Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-100)



  Q80  Janet Anderson: Home Secretary, could I just move to the subject to of sentencing guidelines. As you will know, this Committee has accepted a proposal from the Government to provide parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the new Sentencing Guidelines Council. What added value can our scrutiny supply given that the Sentencing Guidelines Panel will have carried out an earlier public consultation in respect of each guideline?

  Mr Blunkett: We felt, and this is shared across parties, that there should be a parliamentary forum which allowed the view of the electorate, the view of the public, to be aired in circumstances where all the facts could be known, the consideration could be done calmly and with consideration. We believe that the Select Committee is the best route to do that. The idea that the floor of the House could do it, I think all of us would recognise would be untenable, but for Parliament not to have any ability to comment, to request, to hold to account, would also be a mistake. The judiciary remain in the majority on the Sentencing Guidelines Council, chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, therefore we felt it was appropriate, without in any way threatening the independence of the judiciary in individual sentencing, to be able to take a look and to take a look at whether what Parliament asked of the Sentencing Guidelines Council was reasonable and fair and whether or not they had taken account of Parliament's wishes.

  Q81  Janet Anderson: Do you think, Home Secretary, there might not be a danger that the criticism of draft sentencing guidelines by this Committee will be regarded by the judges who comprise the Council as interference in their affairs?

  Mr Blunkett: Not for those who take the view that a wider look at consistency, a wider acceptance of social policy, that there is such a thing as public policy is valuable in a democracy. Those who see any kind of comment on sentencing as an affront or as interference will take the view that you have enunciated, but I appeal to them not to because our constitution depends on the checks and balances that we have. It depends on the independence of the judiciary but it also depends on the effectiveness of democracy being seen to work, not least in terms of the confidence of the electorate in the system as a whole and sentencing is part of that.

  Q82  Chairman: Could I just interject on that point? If the Committee were to conclude over a period of months or years that the Sentencing Guidelines Council was consistently out of step in its conclusions with what we as parliamentarians, a Select Committee, thought was right, what action would you then take as Home Secretary?

  Mr Blunkett: So long as I was Home Secretary I would pick up the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee and I would ask Parliament to legislate on those broader areas, the broad brush framework which you had drawn attention to. Obviously we are doing that with issues around sentencing for murder and through a variety of legislative vehicles we deal with things like the sentencing for driving offences, and I think that principle was established long ago. I think it would be quite right for the Committee to draw attention to that and it may well be that of course you might draw attention to the fact that what we, the Executive, through Parliament had requested so far was too draconian—I doubt it but it could happen—and we would need to take account of that as well.

  Q83  Janet Anderson: If I could move swiftly on to causes of abuse in children's homes. In 2001-02, this Committee conducted an inquiry into The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children's Homes. In its report, the Committee concluded that it was likely that "a significant number of miscarriages of justice [had] occurred". At the time in its reply the Government said that it did not share the Committee's belief in the existence of large numbers of miscarriages of justice, seeing "no evidence to support these assumptions". But on 19 June, during a debate on the Committee's report, the Minister, Hazel Blears, said: "I am happy to say today that further discussions should be held with the Association of Chief Police Officers to determine whether we can strengthen safeguards for such investigations to ensure absolutely that witnesses are not led and that allegations are not encouraged inappropriately." Could you tell us whether you have met with ACPO or whether any progress has been made on that?

  Mr Blunkett: The Minister has been in contact with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the appropriate senior member who leads on this area, and as of last week she was awaiting their response and she will be chasing that so that we can take a further look. I do want to underpin that although a very large number of questions have been put down, particularly by one of your colleagues who is not here this afternoon, Claire Curtis-Thomas, we do not believe that there has been widespread abuse but we do believe that it is always wise to take another look.

  Q84  Janet Anderson: Home Secretary, are there any plans to review the Committee's proposal for mandatory audio or visual recording of police interviews with complainants and other significant witnesses in these types of cases?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes. In the written communication from Hazel Blears from the statement she made on 19 June she specifically asked in that correspondence that ACPO should come back with proposals in relation to videoing and, therefore, appropriate recording of those interviews.

