24 Jul 2000 : Column 743

House of Commons

Monday 24 July 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Asylum Seekers

1. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): What progress he has made in arranging suitable accommodation and services for dispersed asylum seekers. [130322]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): To date, the national asylum support service has entered into contracts to provide accommodation and services for dispersed asylum seekers with a number of local authority, voluntary sector and private sector providers. As the House will be aware, from today, NASS takes responsibility for the support of all new asylum seekers who claim in London.

Dr. Iddon: In the past three months, 90 asylum seekers have been rehoused in 30 properties in Bolton--some of which were in poor condition. My main concern is that environmental health officers have reported to me that that has created houses in multiple occupation that do not conform to the statutory requirements. Will my hon. Friend tell us whether the agreement with the north-west consortium of local authorities is likely to be signed in the near future? Does she agree that it is important that the agreement include preferred provider status for those local authorities?

Mrs. Roche: My information is that no asylum seekers supported by the NASS scheme have been held in my hon. Friend's constituency. Those who are there will have been under the previous or the interim arrangements.

A specification about the standards for accommodation has been agreed with organisations such as the Refugee Council and has been placed in the Library. The conditions are stiff and we hold regular inspections. Of course, we will look into the facts mentioned by my hon. Friend.

I hope that a contract will be signed shortly. We certainly look to local authorities to be our key partners in this enterprise.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The Minister was right when she stressed, last week, that economic migrants

24 Jul 2000 : Column 744

and asylum seekers can play a positive role in this country. I hope that she will give up eye-catching initiatives and concentrate instead on the real plight of people who desperately want to come to this country and who can make a positive contribution to our life in many respects. We are a generous nation; this is a human problem.

Mrs. Roche: I was going to start off by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his comments--indeed I do thank him; I agree with him about the nature of the British people. We are a very generous country indeed. However, he makes the classic mistake of confusing asylum with migration. Asylum is for people who seek refuge from political persecution. We have honourable commitments in that regard under the 1951 convention and we shall continue to meet them. There is, however, some debate to be held over migration--I should like to see that happen during the next few months.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): I am well aware of my hon. Friends' efforts to get the NASS system off to a flying start, because I have held discussions with her on the matter. Does she agree that there is concern about people who are currently settled inappropriately under the interim or the previous arrangements? Will she do whatever she can to encourage colleagues in NASS to assume some of those responsibilities as soon as is practicable? Failing that, the well-meaning initiatives of NASS are likely to be compromised by inappropriate settlements under the previous conditions.

Mrs. Roche: We have held good and constructive discussions on this matter. We managed to ensure that the NASS roll-out took place more quickly than we thought possible. That was a success and I congratulate the officials who were involved.

As for the wider picture, we urge local authorities to ensure that, when they place people, they hold full consultations so that local communities are well prepared to deal with what is required.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I suppose that we can, at least, give some welcome to the extension of the NASS scheme to the London authorities, albeit four months later than the Government promised us. If everything in the garden is so lovely--as the Minister says it is--why do we constantly hear complaints from local authorities such as Blackpool, and from voluntary organisations such as the Refugee Council, to the effect that the dispersal programme is being carried out in a shambolic fashion? Many people are not given adequate accommodation and access to legal advice and interpreters, despite the Government's continual promises. Why is there a steady flow of people back from the areas of dispersal to London and the south-east, as the Evening Standard reports only today? Is that not the clearest evidence that the Government's policy is not working in the way they promised us?

Mrs. Roche: What is absolutely clear is that the programme that was inherited from the previous Conservative Government--whom the hon. Gentleman supported--was not well administered. The hon. Gentleman refers to a shambles. There was indeed a shambles; if he reads the report of the Audit Commission

24 Jul 2000 : Column 745

on the matter, he will find that all the research was conducted on the old arrangements--those set up by the previous Tory Government. Even to call them arrangements is a misnomer; they were organised chaos, from which local authorities--Labour and Tory--are still suffering.

Sunday Dancing

2. Mr. John Grogan (Selby): What progress he has made on deregulating Sunday dancing. [130323]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): We are seeking to resolve an issue with a House of Lords Committee in order to make progress.

Mr. Grogan: Given that, this year, new year's eve falls on a Sunday and that Sunday dancing has long since been deregulated in Scotland, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a matter of frustration that the Deregulation Committee in another place, many of whose members' dancing days have probably long since gone, has declined to give an expeditious passage to this modest but necessary deregulation?

