Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)



  Q1  Chairman: Good afternoon, Home Secretary, Minister and Mr Gieve. Thank you for coming this afternoon. We have a number of pretty new Members of the Committee, including myself, and we are looking forward to the afternoon's evidence session. I do not know if there is anything you want to say to us before we start?

  Mr Blunkett: I always look forward to these sessions and when the gamekeeper turns poacher you know you are in for a real roasting.

  Q2  Miss Widdecombe: Can I ask about transparency in the Home Office and making sure that the public are properly informed? Today there is a story in the national press about an escape of confined asylum seekers at Dover. Several of them escaped from what was an old Victorian prison. The reason I raise it is that this escape took place one week ago. There appears to have been no information until now. Why was not an announcement made?

  Mr Blunkett: The honest truth is I have not a clue because I only read this story in The Daily Express this morning. As I virtually never now believe any single story The Daily Express prints, I have to have those stories checked out. As I was at Cabinet for almost two hours this morning, I am afraid I had not realised that the select committee would want to deal with individual items relating to individual breakouts. I know that the right honourable lady will be very keen that I should, given that she became so familiar with them when she was the Prisons Minister.

  Q3  Miss Widdecombe: I should point out that this has taken place in Kent, which is of some interest to me. Are you therefore saying that the story which is in The Daily Express today is not true?

  Mr Blunkett: I do not know.

  Q4  Miss Widdecombe: You do not know whether there has been a breakout of asylum seekers or not?

  Mr Blunkett: I have not checked it out this morning and I do not check out every individual item that appears in national newspapers. If I did, I would spend all my day doing so because there are stories run day in, day out. Most of them prove not to be totally accurate.

  Q5  Miss Widdecombe: You are saying that a breakout is not something that would immediately concern you and it can wait?

  Mr Blunkett: No. Fortunately, we have reduced breakouts in the prison service as well as in removal centres down to an absolutely minimum, so it is not one of the things that is uppermost on my political agenda at the moment and it will not be for the rest of the day.

  Q6  Miss Widdecombe: Your reply to me is that, even though there is a report that not one but several people scheduled for removal who were being held in detention have escaped, that is not an issue of importance for you?

  Mr Blunkett: It is an important issue. It is not one on which I have been able to address the issues this morning, firstly because I have been in Cabinet; secondly, because I have been preparing for this afternoon and I thought this afternoon was going to concentrate on policy. I am very happy to write to the honourable lady. We do not announce every single issue of what is happening in the Department. We get accused already of having "initiativitis" and putting out too many press releases.

  Q7  Miss Widdecombe: In summary, it is possible that there was a breakout one week ago and you still do not know about it?

  Mr Blunkett: It is possible. The one issue that concerns me most is whether the police took it seriously and were prepared to do anything about it. That issue, at 8.30 this morning, I instructed should be followed through. I cannot answer your question but I certainly took that particular aspect of the issue seriously because it seemed to me that that was the key point in the report, not whether people had managed to break out.

  Q8  Miss Widdecombe: A week ago.

  Mr Blunkett: Whether it was a week ago or yesterday, it is the same issue.

  Beverley Hughes: I routinely receive reports about all kinds of incidents in the detention estate and throughout the asylum process of one kind or another involving detainees particularly. I do not know why, if it is true that some escaped a week ago, it has only just hit the press. There is no question that we could or should release every single piece of information about every detainee who may have escaped or done something in the detention estate sufficient to be brought to my attention and that that would necessarily be released to the press.

  Q9  Chairman: Home Secretary, you mentioned a number of initiatives. According to information that the Committee has—and this is not all on your watch—since 1997 the Home Office has to date introduced 43 Bills into Parliament and launched a total of 118 consultation papers. There were most recently six Bills introduced in 2002 and a further two in 2003 and in the region of 53 consultation papers in the same period of time. Is it your intention to continue to legislate and launch new initiatives at the rate that has been established over the last few years?

  Mr Blunkett: It is not my intention to place emphasis on legislation for its own sake but it is my intention to be ahead of the game and to see what issues are uppermost in the minds of the public, the key areas of value in terms of changing the experience of people to the benefit of people in the community and therefore to ensure that issues that we know are going to hit us if we are not ahead of the game will be dealt with effectively. I am proud of the activity levels of the Department and my ministers. I think we have shown vigour, enthusiasm and commitment to the job and I am glad that six and a half years in we are showing just as much energy, commitment and eye on the ball as we were in 1997 in a different guise.

