The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): The most recent British crime survey, published on 25 October, showed the largest ever reduction in crime in one year, totalling a 22 per cent. reduction since 1997. We intend to extend the sample surveyed to 40,000 in order to be able to narrow the figures down to command unit level, so that we can make a proper comparison of like with like.
I should like to make the point that economic and social policies, including a reduction in unemployment, have contributed to the fall, but so has the work of the police service. Thirty-four of the 43 force areas have seen a reduction in recorded crime as well as that in the BCS statistics. The message needs to go out to Glen Smyth and others in the Metropolitan police federation that we deeply care about what the police are doing; we want
Mr. Foster: I thank my right hon. Friend for those encouraging statistics, which show that we have indeed been tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. They are especially welcome after the rising crime experienced for so many years under the previous regime. However, people still fear crime to an alarming and perhaps unjustified extent. Will he suggest ways in which we might assuage the fears of people whose fear of crime is unjustified?
Mr. Blunkett: There was, of course, a doubling of crime in those years, so while acknowledging all the provisos and the need to avoid complacency, I believe that welcome progress is being made. The BCS also shows changes in reassurance levels and a decrease in fear of crime to the levels of 20 years ago, which is most encouraging. Some of the crime reduction measures that my hon. Friend has been advocating based on experience in the St. Leonards district of his constituency, which include getting more people on the beat in small shopping centres and using closed circuit television cameras, ensure that people not only feel safer but are safer under a Labour Government.
Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome the Home Secretary's drawing attention to low clear-up rates in some areas and his sensible suggestions of how to deal with them, but I remain concerned about reliance on performance indicators. By placing too much emphasis on indicators, might we not encourage police forces to drive up clear-up rates by no longer devoting manpower and attention to the most serious crimes, which currently have a high clear-up rate, and concentrating instead on clearing up lots of minor crimes, which is far easier?
Mr. Blunkett: Sampling and according credit for the whole of the reduction rather than focusing on individual performance targets is important. I do not disagree that we have to be able to accord credit for things that are difficult to record, such as reducing antisocial behaviour and disorder, rather than simply measuring and giving credit for things that are easily monitored. We must get that serious issue right and ensure that the police are able to respond to the particular needs of their community.
The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): Any ball-bearing gun that is capable of inflicting a lethal injury is already regarded in law as an air-gun and is subject to the same range of controls. However, most are less powerful than air-guns and cannot be regarded as firearms, so it would not be proportionate to extend the firearms regime to them. We recognise, however, that it is often young people who use ball-bearing guns in an irresponsible and dangerous
Mr. Atkinson: As the Minister acknowledges, the targeting of members of the public by users of BB guns is now a growing menace in many communities. Such weapons can wound, take out an eye, or psychologically traumatise the victim, especially if they are young. Why then did the Government Whip object on Friday23 November to my private Member's Bill, which would have brought the use of BB guns within the law? Will the right hon. Gentleman meet me to discuss how my Bill can progress through the House?
Mr. Denham: I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issues, but as I said earlier, we are not convinced that simply extending firearms legislation to BB guns is proportionate or right. There are two issues: one is increasing availability, the other is tackling problems of misuse and irresponsible use. The problem is essentially created by young people. We are determined to tackle the whole range of antisocial behaviour by young people, including issues relating to BB guns and air-guns.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Has not the time come to take another look at the regulation of air weapons, with a view to raising the age limit at which they can be used? They are the cause of a great deal of low-level mayhem in our constituencies. My right hon. Friend will have noticed that only the other day, for example, a young girl in Gateshead lost an eye after coming under sniper fire from an out-of-control, under-age youth with an air weapon.
Mr. Denham: I accept what my hon. Friend says about the nuisance caused by those weapons. We are looking to advice from the Firearms Consultative Committee on what further measures need to be taken. We must examine ways of tackling those who are abusing and misusing the weapons, as well as concentrating on the issues of supply and regulation.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The Minister talks about supply and regulation, but surely air-guns are available to virtually anyone who wants them. That is the problem with the regulations. Does he agree that we need to revisit the law in general on this subject, and, I suggest, raise age limits considerably, so that young people who are minded to create mayhem cannot obtain air-guns or ball-bearing guns, for example? We could increase age limits, and older people might be more sensible when using those weapons, if they had to use them.