  Q85  Janet Anderson: Thank you very much. Finally, I wonder if you can confirm the recent reports in the press which suggest that the Home Office is proposing to make it a disciplinary matter for an officer to leak the name of a rape suspect to the media? Would it perhaps not be more sensible to introduce a limited statutory prohibition on the reporting of suspects' identities before charge, which will of course regulate the media as well as the police?

  Mr Blunkett: That issue is being debated in the Committee Stage of the Sexual Offences Bill at the moment and obviously we have another chance to do so in the report if people are not happy with the outcome of trying to find a solution that is workable.

  Chairman: We have two substantial topics to try and get through in the next quarter of an hour. I turn first to Mr Prosser on asylum and immigration.

  Q86  Mr Prosser: Chairman, there are a number of areas I would like to raise on asylum but given the time and the fact that the Home Secretary is joining us again in October I will condense them to one question, or a combined question. Given that detention centres are an important part of the removal process, how confident are you that these centres are secure? Do you think there is sufficient clarity in regard to the role and powers of the police in the event of escapes taking place?

  Mr Blunkett: I shall ask Beverley to comment in the spirit of not being in the least bit phased by this. The question is an apposite one. If the evidence, not just on an individual incident but more broadly, is that we are not putting in place sufficient security and that there is a danger of people breaking out then we need to do something rapidly about it. Do you want to comment?

  Beverley Hughes: What I will add to that is that this is an issue that we are continually reviewing. We are very aware, because of the monitoring that goes on in terms of incidents generally in the detention estate, that as we are more effective in tracking down people prior to removal and as we become more effective in removing people, that people are making more and more efforts both to create disturbances sometimes in centres and to use that as a means of trying to escape. This is a trend as we deal with more difficult people, people who do not want to go but in the context of our removals being more effective know that they are likely to be removed. There is this pressure within the estate which we are continuing to monitor and as a result of that monitoring we have improved the security at a number of detention centres very recently because of these kinds of people now trying to escape as they see that removal is inevitable.

  Q87  Mr Prosser: Is there a clear role for the police? Is it right that certain police forces are saying that the actual escape from one of these detention centres is not breaking the law in itself and have said that they do not see themselves having a role in effecting recapture?

  Mr Blunkett: Just to illustrate that I had read the article that was referred to at the beginning of this afternoon, I am aware, as I said then, that the police had indicated that they did not believe that they had the power or that it was their role. If someone is illegally in this country and they are free but illegal in this country there is an obligation, and the police work with us and with the Immigration Service, to apprehend those people, as we have very effectively in picking up illegal working over recent weeks. We will be examining, if this statement has been made, precisely who believed they had the power to make that statement and which particular legal system they were working to.

  Beverley Hughes: I just would add to that that the police do work with us, with the arrest teams that actually go out to apprehend people who we want to remove. There is not any change in the status of those people at the point of arrest and once they are in the detention centre, so I do find that claim, if it really has been made, very odd because the police are helping us to arrest people in the first place to put them in detention centres.

  Q88  Mr Prosser: Still on the question of removals, we have heard quite a lot about new legislation which will deal with people who purposely, intentionally destroy their documentation on arrival in the country. Can you tell us a bit more about that legislation and how effective will it be in preventing some asylum seekers from stringing out their appeals and slowing down removals?

  Mr Blunkett: Obviously we will need to discuss with carriers and others the implications of this because it is becoming an increasing problem where people disembark and then destroy their documents, having used their documents to get into the country in the first place. We believe there is a need for a change. We will not be announcing that until there is final agreement on the Queen's Speech. We believe that with the co-operation of all those involved we can put in place requirements which will not entirely eliminate, because in this area we cannot entirely eliminate, but will substantially eliminate that abuse by ensuring that including the use of proper manifests we know, with the carriers, who is on the plane, what documents they used to present themselves to get the ticket in the first place and how we can prevent people getting off and then pretending that they came from an entirely different country.