Mr. O'Brien: I agree with hon. Friend. The ban on Sunday dancing is antiquated and should have gone years ago. We certainly do not want it to interfere with people celebrating new year. The ban was introduced in the Sunday Observance Act 1780 by probably the worst Tory Prime Minister, Lord North. Our proposals will give freedom of choice to people as well as remove unnecessary regulation on business. The hospitality and leisure industry estimates that the changes could generate up to 3,000 new jobs. I am saddened that Conservative Lords are preventing progress at the moment. I hope that they will change their minds, because this is another example of the forces of conservatism opposing deregulation for business and freedom of choice for ordinary people.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the Minister not share my concern that it is the speed at which people might drive to dances on Sunday that is the principal concern? If we could be assured of a policy of zero tolerance in that respect, the proposition might be more acceptable.

Mr. O'Brien: I am afraid that, in my current state, I will not be driving or hobbling to dances--and I certainly will not be dancing.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Is not the law on this issue a complete shambles? It does not just affect dancing on Sunday. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that the Barrowford agricultural show in Pendle next month will, for the first time in about 100 years, take place on a Sunday? It will use only part of the local park, because if it used the entire park it would run counter to the Public Health Acts Amendment Act 1890 and the organisers would not be able to run their show. The issue is not just

24 Jul 2000 : Column 746

about Sunday dancing and what happens in another place, but about a whole raft of antiquated laws and anomalies that need to be addressed quickly.

Mr. O'Brien: We certainly want to make sure that we address a range of deregulation matters. It is regrettable that, at the moment, the Lords Deregulation Committee has proved somewhat obstructive on some issues, but we hope that it will change its mind. The archaic 18th century legislation prohibits discos and charity dances on Sundays. If such events were open to the public and run on a commercial basis, the position would be far better. All these Lords a'leaping could then begin to leap.

Press Office

3. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): What the cost was to public funds of the recent expansion of his Department's Press Office. [130324]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): To date, approximately £82,000 has been spent on recruitment advertising and an external consultant's report, which recommended that the press office be restructured and expanded by between eight and 10 press officers.

The external recruitment process is still under way and the new press officers have yet to take up their positions. This expansion has been caused primarily by increased external demands on the Home Office press office. Calls have risen from 100,000 to 150,000 in the past three years.

The estimated total cost of the new staff, once in place, will be up to £400,000 per year, bringing total costs to £1.6 million per annum.

Mr. Gray: From 31 March 1997 to 31 March 2000 the number of police officers in the United Kingdom fell by 2,740, but now we hear, with a straight face from the Home Secretary, that he intends to spend up to £1.5 million on increasing his press office. Is he not slightly embarrassed by this conclusive evidence that he thinks that spin doctoring is more important than anything else, and that he would rather have press officers than police officers?

Mr. Straw: That was a silly point. As the hon. Gentleman wants to intertwine the issue of police officers with the number of press officers, he knows very well that, for the first three years of this Administration, the police authorities had to follow budgets either set or proposed by the Conservative Government. The difference between us and the Opposition on police numbers is that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) promised an additional 500,000 officers--[Laughter]--and secured only a reduction in numbers whereas, on 27 January 1997, we proposed giving police authorities money for additional police officers, which will now happen.

As for the issue of press officers, the only spinning in which I am ever involved is a spinning class at the House of Commons gymnasium every Monday morning. Indeed, I was there this morning. The increase in the number of

24 Jul 2000 : Column 747

press officers is entirely the result of the increased demand placed on the press office by journalists of all kinds and of the expansion in the number of media outlets.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): Does the Home Secretary agree that the importance of those people has been demonstrated over the weekend by the story in the News of the World? Is it not right that we need press officers to make it clear that releasing names in the way the News of the World has done puts children at risk? I am pleased to say that Opposition Front Benchers agree with that. Perhaps we ought to send a strong message through the press offices that the News of the World's action, whether well intentioned or otherwise, is profoundly dangerous.

Mr. Straw: The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), made our position very clear, and I am glad to note that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald shares our concerns that, in these matters, the press should act above all on the advice of the police, who deal with the concerns of public safety.

Getting back to the issue of press officers, the simple truth is that the huge expansion in the number of media outlets and a considerable expansion in the work of the Home Office since 1997, especially in race relations, the constitution, family policy and the voluntary sector, has resulted in an increase in demands on the press office to which we are now responding.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): When the right hon. Gentleman sorts out the press office, will he get it to issue a cheap press release explaining the Home Office's plans for the future of the three dangerous, empty tower blocks on Marsham street for which his Department has responsibility?

Mr. Straw: We have already done that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page