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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): Most police forces are on course to meet their recruitment targets or come close to them, but there is still a great deal to do on that and on progression of black and Asian police officers. There were 2,915 ethnic-minority officers at the latest count, an increase of just under 580, or about 25 per cent., since March 1997. An inspection of forces by Her Majesty's inspectorate last year found that there had been an overall improvement in forces since the previous inspection in this area in 1998.
Dr. Iddon: I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that the efforts made so far by Greater Manchester police to recruit from the black and Asian community have been disappointing. Has any analysis of the reasons for that been carried out? Is it something to do with the culture in the police force? Why are black and Asian people in Greater Manchester reluctant to join the police, and are any special strategies being introduced to deal with the situation?
Mr. Straw: As I said, all forces are making progress, although it has not been swift enough. Between March 1997 and January this year, the number of black and Asian officers in the Greater Manchester area increased by 26, from 161 to 187. That is a rise of about 15 per cent.; it is not as high as the increase in the country generally.
I think that one reason for the shortage is that for a couple of years there was a recruitment freeze in many areas, including Greater Manchester. There are some cultural issues, but I know that the chief constable and chairman of the Greater Manchester police authority are anxious to deal with them.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Does the Home Secretary agree that we should do much more to encourage young black people and Asians to take up careers in the police force? I have asked some questions in Lancashire about police numbers generally. I was told only two weeks ago that the number of regular constables had fallen by 30, and the number of specials by 121,
Mr. Straw: The reason for the fall in the number of specials dates back to the Police Service (Health and Safety) Act 1997, a Conservative measure passed towards the end of the last Government that made health and safety requirements the same for volunteer specials as for full-time employed police officers. The former Home Secretary furrows his brow. He may not even have noticed that the legislation was passed while he was Home Secretary, but that is the truth of it, and that is why police services across the country have charted a reduction in specials. We consider that very unsatisfactory, and we want the numbers to increase.
In Lancashire, there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of black and Asian officers during the past four years: it has risen from 33 to 49. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) may have noticed, the whole of the most recent edition of the Lancashire constabulary's newspaper is devoted to further work that the police are undertaking to increase the proportion even more.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): There are only 596 women police officers drawn from the ethnic minority communities. That will concern my right hon. Friend, as it concerns me. What can we do to persuade more Asian women to join the police? Is there not a case for gender targets for officers drawn from ethnic minority communities? I suspect that most of those 596 are black women, with only a handful of Asian women. We must get more Asian women into the police force.
Mr. Straw: It is important for my hon. Friend not to generalise about Asian women. There are significant cultural differences between women of Asian heritage who come from the Muslim tradition and those from the Sikh or Hindu tradition. We know that there is a cultural problem among, in particular, some sections--not all--of the Muslim community in respect of encouraging women to join uniformed services such as the police. That is as much an issue for the Muslim community as it is for the police service, and we must make progress.
As for whether we should set a specific target, the proportion of women in the black and Asian population of the police service is just below the proportion of women as a whole in the police service. I do not think that there is a case for separate targets at present, but we will certainly keep the matter under review.
Mr. Wilkinson: Instead of waiting for proposals from the Commission, is it not about time that the Government got a grip of border controls in this country? Is it not a fact that last year there were about 76,000 asylum applicants, and that about 60,000 were ineligible for asylum, but only about 9,000 went back? Is it not high time that European Union countries, instead of playing pass the parcel with humanity, took care to exercise their responsibilities effectively so that applications from asylum seekers are processed in the first EU country in which they arrive?
Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last remark. The principle of the Dublin convention is that asylum seekers' applications should be processed in the first EU country in which they set foot. The difficulty is the way in which the convention has been constructed, and the repeated problems that we have faced over, for example, decisions by our higher courts to classify France and Germany as unsafe third countries, a view with which I respectfully disagree.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we inherited the Dublin convention. It was signed in 1990 and did not come into force until October 1997. We have been working hard--I have taken the lead in Europe--to propose changes to it. We have doubled the number of removals over the past four years, but one of the major problems in that context is the convention and the way in which our courts have sought to interpret it. That is why we are engaged in further detailed discussions within the Commission to try to change its wording.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): In the negotiations on replacing the Dublin convention, does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is a danger that agreement will be reached by sinking to the lowest common denominator? In that context, we might think twice about exporting the voucher system to the rest of Europe. What steps are being taken to try to influence the process, given that we are not, as a result of the Amsterdam treaty, fully signed up to a common system across Europe?