  Q89  Mr Prosser: You mentioned illegal workers in earlier answers. Over the course of the last 12 months we have removed the right of asylum seekers to work after six months and we have signalled a major crackdown on illegal working generally. Can you tell us how you monitor and check the success of these measures given that it is an underground illicit trade in the first place? How will you monitor your successes in this regard?

  Beverley Hughes: There are two things we are doing at the moment that we legislated for in the Act, as the Committee will know. One was around enforcement to give immigration officers new powers of entry. The second was to help businesses comply better with their responsibilities to check people's right to work. On the first, on enforcement, those powers are switched on now and they have enabled immigration officers, again together with the police, to mount a number of very big upper tier operations which have apprehended large numbers of illegal immigrants, people without the right to work, people who are here illegally, including one very recently that apprehended about 100 immigration offenders at a single factory in August, a few weeks ago. It has enabled a number of very important upper tier operations and, indeed, medium tier operations to go ahead. We monitor that. I get reports on all of those and we are consistently collating the information that we have got about how many people we are apprehending and removing, because most of those people will be removed immediately they are apprehended if they have no right to be in the country. On the second issue, on business compliance, we included an enabling power to help businesses identify more clearly the documents that would give them a statutory defence if they could show that they had checked a particular document and then it was found somebody was working illegally. I have been working with a group from business over the last nine months and we have recently put out a consultation document to the whole of the business and private sector with proposals as to how we think we could help them have a more secure statutory defence but limit the number of documents because at the moment it is very difficult. People may be surprised to know that a National Insurance card is not a certification of a right to work; many people think it is. We have got to drill down on that. When we get the results of that consultation we will see if we can bring in the secondary legislation to restrict the number of documents and, therefore, help businesses comply.

  Mr Blunkett: I would not want to irritate my good friend, David Winnick, in any way but I do actually believe that identity cards will be a very substantial way.

  David Winnick: We are coming to that in a second.

  Q90  Chairman: We are trying to make sure that we do not squeeze that off the agenda. Could I just follow that last point up. It was widely reported over the summer that a fairly small Norfolk town had become the centre of a very large influx of Chinese immigrants, I think, allegedly some of illegal status, although I do not know if that was the case. What sort of response does the newly focused Home Office make when that sort of situation develops?

  Beverley Hughes: In Norfolk actually what was then precipitating was an acceleration of work that was already going on by immigration officials together with the police, because that had been identified before it actually hit the press. That work was accelerated to investigate and deal with that situation in addition to actually sitting down and talking with some of the local stakeholders, the local authorities, the businesses, to get a clear picture of what was happening on the ground. There was already ongoing work, the response was accelerated in the light of the local concern about that.

  Q91  Chairman: Would you be able to tell the Committee how many removals have taken place as a result and how many prosecutions of employers are being undertaken as a consequence of that enforcement action?

  Beverley Hughes: Certainly I will give the details on that enforcement action.[3] I have to say to the Committee that the issue of prosecutions in this area is a problem in that despite our efforts to ratchet up enforcement and bring in new powers and bring more people to the point of prosecution, the number of convictions over recent years for which we have got such statistics has gone down resulting in the last year for which we have established statistics, 2001, in 65 prosecutions and only one conviction. This is something that the Attorney General is looking at to see if we can understand the reasons why, when we get people to court, we do not secure the convictions.

Chairman: If you will provide the statistics for the King's Lynn situation perhaps when you return in October we can go through that a bit more.

  Q92  David Winnick: Do I take it that my good friend, the Home Secretary, is now persuaded that identity cards should come about?

  Mr Blunkett: I am working through, on behalf of the Cabinet, the detailed consideration for final presentation of the pros and cons of the technical, financial and administrative details of that. I am personally committed to the idea but I have an obligation to ensure not only that it would be workable and fundable but that it would address the issues of major fraud, of organised crime and terrorism, of immigration and illegal working and of abuse of services, for which it would be designed.