  Q10  Chairman: Could you give us any indication of what you expect the priorities to be for the coming year?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes. I think I want to underpin the change in the Department's profile, placing emphasis on citizenship and an active community, the engagement of people in their own lives and their own neighbourhood with being part of the solution, with transferring from being purely a doing government to people to being a government, through our Department, where we are acting with people. We have sought to demonstrate that, whether it is in neighbourhood and community policing and the emphasis we are placing on that; whether we are doing so in terms of citizenship agenda for new entrants into the country and those seeking naturalisation or whether it is the development and expansion of the active communities unit which I am very proud of because it relates to people's lives in a way that is different to previous government activity.

  Q11  Chairman: If that is your priority for the coming year, what practical things can we expect to see the Home Office doing in the next 12 months which will be making that active community agenda a reality?

  Mr Blunkett: Firstly, using the existing and the new anti-social behaviour legislation to engage people in being, with the police, with the community safety partnership, with housing authorities, part of the solution to overcoming the scourge of low level thuggery and anti-social behaviour. Secondly, in using the additional resources for countering drug misuse, to engage both families and communities in being part of the solution, to look at how, as we were announcing yesterday with the potential Community Justice Centre, we can bring the justice system to the neighbourhood and engage people in finding solutions to overcoming repeat offending and engaging the voluntary sector in the broad thrust of policy for the discharge of prisoners, for the work with the probation service, for ensuring that civil society means something to people because they can feel that they are being engaged in those solutions.

  Q12  Chairman: That is a huge agenda and there are a lot of policies and initiatives in what you have just said. How do you ensure that the legislation that the Home Office has passed in recent years or the initiatives that have been announced are being carried out?

  Mr Blunkett: Firstly by monitoring that the legislation we pass is being used. There are two elements to this. First, ensuring that the orders under parent legislation are activated and that there are mechanisms for delivery, including the establishment of much more focused programme management groups for delivery. Secondly, by ensuring that people expected to use the powers made available to them are familiar with them, given that we are hands off in the sense that we rely on the police, local authorities and community partnerships. We rely on agencies attached to the Department to do the job. That is quite a challenge because we find all the time that the police, environmental health, housing officers, do not know what powers exist. As you go round the country, you realise that they are asking for powers that already exist. We need to communicate those better and we need to engage in a way which ensures that people in the community are much more familiar with the terms of the legislation that is in place and how it can be used. That is why I am keen to ensure that there is a debate that engages those who are part of the solution, not just the neighbourhood, but as we were discussing in Liverpool yesterday, how we can ensure that those engaged, for instance, in the criminal justice system see that they are part of providing a different culture and a way of solving problems, rather than just going through a process. That is why I so often request the judiciary to review how they operate so that they feel they are part of that solution.

  Q13  Chairman: If it is the case that there are pieces of legislation, powers that have been enacted by Parliament, that are not being used by the police, local authorities or other agencies, should not the Home Office be spending more time making sure that the existing legislation is implemented, rather than perhaps bringing forward—we do not know—another six Bills next year?

  Mr Blunkett: I hope it is not six because I am not a great believer that legislation solves everything. Legislation does underpin and provide the framework for changing people's lives and resolving problems. I am very keen that we do the two in parallel, that we get a grip on what is already there, we make sure it is being used, it is available, it makes sense to people. Where it does not, we should change it. Out of the outstanding 10 sub-legislative elements that were outstanding earlier this year, I have amalgamated two of them into new Bills so that they make more sense and one is being laid. I think there are seven pieces of subsidiary legislation passed over the last six years that have not yet been implemented, partly because some of them have been superseded.

  Q14  Chairman: Have you any idea how many clauses of Bills that have been passed since 1997 have never been commenced and how many clauses have been repealed without having been implemented?

  Mr Blunkett: My information as of this week is that seven have never been implemented. Two have been included in other legislative measures and amalgamated and four have lapsed.

  Q15  Chairman: Perhaps we could pursue that because I have been given figures of over 250 clauses never commenced since 1997 in Home Office legislation. I would not expect you to be able to resolve that one here but the general point is can you assure the Committee, going into next year, that sufficient care will be taken in bringing forward new legislation to make sure it is legislation that will be commenced and will not be legislation which is repealing things which were only enacted two or three years previously?