Mr. Straw: We accepted article 64 of the treaty, which provides for common minimum standards for asylum seekers. Work is taking place on proposals in respect of that. We must move towards a common playing field. We cannot have a circumstance where there is effective free movement across every other country in the EU and we have border controls, and where our definitions of whether someone should or should not be given asylum have been judicially interpreted in a way that is significantly at odds with the interpretations of courts in other European countries.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): The Home Secretary is right to remind the House that the Dublin convention was signed as long ago as 1990, before our problems were on anything like their present scale, and that its objective was to ensure that asylum seekers made their applications in the first EU country that they reached. If the convention is not working as intended, it should be revised or we should consider withdrawing from it.
In so far as our problems are being caused by decisions of the United Kingdom courts, what steps is the Home Secretary taking to introduce legislation to overrule them? Does he know that, this year alone, nearly 1,200 people have been apprehended in the UK terminal of Eurotunnel in my constituency? What progress has been made to persuade the French Government to ensure that SNCF reinforces the fencing for which it is responsible at the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles?
Mr. Straw: On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point, I have had many discussions with, and made representations to, the French Government and SNCF to ensure that they reinforce security measures at their end of the tunnel. As he knows, I have introduced a civil penalty for rail freight as well as other carriage through the tunnel better to secure that and to bear down on SNCF. The French Government have already agreed to introduce juxtaposed controls for passengers on Eurostar services. They have promised to introduce legislation on that by June.
On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first question, section 11 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 sought to deal with the problem of the definition of safe third countries in a case known as Adan and Aitsegeur before the Court of Appeal. However, I regret that members of the Judicial Committee in another place have decided on an even wider interpretation of a safe third country. We are therefore considering further changes to legislation.
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Will the Home Secretary confirm that whatever changes we might make, this country will remain a safe haven for Muslims and others who are fleeing from the Taliban in Afghanistan, people such as my constituents who fled the civil war in Somalia, and Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein? Will he also confirm that Labour Members will have nothing to do with the outrageous views of the hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend)? It is about time that the Conservative party removed the Whip from him.
Mr. Straw: Of course, I confirm that we shall continue to uphold in every particular our obligations under the refugee convention to grant refugee status to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution. I accept my hon. Friend's comments on the hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend). However, I regret that many
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): When the Home Secretary next consults his EU counterparts, will he consider why asylum applications in the United Kingdom reached record levels, but fell in Germany and the Netherlands? Will he accept that common sense and experience from overseas suggest that extensive use of the power to detain asylum seekers in secure reception centres and fast-tracking manifestly ill-founded claims are the way in which to deter unfounded claims? Will he recognise at last that the policies that Conservative Members have advocated for some years would result in our being able to tackle the problem and would be significantly better for our national interest than the shambolic system over which he presides?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman's figures are wrong. Last year, the number of asylum applications rose by 7 per cent. over the previous year. Applications fell in Germany, but they increased by a higher figure in the Netherlands. We remain seventh in the league table per head of population. The Netherlands has almost twice as many applications per head. That also applies to Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, Denmark and Sweden. It is a Europe-wide problem. It must be thought through, which the Conservative party has failed to do. The number of applications being decided in a year has trebled compared with when the Conservative party left office. As a result, the backlog is at a seven-year low--well below the level when it left office.
To give a further illustration of the way in which Conservative Members do not seek seriously to deal with the problem, but instead exploit it, it was they who chose to fight against the civil penalty--the £2,000 per clandestine--which has been the single most important measure to bear down on the criminals. They would destroy it.
As for detention space, like the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the hon. Gentleman speaks about the idea, although it would be impossible, inhumane and ridiculously costly to detain every single asylum seeker. However, when we propose an extra detention centre--in Aldington in Kent--what happens? Conservatives locally and nationally oppose it. That is the policy: they want detention centres anywhere but in their own Conservative backyards.