  Q93  David Winnick: So you have to make up your mind on all those issues, whether it is going to be effective and on the grounds that you have been speaking about, before it is likely that there will be proposed legislation in the House of Commons?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes. What I did today was to give a progress report to Cabinet on the work that I have been doing—I do not think there is any secret about that—and to ensure that I have the authority to get the necessary procedures to check out those technical challenges through the Office of Government Commerce and independent consultancies so that we do not make any future announcement that is not rooted in the knowledge about how something would be achieved through project management and through the difficulties, given that governments of all persuasions have not been terribly good at the development of information technology and the cutting edge which is required to do the job. I have to stress that I am doing this in the light of changes that are taking place with passports and with driving licences anyway because, as in Europe and America, the use of biometrics, the determination to cut down on misuse of identity and abuse and forgery of identity, is requiring us to take those actions in any case. The logic of what we need to do over a very long period of time is to be able to integrate the potential for an ID card with the process that those two major operations are already undertaking.

  Q94  David Winnick: You have been very frank. In your progress report to your Cabinet colleagues, did you give an indication of when it is likely that you will be in a position to make a firm recommendation?

  Mr Blunkett: I was asked by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to ensure that later this year we could have a picture because we have got to make a decision—

  Q95  David Winnick: Later this year?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes. We have got to make a decision as to whether we would have either the inclination or the space available to bring forward empowering paving legislation in the coming session of Parliament. If we are not going to do that then we need to make a decision at that stage to defer.

  Q96  David Winnick: Asking a Cabinet member to say that his Cabinet colleagues are not very keen on a project—

  Mr Blunkett: I would not dream of saying that.

  Q97  David Winnick: No. We do get the impression, Home Secretary, that a good number of your Cabinet colleagues, not just the Chancellor, are not, shall we say, over-enthusiastic about what you have in mind. You will make no comment on that.

  Mr Blunkett: I noted this morning at Cabinet that several members who are great enthusiasts were named in Sunday papers as being against.

  Q98  David Winnick: The four?

  Mr Blunkett: The four who were named as being against and several who had expressed perfectly reasonable scepticism were named as being incredibly in favour. I would take this with a considerable pinch of salt and rely on me to persuade them that it will be all right in the end.

  Q99  David Winnick: It certainly gives a picture of a divided Cabinet on this issue. Can I ask, if there is to be such a card, will people have to pay? The consensus in the press, and the press could well be wrong, is that it will be £40.

  Mr Blunkett: Let me just say two things. Firstly, in securing biometric non-forgeable definable identity for driving licences and passports there will be a substantial cost which would be a substantial part of any ID cost. On your absolutely clear question, someone would have to pay and, as with payment for driving licences, which is the first licence now £41, and for passports from October £42, it would either have to be the public purse through taxation or over a ten year period by a contribution from the individual.

  David Winnick: That is pretty obvious.

  Chairman: Mr Clappison wants to ask a last question.

  Q100  Mr Clappison: Very directly on that, Home Secretary, as you may be aware, Parliament was lobbied by the pensioners yesterday. I was lobbied by a large group of pensioners from Boreham Wood and their unanimous view to me, which I put to you, was if there is to be an identity card they do not want to pay £40 for it and that it would be quite a lot for a pensioner.

  Mr Blunkett: I have every sympathy with pensioners who are not on substantial occupational pensions and I have every sympathy with those moving towards very old age who in my view, if we were to move in this direction, should have a card for life.

  Chairman: As you know, Home Secretary, our first substantive inquiry this year will be on the entitlement cards—

  David Winnick: Or identity cards.

  Chairman: Whatever Mr Winnick or I wish to call them.

  David Winnick: The Home Secretary called them identity cards.

  Chairman: —closely followed by an inquiry into prisons and rehabilitation, so we will be able to return to these matters very shortly. Home Secretary, Minister, may I thank you very much indeed.

3   See Ev 19-20. Back

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