Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
MP, BEVERLEY HUGHES
MP AND MR
11 SEPTEMBER 2003
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
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
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
Q9 Chairman: Home Secretary, you
mentioned a number of initiatives. According to information that
the Committee hasand this is not all on your watchsince
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
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
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 forwardwe do not knowanother
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
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
downsome of which I have described this afternoonwere
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
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
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