  Mr Blunkett: I can do that. I may have been talking about parts and you may have been talking about clauses.[1] I think we may both be right. I hope so. A year last April, I asked for a full breakdown of all the legislation that had been passed not just since 1997 but beyond and whether it had been implemented. It was on the back of that that I made the progress that I have described this afternoon because I do not think there is any point in passing legislation in order for it to stand idle even when there are good reasons for the delay. Obviously, it does take considerable time to implement complicated legislation where you have to further consult or where the resources take time to come on stream. Sometimes we implement things on a pilot or pathfinder basis rather than full implementation. I do not make any excuse for that because I think that is often a good way of doing it in terms of getting the practical action on the ground right, rather than just implementing the legislation because it is there.

  Q16  Chairman: You mentioned anti-social behaviour. One of the powers the Home Office has taken is to enable police officers to confiscate vehicles that are persistently breaking road traffic regulations or being used off road to the annoyance of neighbours. Do you know of any instances where that power has yet been used?

  Mr Blunkett: If it has not, it will not be for the lack of trying because on every single visit I make, including yesterday, I raise the issue and empower the community to demand that the police do something about it. I have come to glean that if there is a problem it is either because people do not know or because they find the technicalities and the bureaucracy around implementing it difficult. I think it is our job, albeit that it might require further legislation, to slim down the bureaucracy. Anti-social Behaviour Orders are classic. The Government did something with very good intent and discovered that the systems around it were so bureaucratic that we would have to slim it down further. I make no bones about that. We will carry on doing so if we have to.

  Q17  Chairman: In July, Mr Gieve came before the Committee with Mr Narey and talked about changes in the senior leadership of the Home Office. Could you tell the Committee what your hope is about what will happen as a result of the changes at senior management level?

  Mr Blunkett: The shape of the Department had changed dramatically. The objectives we were laying down—some of which I have described this afternoon—were also changed. Therefore, it seemed to us that we should shape the administration to be able to cope with those challenges and to be able to implement new management styles for project management delivery on the ground. We sought to engage people at a very senior level who had experience of delivery, who were committed to and energetic about the changes in the nature of the department and its outreach to the community. We will be monitoring and I will want to ask the Permanent Secretary to report to me on the nature of the cascading of the changes down the ladder, so that we make sure that these occur at the sharp end and that we can give a report back on what difference that has made to the population and the community outside. One example of that would be, I would suggest, the steps we took in the Nationality Immigration Act last year, three quarters of which we have implemented with a substantial impact on the areas that we were concerned about, not just in halving the number of those claiming asylum, but in terms of border security and speeding up the systems, including the nationality and other aspects of the IND, so we have already started that process.

  Q18  Chairman: It is quite a big clearout that is taking place at senior levels in the Department. Are you confident that this is not people being asked to pay the price for the sheer number of pieces of legislation and initiatives that have come forward in recent years and the difficulty of delivering on them?

  Mr Blunkett: I thought we had been very cautious in my own terms about the speed with which I expected people to act. It was 18 months into my job as Home Secretary before we had begun the very major changes, having thought them through carefully and having debated them internally and across government. I find that the cry from the people I represent is not that we move too quickly or we change too frequently but that we move too slowly and that we change very infrequently the practices, the management and those who hold a very senior position. That is a historic fact of the Civil Service which is not mirrored by major business or service outside.

  Q19  Chairman: Given that any change of this sort obviously disrupts things for a time, do you think the public at large, those you represent, are yet seeing the benefits in the Home Office's ability to deliver that you are aiming for? If not, when will we see a more effective Home Office as a delivering organisation?

  Mr Blunkett: I think we have seen it already in the Immigration Nationality Directorate and I have mentioned that. I think we have seen it in terms of the reorganisation of our organised crime and counter-terror units which are now in place. I think we have seen it in terms of establishing the Anti-social Behaviour Unit linking that into a much more specific, vigorous relationship with the police service across Britain. I believe we have seen it in terms of setting up the 42 criminal justice boards and the way in which there is a material change taking place on the ground, at local level, in the way that cases are being handled.

1   See Ev 21. Back

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