Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



Mr Russell

  40. Home Secretary, earlier on you referred to mobilising communities, what exactly do you have in mind with that?
  (Mr Blunkett) I have a particular interest and commitment to a set of values about what I call civil society, the development of individuals and communities being able to support themselves to develop a contribution to resolving solutions within their own life and that of the community around them and that the Government should be enabling, it should be supportive, it should be on their side providing the resources, the framework and the necessary backing to make that possible so that people do not simply say, what will the Government do for us but what will Government do with us and alongside us. I would like us to develop that agenda, it used to be called community development in the 1970s, when I was a lad, but it is now called capacity building. I am very keen that we engage with that across central and local government and perceive this as a way of devolving both responsibility and empowerment to those communities?

  41. Is this an expansion of things like Neighbourhood Watch and Crimestoppers?
  (Mr Blunkett) It would be in the areas I have responsibility for but it would also be the engagement of more special, the development of communities being part of the Crime and Disorder Reduction Programmes and safer communities. It would be, as I was describing earlier, communities engaging in the anti-drugs and dealing policies, sweeping those and other anti-social behaviour from the streets. It is a long-term policy of building the confidence and the capacity for communities not to be handed the problem but to be part of that solution.

  42. I welcome those comments, Home Secretary, how do you square that with the fact that this year Crimestoppers have not been given any funding by the Home Office but last year they did?
  (Mr Blunkett) We have a very, very tiny, I have only discovered, budget for these activities. I am looking forward, albeit modestly, of course, having read a couple of papers this morning, to the Spending Review and discussions with my right honourable friend, the Chancellor, who is also deeply committed to these values and this philosophy. I hope we will be able to do more both in invigorating what is already on the stocks and expanding new schemes and new programmes that relate directly to people in their communities.

  Chairman: Mr Russell, I am not clear how you led us down this path, I thought you were going to ask about emergency planning?

  Mr Russell: Chairman, I am leading into that.

  Chairman: Are you?

  Mr Russell: I thought the Home Secretary's comments earlier on were very encouraging and indeed emergency planning arrangements, I understand, are going to be reported at the end of this month. The Civil Contingency Secretariat is government, I am trying to link in how the volunteers fit in with the blueprint of central government.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. Would you now address emergency planning? I know we all have to take our chances where we can.

Mr Russell

  43. Has the recent view of emergency planning highlighted any weaknesses? You said earlier you wanted to mobilise—
  (Mr Blunkett) Now I have heard the question I am very happy to give you the answer, that is that we have undertaken an assessment, a capability management, a communications and a national resilience policy over the last six weeks, building on the programme of co-ordination, which was begun immediately after this general election, when the Civil Contingency Secretariat unit was drawn together in the Cabinet Office. We have done so with a view to ensuring that the existing programmes were firstly, as I described, resilient and properly co-ordinated, and secondly where there was felt to be a need for review they are welcome to take it. That is why both the Department of Health and ourselves and the Cabinet Office have put out advice to the experts in the field about what resources exist, about the update, for instance, for emergency planning offices at local level. I intend, Chairman, to put round to all members of the House of Commons as quickly as possible an update paper on that so that people can see what we have done.

  Mr Russell: Chairman, notwithstanding your determination to restrain my line of question I would like to come back to, how does that then fit in with—


  44. My determination is that you should stick to the green line question?

  Mr Blunkett: How does it fit with the communities, it fits with the communities because at a time of need mobilising people at a local level is better undertaken if they have the skills, they have the capacity to build, they have the communications at local level to be able to get in touch with each other. As we saw in New York there is great will, a capacity of people to be able to respond at those times. I had not heard the question in those terms, Chairman.

  Mr Russell: Thank you, Chairman, for helping me.

Bridget Prentice

  45. Home Secretary, you talk about the capacity of the people of New York, if the dreadful events of 11 September had happened in London who would have been in charge?
  (Mr Blunkett) The immediate action on the ground would have sprung into place, as it did on a lesser scale in terms of death and destruction at the beginning of August when the Ealing bombing took place, where all branches of the emergency and civil contingencies procedures came into being and acted. The new Committee that has been established under the chairmanship of the Local Government minister Nick Raynsford with the mayor and the Association of London will ensure, just as we have done with the devolved administrations, that there is total coordination. It is understood by all of us that the voice of the mayor will be heard. It is also understood that civil contingency arrangements and the emergency planning arrangements will immediately come into play, co-ordinated from central government.