Mr. Denham: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that merely concentrating on supply and sale does not tackle the problem of misuse, which we must also consider. As we take forward our measures on antisocial behaviour, we recognise the concern on both sides of the House about the growing problem of those weapons, and we are determined to make inroads into that problem.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): Measures to increase the efficiency of the asylum system were announced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his statement to the House on 29 October. Further details will be published in the forthcoming White Paper.
Mr. Khabra: As the Member of Parliament whose constituency has the largest increase in case work in the country, I have noticed that the Home Office can take between four and six months to make a simple response. What steps will it take to reduce waiting times?
Angela Eagle: I have to agree with my hon. Friend that our current performance is not good enough. We are working hard to improve it, but I would be the first to say that we still have a long way to go. The immigration and nationality directorate has a strategy for putting more resources into this area and ensuring that we can provide a better service. I hope to return to the House in a few months with our targets met. This is a difficult issue at present, and we recognise that we are not doing as well as we should.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister confirm that there are almost 100,000 asylum seekers either waiting for the initial decision to be made on their case or waiting for their appeal to be heard? Will she also confirm that whereas the Home Secretary originally hoped that this year 30,000 failed asylum seekers would be removed from the country, the number now is likely to be only 10,000? Can she give the House any indication when the minimum number of 30,000 will be reached?
Angela Eagle: The current backlog of outstanding asylum applications stands at 43,000. There was a 155 per cent. increase in the number of first-year decisions last year, and a 13 per cent. increase in removals. I can confirm that we are on course to reach the 30,000 figure by the financial year 200203.
The hon. Gentleman needs to realise that people cannot simply be sent back. We have to get papers for them and arrange their passage back to the country of origin. That is not simple. However, as I have said, we have increased the number of removals by 13 per cent., and because we are now bringing the new detention estate into being,we have three new sites that provide a further 1,500 detention places. That will enable us to ensure that we get removals working more effectively.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Will my hon. Friend ensure that any strategy that she has for increasing the resources for asylum seekers' applications will not have an adverse effect on the section dealing with student visa renewals, which are now taking 12 weeks instead of the advertised three weeks? This is having an adverse effect on some of my constituents, who, having bought
Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. We are concerned about those delays, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has taken immediate action to put in more resources to ensure that we can avoid the inconvenience and disruption that she spoke about.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Will the hon. Lady go to Holland[Interruption.]but only for a short time? Will she look at the extremely efficient and effective way in which the Dutch handle such matters, which turns asylum seekers round quickly? Will she also make sure that the immigration people, who do a good job under difficult conditions, are reinforced when pressures build up? At the moment, Air Zimbabwe flights are a source of great anxiety to them. When pinch points occur, will the hon. Lady ensure that they are reinforced?
Angela Eagle: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have visited Holland; in the European Union, we all have to learn from one another what works and what is effective. The Dutch do a good job, but not always as good as they claim. The difficulties with asylum and immigration claims are not simple, or they would have been solved a long time ago. As always, I am willing to learn from other countries what works.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about pinch points: people traffickers finding new ways in, or the situation in a particular country may lead to a particular problem or worry. I can assure him that the immigration service is geared up and quickly applies extra resources when those pinch points occur. One example is the work that we have been doing with the Czech authorities in Prague. We always bear the problem in mind and, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, monitor patterns of arrival.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): I welcome the proposed improvements to our asylum system and the retention of the dispersal system, which has eased things greatly in Dover and the rest of Kent. However, is the Minister aware of the high number of unaccompanied minors resident in Kent? Is she aware, for instance, that we look after, care for and protect more unaccompanied minors than any other countyand five times more than any London borough? Will she consider those matters, sit down with my local authority and find practical ways of sharing the responsibility across the country?
Angela Eagle: We are working closely with the Local Government Association to see what can be done about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Authorities such as Kent have borne a great burden in the past, but they can now send those children to other authorities. For example, I have come across cases in which Kent haspaid for accommodation for children in and around Manchester. Work is therefore already going on, but we need to get a grip on the way in which local authorities that are dealing with the interim scheme, rather than dispersal, are handling the number of children in their charge. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we are working closely with the LGA to see what can be done to bring about more co-ordination.