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6.31 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), with whom I share some sense of being in the front line when it comes to constituency asylum problems, and I acknowledge the experience with which he spoke. I shall be brief, in the hope that there will be time for a contribution from at least one other colleague.

Since the sad death of the late Alan Clark, I have become the only Conservative Member of Parliament in the country with an inner-city constituency. This debate is very germane to my constituency, which has a heavy crime rate because of the number of day visitors. It also has a continuing involvement with asylum seekers, given that 15 per cent. of the households in Westminster are now not on the electoral register.

I shall begin with a brief word about the police. This is the season in which amenity societies and residents associations in Westminster have their annual or general meetings. A feature of those meetings is the patient replies from the police that there is a limit to what they can achieve, given the fall in police numbers with which they have had to cope.

I witnessed only one event associated with last week's visit by the Chinese President. That was at Guildhall, where I thought that the City of London police handled the protesters extremely well, and gave them ample opportunity to make their views known to the President of China.

I wish to concentrate on asylum seekers. I think that it is still reasonable to describe the situation as a shambles. I declare an interest, in that I am a vice-chairman of the all-party refugees group.

One index of a shambles is that the new Minister of State at the Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), had to be diverted from

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the Financial Services and Markets Bill, an extremely important piece of legislation, to take over responsibility for asylum seekers from the Under-Secretary previously in charge, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). That decision was made by the Prime Minister: I can tell the House that the Royal Navy manual states, with regard to typhoons, that the first evidence of an approaching typhoon is a general sense on the part of the captain that all is not well.

A second index of a shambles is that, six months after the Home Secretary's very welcome letter telling colleagues that the very worst was over in the immigration service, lawyers daily release cases into my lap because they cannot get answers, in writing or by telephone, from the Home Office. Frankly, that worries me, because it looks as though a two-tier immigration service may be developing, in which those who can afford lawyers may be able, through Members of Parliament, to secure answers more quickly than other constituents.

Although I acknowledge that a huge number of the latter are still writing to me too, I have a specific question for the new Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), whom I congratulate on his promotion. When he winds up the debate, will he say whether constituents who write in to the Home Office through Members of Parliament--either directly or through their lawyers--receive quicker responses than those who do not? Ideally, Members of Parliament should intervene in such matters only exceptionally, rather than as a matter of course.

My question is especially important in the context of travel documents. Constituents' letters about those documents are now invariably accompanied by details of urgent family reasons for travelling. Those reasons include medical treatment, car crashes or even imminent death. The consistency of those rationales suggest that travel document requests are now being taken out of order, and that word has gone out on the grapevine that pressing family reasons are, in the Home Office's eyes, a good each-way bet.

By and large, and to its credit, the Home Office has not allowed queue-jumping to occur in the naturalisation procedure. Such queue-jumping always disadvantages the rest of the queue. However, I would welcome a statement of policy on travel document practices. It is currently taking the travel document section more than 60 days even to acknowledge an application's arrival. Even then, the accompanying statement that it may take at least six months to resolve the application does not indicate whether the six-month period starts with the date of application or with the acknowledgement of the application. That makes travel planning still more difficult.

However, what I ask for most of all is a clear statement of the detail of the backlog facing the immigration service. I can see that the service might be crying out for a period of peace and quiet in which staff can get on with sorting out that backlog. It would be much easier for some of us to afford the service that relief and respite if we had a much clearer idea of the present policies, procedures and situation that we could advance to our desperate and bewildered constituents. Home Office officials are personally very courteous to me. I should like to respond to them in kind, if they would give me the tools to do so.

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6.35 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I begin by welcoming to his new job the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who I assume will be winding up the debate. My colleagues and I are looking forward to debating police matters and other issues with him.

This debate has again revealed the Home Secretary as a master of equivocation and obfuscation. In one of his least convincing performances, he failed today to answer any of the key questions posed by my right hon. Friendthe Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I shall repeat those questions for the benefit of the House.

Will there be 5,000 more police officers than there are now in 2002, or 2003? If not, will there be more officers than there are now, or fewer? How many more or fewer officers will there be?

Is it true that the new police radio project will cost £1.5 billion? How will that project be paid for? How much extra are the Home Secretary and his Department giving police authorities? Is the amount merely the £50 million that the Home Secretary announced to the Labour party conference, or will more money be announced later? Will the shortfall have an impact on the ability of police authorities to recruit officers? Police authorities up and down the country say that it will.

Does the Home Secretary agree that there are significantly more asylum seekers now than when he took office?

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Does my hon. Friend agree that the shortfall has affected some areas more severely than others? In Barnet and Hertsmere, for example, we have lost 60 of the 285 officers that we had in 1997. That fall of 20 per cent. has left our force hamstrung.

Mr. Greenway: There will not be time for many interventions, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that one. It illustrates exactly what is happening throughout the country. The cost of paying for the radio project imposed by the Home Office is already impacting badly on police recruitment plans.

I return now to the question of asylum seekers. Does the Home Secretary agree that there are significantly more of them now than when he took office, and that there is a backlog of 90,000 cases? Is it true that mail at the immigration and nationality department of the Home Office has remained unopened since July? Is it true that only 1,800 of the 52,000 telephone calls made to the department in September were answered?

Did any Government Department give instructions to the police in connection with the demonstrations during the visit by the President of China? Is the Home Secretary aware of what appeared in last weekend's edition of The Sunday Times? The newspaper alleged that

Is that true? When will the Government come clean about just what instructions were given?