  Bridget Prentice: Thank you.

  Chairman: We are going to the turn, if we may, to the disturbances in Bradford and else where and then on to immigration and asylum.

Mr Singh

  46. Home Secretary, after the riots, you may prefer the word disturbances, in some northern towns over the summer an interdepartmental ministerial group was set up to look at the issues in place in those services, has that interdepartmental group come to any conclusions or recommendations so far?
  (Mr Blunkett) It has produced for its own purposes an interim position and we hope that by Christmas we should have a full report from them. We are very keen indeed that the various reports, because there is a separate one initiated in relation to what happened in Oldham, and what we might call the Cantle Working Group under John Denham, the Minister for State, should be pulled together so that we have a coherence about what is taking place, plus an evaluation of the measures that were put in place over the summer with the resources that were drawn together across government, the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, the Department of Transport, local government and ourselves. I would like to do it in a way that both informed future policy but also the Spending Review because I do not want to be in a position, not necessarily next summer, but maybe in two or three years time where events erupt and people say, what happened to the last investigation and report, why was it not acted on? I am very keen, indeed, that we take the reports, that we discuss them and present them publicly and that we try and make sure we learn the lessons from them.

  47. I certainly take that point on board, Home Secretary, because after the 1995 disturbance in Bradford that is exactly what people said, what happened after those disturbances? People feel that nothing happened. Just to move on slightly, you are aware that Sir Herman Ouseley came out with a report which was Commissioned before the disturbances and made some very, very serious points about the segregation of school, self segregated communities, has the working group looked at any of the issues that Sir Herman Ouseley has raised?
  (Mr Blunkett) There was one issue on the whole range of support for the development of communities themselves, which was referred to central government, the working party would take that on board automatically but they have also looked, because they could not avoid it, at these issues of how physical separation and the workings of parental preference and admissions policies and geography combine together to separate very substantially in areas like your own in Bradford and else where with children of different ethnic origin. I am looking forward to not only hearing what they see, because we are fairly clear about the evidence on the separation, but also long-term measures as to how we address them. We are all very painfully aware of the experience in North America and historically also in Bradford of busing policies, in terms of bringing children to schools, of the socioeconomic reasons for geographic separation, not purely on race or background but also on economic status, on class, in old-fashioned terms, and in relation to housing. We see it, perhaps, in communities across the country. How do we deal with those issues in a way that does not reinforce that separation and the dangers that go with it.

  48. Have these disturbances, Home Secretary, anything to do with your plans to introduce or to make it an offence to incite religious hatred? Why are you focusing on religious hatred when religious discrimination may be much more of a problem?
  (Mr Blunkett) It became clear to me, and it was clear to my predecessor in 1998 when he indicated that he was sympathetic and he would be prepared to return to this issue, that whilst certain international religious groups were covered by the law in relation to race hate others were not by, primarily Islam and Christianity, and therefore it would make sense for us to bring that in line. We are, of course, talking about incitement to hate and the action that people take, the aggravated offences that are generated from it. I ought to say this, whilst there is a certain amount of amusement from many people at the writings of comedians, and some of the writers who earn their living by being comedians, it is not too funny for people who actually experience it. Taking the mickey out of the law is perfectly free and open to us all but may they do so in a way that does not distort what we are trying to do. I just want to put on record that I enjoyed Life of Brian, I thought it was political satire, not a religious one.

  49. Home Secretary, on Friday my colleagues Gerry Sutcliffe and Terry Rooney and I met with the Bangladeshi community as they came out of Friday prayers and they were very, very concerned about threats, about intimidation, about protecting their mosque, about the harassment women were facing and about the lack of support they were receiving from the police. I feel this complaint may be reciprocated up and down the country where we have ethnic minority groups, what are you doing to ensure that the police do respond to these concerns and these needs?
  (Mr Blunkett) Within the parameters of the operational independence of the Chief Constable, which I understand and respect, we have given very clear advice, it could not have been clearer, that we wanted the protection of those most at risk to be secured and additional policing time and resources have been, over the last six weeks, substantially devoted to that end. What I feel we are not yet cracking is people feeling comfortable with, and able to communicate, that fear to those who can do something immediately to redress it. That actually is a much more profound issue about the nature of the relationship with the community as a whole and how we reinforce trust and confidence so they feel able to do so.

