve operational efficiency, not least--but by no means exclusively--by tackling too-high levels of sickness and early retirement through alleged ill health.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does the Home Secretary accept that while examining performance, it is important also to consider whether the police can lock up criminals? With that in mind, will the right hon. Gentleman examine closely a case that was heard last week in Derbyshire when the police, refusing to name an informant, had to drop the case in the Crown court, thus allowing someone charged with a serious crime to get away, to protect the informant? Will he look at this matter, which is obviously very serious?

Mr. Straw: I shall look at the case and I shall be happy to see the hon. Gentleman about it. The disclosure of informants' names is an important and sensitive issue. As the House knows, following proposals from the previous Government, there was broad agreement across the Chamber about changing the rules on disclosure in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996. I accept that those rules may need to be strengthened further.

Social Exclusion

12. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): What representations he has received on the role of the voluntary sector in tackling social exclusion. [85576]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The voluntary and community sector has a key role to play in tackling social exclusion. The Government recognise that many voluntary and community organisations have particular skills and knowledge across a range of subject areas and service provision. That is why the Government have entered into a new spirit of partnership with the sector, and why the policy action teams established to take forward the work on social exclusion use and rely heavily on the contributions of representatives from a range of voluntary organisations.

Mrs. Humble: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. May I encourage him to invite as wide a variety of voluntary organisations as possible to participate in the debate? For example, only a couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Blackpool Women's Aid organisation. It is keen that the work that it undertakes to combat domestic violence is seen as part of the strategy to combat social exclusion.

Mr. Boateng: Domestic violence is a real threat in terms of law and order--we should never forget that it is a crime--and because it has an appalling impact on the immediate victims, namely women. It is usually women

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who are the subject of domestic violence, along with their children. By all the indices of deprivation--for example, failure at school and mental health problems--domestic violence plays its part, and is seen to do so. Women's Aid and other voluntary organisations have, and will continue to have, a key role in the development of our strategy to combat domestic violence.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Has the hon. Gentleman examined what has happened with regard to the minimum wage legislation as it applies to voluntary organisations? Many voluntary organisations have people who are paid a small amount to help them with their general expenses. As a result, people have been able to volunteer to help at a women's refuge, a playgroup or whatever. Are these organisations being affected by the fact that people are not able to carry on helping them because they have to be paid the full minimum wage, despite the fact that they are happy to volunteer to work for a couple of pounds an hour?

Mr. Boateng: On the contrary, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations supported the introduction of the minimum wage. There is no way that effective voluntaryism can ever be based on poverty wages.

Neighbourhood Renewal

13. Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester): If he will make a statement on his Department's role in neighbourhood renewal. [85577]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): Officials in my Department are working with colleagues across Whitehall on a range of initiatives to promote neighbourhood renewal. Those include the Government's response to the social exclusion unit's report on neighbourhood renewal, the single regeneration budget and the new deal for communities, all of which are playing an important part in ensuring that neighbourhood renewal and combating social exclusion go hand in hand.

Ms Russell: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in congratulating Cheshire constabulary, Cheshire county council and Chester city council on working tremendously hard to put together a community safety partnership, which I had the honour of launching a couple of weeks ago? Will he comment on community safety partnerships in general, which, like all the other initiatives he mentioned, will play a part if we are to repair the social fabric of all our communities? We must recognise the vital role that community partnerships can play, because we need not only to repair the social fabric and the bricks and mortar of our communities after 16 years of neglect, but to tackle crime and the fear of crime.

Mr. Boateng: I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I have had the opportunity to visit Chester, and I heard a presentation and saw for myself the excellent work that is being done by the voluntary sector, particularly in relation to drugs and reducing drug use among young people. The local business sector, the police and the local authority are getting together to make a clear and real contribution

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to reducing drug abuse in Chester. That is good news for the young people concerned and good news in terms of the effect of drug abuse on crime generally.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): After reflecting on measures to assist the renewal of neighbourhoods, does the Minister agree that, far from being a harmless if self-indulgent activity, the spread of graffiti at bus stops, on the walls of public buildings and in other places is corrosive of the forward-looking spirit and the sense of self-respect that are essential to the regeneration of neighbourhoods? Will he therefore confirm that the Government take a dim view of such behaviour and will introduce tougher measures to root out that unattractive phenomenon in our society?