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The Home Secretary failed to answer any of those important questions. The extent to which he was floundering was made evident when he prayed in aid rail privatisation, the Child Support Agency, BSE, and even the matter of arms to Iraq. He seemed also to suggest that the excellent web site of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was the cause of his embarrassment. While the debate has gone on, we have managed to find the right hon. Gentleman's own web site. Actually, we first found a web site maintained by an unofficial fan club at the university of York. We found the "Jack Straw Fan Club Home Page", which notes, "We love Jack Straw", and adds:

The official web site of the Home Secretary lists, among other things, the right hon. Gentleman's recreations:

    "walking, music, cooking puddings and supporting Blackburn Rovers."

That is hardly as good as my right hon. Friend's excellent web site. The right hon. Gentleman will be walking back to the Opposition Benches when he has faced the music at the next election. The proof of his pudding is in the eating; it is going down horribly with the police service, just as Blackburn Rovers went down at the end of last season.

Try as he may, the Home Secretary cannot camouflage serious crises in the key areas for which he is responsible. Police numbers are falling at an ever faster rate. Asylum seekers are at record numbers. There is a shambles in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, with a record backlog of unsettled cases. We have yet to hear a plausible--let alone a complete--explanation of the right hon. Gentleman's handling of the Mitrokhin spy archive and related matters.

We have heard today a complete abdication of responsibility for the problems in the right hon. Gentleman's Department. His revised explanations to the Select Committee on Home Affairs of police recruitment plans reveal that he has lost all credibility as regards any information that he gives on police numbers. The power of Opposition day debates is truly amazing. Their effect is astonishing. Some 4,000 more police recruits are planned today than were yesterday. Chief constables and communities up and down the land will be praying for more Tory Opposition days in the months to come when they see police numbers beginning to fall.

The Home Secretary has never explained how the 11,000 recruits already planned were calculated. Now he tells us the figure was 15,000. What was the original figure on which he based his request for more money? Was it 11,000, or was it 15,000? How can anyone have confidence that he has any idea of the true figure? Chief constables know the figures, and so do police authorities and the Police Federation. The numbers being recruited are being frozen for authorities throughout the country. Numbers are falling as a result. Today's announcement confuses the issue rather than clarifying it. The sudden conjuring up of 4,000 more recruits insults the intelligence of the electorate and the police service.

We have previously drawn attention to the problems of police recruitment in the police grant debate and July's debate on the police in London. Our concerns were dismissed as alarmist, but we can see now that the Home Secretary was himself alarmed at the trend on police numbers. Behind the scenes, he was asking for more

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money. We welcome that, and we welcome the recognition--at long last--that a serious problem had to be resolved. However, what angers the police and increasingly appals the public is that an initiative intended to shore up police manpower was portrayed as an initiative to recruit 5,000 extra police officers--5,000 more than now.

That was no unintended or mistaken misinterpretation of the Home Secretary's announcement. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury could see what was up, when he wrote that if the Home Secretary promised 5,000 extra--that is additional--officers, the Chief Secretary would end up having to find the money to pay for them. That is why the Home Secretary was forced to clear his announcement. What is even more telling is the tone of the Chief Secretary's reported remark:

What a telling message that is to the police service. Some £35 million is being provided for police recruitment, and £50 million for radios that cost £1.5 billion. The police can expect no more help. There was absolute silence on the growing crisis of funding police pensions. We must conclude that the crisis will only get worse.

In recent days, there has been no better example of the effect of all that on policing than the comment of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Paul Condon, who told the Home Secretary last Thursday that he had insufficient manpower even to cover murder inquiries. We have seen a complete abdication of responsibility by the Home Secretary today in his failure to say what he intends to do about these crises.

The Home Secretary has been caught redhanded, but he is not alone in his conspiracy to hoodwink the voters. The Prime Minister was clearly a willing accomplice. He was offered the chance to protest his innocence at the Dispatch Box last week, but he perpetuated the hoax, telling my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague):

One must admire him for standing by a mate who has been caught, but he could, in truth, do little else. The Prime Minister was well aware of what was going on, and he had to stand by his Jack or give him the sack.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary also knew that Labour spin doctors were busy selling the story to the media that there would be 5,000 extra police. Perhaps that is why there was no attempt to correct the story. Today's revelation does nothing to rectify the situation. The penny is beginning to drop in the public mind. They see the thin blue line getting thinner, and they remember that new Labour claimed it would be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. The public remember the Labour manifesto promise that the police had Labour's strong support. They remember the Home Secretary saying that he would get 5,000 more police. They will recognise all too well that every one of those promises has been broken.

The public will also recall that the Prime Minister told the country that there would be no more lies and no more broken promises. What a shambles. The public will take their revenge at the ballot box.

The Government promised more police, but they are supervising the biggest fall in police numbers in living memory and the complete erosion of police morale.

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The Government said that they had secured the United Kingdom's borders, but they have presided over the biggest influx of asylum seekers that we have ever experienced. The Government embarked on a modernisation programme that has left the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in complete disarray. When faced with the revelation of the most serious spy scandal in a generation, the Government dithered and prevaricated, entirely failing to understand the seriousness of the situation or to report it to the House.

New Labour's slipshod stewardship of policing, immigration and national security are just the latest in a catalogue of mistakes and incompetence. Such mismanagement demands that the House register the strongest possible reprimand. I urge hon. Members on both sides to do so by voting for our motion.

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