  50. Thank you, Home Secretary. If we can now move on to some issues involving asylum and immigration, particularly the dispersal and voucher system. I understand a review of the voucher system was announced in October 2000, we are now in October 2001 and as far as I am aware nothing has yet been published in connection with that review. Where is that review, have any conclusions been reached and what is your view on the continuation of the voucher system?
  (Mr Blunkett) I inherited the stage of the voucher review reached by the general election, and I have taken that up, along with my ministers, and taken a look at its implications in the broader context. As you are aware, I announced we were undertaking a similar review of dispersal, which actually I had initiated in June, which I announced in August. It seemed to me it was right to take the issue of support to asylum seekers, and vouchers is just one part of that, and their dispersal and the procedures around what happens when people seek to come into the country, how they are treated, when they are in the country, the messages we are sending to our own community and internationally in one package, in one programme. I shall seek to do that in the next fortnight to the House and then follow it with a White Paper on broader nationality, citizenship and immigration policy.

  51. In terms of the dispersal system and NASS, you will be aware of many of the complaints that currently are around about the operation of NASS, for example that NASS has failed to allocate 9,100 units of accommodation that it paid for at a cost of £6.8 million. In Bradford I have people, landlords, who were given the go-ahead to refurbish their properties by local agencies contracted with NASS who were subsequently, having spent the money, told, "We do not need your accommodation." It seems to me they have a legitimate complaint there in the way they have been treated and certainly it is very difficult to explain how NASS is operating at the moment.
  (Mr Blunkett) One of the reasons I have broadened the reviews and taken not a lot of time, four months from the general election, to come to conclusions is precisely to try and develop systems which work. I just want to put on record that I think staff at Croydon, Liverpool, Leeds and at the ports have been doing a sterling job, have been working often against the odds until very recently with limited resources which have been substantially reinforced. I have been down to the Kent ports—and the Hon Member for Dover is aware of my visit recently—and spent a lot of time with people in Croydon, and I have been impressed with how they have been struggling to work with those systems. I want to try and make sure, whether it is in relation to fraud or commissioning or in relation to relationships with both local government and local communities, that we get this right for the future. I hope what I have to say in the very near future will achieve the beginnings of that process.

  52. Finally, on a slightly different tack, I have from my experience in my surgeries many constituents, women especially, who have married men from overseas, the marriage has subsequently broken down before indefinite leave has been granted and yet, no matter how many times I write to the Home Office, though I am I accept a third party, there is no information, there seems to be no action taken to pick these people up, take the action necessary to deport them because they have no right to stay here. That is not just for broken marriages, that is also for visitors or other people staying here illegally. It is my impression, Home Secretary, that there is a lack of will there to take the action which needs to be taken in many of these cases.
  (Mr Blunkett) As you know, the previous Home Secretary did take action against fraudulent marriages, marriages entered into on deception and where people were then going to disappear into the system, having got into the country or having come under false pretences. I am a constituency MP as well and naturally over the last 14 years I have had similar cases. I remember actually having a personal meeting with a junior minister in the Conservative Government way back in 1989. Let's hope it will not take another 12 years to be able to resolve some of these issues.

  Chairman: Can we turn to Channel Tunnel security, an issue close to the heart of Mr Prosser.

Mr Prosser

  53. Home Secretary, when you visited my Dover constituency in September, you made a number of announcements about increasing security measures on both sides of the Channel Tunnel, and I would like to ask you about progress. For instance, can you tell us how many new x-ray scanners will be placed on the French side of the Tunnel in Coquelles and when we expect them to be in full operation?
  (Mr Blunkett) As you know, we both commenced dual use of the Customs & Excise scanners and will shortly order up to five additional mobile scanners for the Kent ports together with the other measures I announced in terms of acoustic equipment (perhaps the simple way to call it is the heart beat equipment) and the thermal equipment.[2] We have not yet reached agreement with the French on the x-ray scanners[3] because they are going through the process we went through in terms of evaluating and consulting on whether it posed a risk, which it does not. So at the moment we have not actually got into activation scanners in France.

  54. We have heard there are some problems with the vulnerability of the heart beat machines, which you have just mentioned, because of wind noises and background noises. Is there any improvement on solving those problems?
  (Mr Blunkett) As you will be aware more than I will, they need wind protection, ie they need to be enclosed in order to be able to get the best results out of them, which is why a multiplicity of scanning and detection equipment is necessary. I would also like to say that we have not abolished using sniffer dogs. Someone produced a report from some think-tank suggesting we had, and we have not. We are running all these various elements alongside each other at different entry points. The CO2 detection, the acoustic and the x-ray together, formed at different points of entry, I think are already proving to be a great success, so much so that the French Government is concerned that people are not getting through.