Mr. Boateng: I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. Such graffiti often represent a form of visual violence that is totally unacceptable. Care and concern for the built environment is central to neighbourhood renewal, and I am glad that so many local authorities across the country are recognising that by establishing 24-hour schemes to deal with graffiti. We need more people to take that approach, and we are determined to encourage and support it through our crime and disorder partnerships.

Asylum Applicants (Support)

14. Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): If he will make a statement on his plans to change the system of support for asylum applicants. [85578]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): As I announced to the House last Wednesday, I have decided to increase the cash amount paid to asylum seekers and to clarify the Secretary of State's responsibilities for the children of asylum seekers.

Mr. Gapes: I welcome that answer, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to help those many thousands of people who flee oppression and discrimination, some of whom come to this country, is to ensure that quick decisions are made about their status so that they do not have to wait months--or years, in many cases--before a decision is made?

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that renewed, strenuous efforts will be made to sort out the chaotic inheritance that the previous Government left at Croydon, and the incompetent computer system which has caused so many problems for so many of my constituents and others? Will he also do something to deal with the crooks, spivs and racketeers purporting to be immigration advisers--some of whom are solicitors--to get them out of the system? That will make sure that our constituents do not suffer from incompetent, misleading advice and that the legal aid system is not abused by such people.

Mr. Straw: I agree with virtually everything that my hon. Friend said. We are profoundly committed to introducing much faster decision making in the asylum system. We are sticking to the two-months and four-months targets for all asylum applicants from April 2001, but I have already made it clear, in the answer that I gave the House last Wednesday, that we intend to process family cases within two months after the introduction of the asylum support directorate arrangements from April next year.

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My hon. Friend is right to refer to the crooks, spivs and racketeers. I am afraid to say that they include too many members of the legal profession who have got rich by manufacturing asylum claims. Part of the purpose of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which has its Report stage in this House tomorrow and Wednesday, is to crack down on exactly such activity.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): We have received the first Kosovan refugees in the Vale of York at New Earswick. The local authority responsible, the City of York, has raised a number of questions concerning the outstanding financial arrangements to be decided by the Home Secretary and his Department. Can the Home Secretary assure us that an early answer will be given?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I can. If the hon. Lady has any further problems on behalf of the local authority, I shall be happy to take them up. I have made it clear that central Government will pay the additional costs incurred by local authorities and the voluntary sector. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing will shortly write to all local authorities and voluntary organisations, setting out the detailed arrangements.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Although I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about speeding up the system, does he agree that the best way to deal with people who make fraudulent claims is to make a quick decision and to enforce it? If most decisions on families are to be made within eight weeks of their making an application, is it worth setting up what amounts to an alternative Benefits Agency in the Home Office to administer the system, to place them up and down the country, and to issue and redeem the vouchers? Would not it be simpler to restore the right to benefits to families, to make decisions quickly and to enforce them on people who make fraudulent claims?

Mr. Straw: I regret to say that I do not agree with my hon. Friend's assumptions. There is no doubt that the availability of cash benefits in the social security system is a major pull factor that encourages fraudulent claims at port. It is one of the factors that encourages many people whose claims are wholly without foundation to come in clandestinely, particularly to Dover and other south-east ports, from eastern Europe and other countries where they are not under any threat of persecution. They come in principally to claim cash benefits. That is unacceptable, and has placed a disproportionate burden on Kent authorities and on 10 London boroughs, which, between them, account for more than 50 per cent. of asylum seekers being supported by local authorities. I can tell my hon. Friend, who represents one of those London boroughs, that the only practical way to remove the burden from those boroughs and the Kent authorities is to have a national dispersal and asylum support system such as we propose.

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