  55. We will leave that hanging in the air. Compared with the other transport operatives, the ferries, would you say that Eurotunnel has been fully co-operative with the Government and would you describe their present level of security, which as you know has increased enormously over the last months, as robust, or do you think there is still lots of room for improvement?
  (Mr Blunkett) I would like to pay tribute to the work they have done and the co-operation that is now being shown and the investment which is taking place. You will forgive me for being extremely careful as to how eulogistic I am, because they still have an outstanding judicial review I think in relation to a penalty.[4] I can say, and everyone will have noticed, there is much improved co-operation, not least because we have agreed to step up the number of officers of immigration at Coquelles, but we are co-operating with the development of their holding centre at Coquelles. We reached agreement when I went to see Daniel Vaillant, the Interior Minister, on 12 September that they would take much more decisive action in relation to prosecution. That was taking place in terms of entry into the Coquelles centre, and of course the joint ventures on screening at the holding centre outside Coquelles is beginning to work as well, so there is a great deal of credit to be given, and I would not want to take that away.

  56. Finally, in terms of your discussions with your opposite number whom you have just mentioned, are there any other practical outcomes which come from those meetings? Are we now in a position to have the appropriate number of British immigration officers at Gare du Nord and Coquelles that we plan to have?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, the French have co-operated very well at Gare du Nord, and their legislation is going through in relation to ticketing to the French coast, which of course is important for being able to screen people. I think that is a very positive measure. In order to understand more fully the way the French see things, I have tried to put myself in the position of having very large numbers of people at the Kent coast all trying to get into France, with all the arrangements which have to be made for policing and security for local people and the way in which we would feel in our Parliament if we were having to legislate at the request of the French in relation to ticketing and juxtaposed immigration controls. I have come to the conclusion that we would have considerable difficulty. I am therefore pleased that there was a much more positive reaction from the French Interior Minister, that we agreed that we needed to take joint and EU action, both bilateral and EU action, in relation to the broader EU and extended EU boundaries, those seeking accession, that we needed to work together in the Western Balkans, and we now have people out there working on avoiding people trafficking. We need to step this up as part of EU-wide action, and one of the things we combined on, including with the French and Spanish as well as the German Ministers at the Home Affairs Council on 20 September, was to agree the Commission should bring forward proposals reflecting the danger of large movements of people consequent on what is happening in Afghanistan and across its borders.

  Mr Prosser: Thank you very much.

Bridget Prentice

  57. Home Secretary, it seems to me that one of the reasons that we still have cases running on years after an application has been made is because nothing very much has been done to remove people. Even though they have been through the whole system, through the appeals system and whatever, there are still a large number of people who have not been removed and they have become fairly complacent that, having gone through all the hoops, they can still remain here. You have a service delivery agreement which is very ambitious, it seems to me, because I have grave doubts whether you can actually reach your targets. What do you think?
  (Mr Blunkett) Our manifesto and my statement when I was speaking in the House on the Queen's Speech at the end of June indicated that I believed it would be possible to reach 2,500 removals a month by the spring and 30,000 a year by a year after. I believe that can only be done if we take additional measures on top of the ones we have already instituted, including the new protocol with the police. I believe it will take more than that to achieve the goal and I want to address that as part of my statement on asylum.

  58. So that 2,500 per month is spring 2002?
  (Mr Blunkett) I hope we will be able to reach that by spring 2002. I realised within a week of taking over the reins of Home Secretary it was impossible to get from where we were then to where we wish to be more quickly than that.

  59. Do you think that the extension of detention centres will help you in that?
  (Mr Blunkett) That is something we are addressing. We have a programme which is raising from 1,800 to a total of 2,800 the number of places available at the moment, something I wish to fit into a much broader programme.

2   Note by witness: The final number of scanners will depend upon a variety of factors. They will be deployed, according to perceived risk, in UK ports, the British Control Zone in Coquelles, and, subject to agreement with the French, in French ports. Thermal/millimetre equipment is being evaluated although decisions on use have still to be made. Back

3   Note by witness: x or gamma-ray equipment-dependent upon final procurement decisions. Back

4   Note by witness: On 23 October, Eurotunnel obtained leave to move for a judicial review of the Government's decision to impose the civil penalty on their services. Back

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