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Probation Service

9. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): How many posts are vacant in the probation service. [148332]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): The latest figures show that there are 1,060 vacancies. That equates to 5.6 per cent. of a total work force of 18,851.

Tom Brake : The vacancy rate is alarmingly high. The alarm in the probation service was confirmed when I met my local probation officers a couple of weeks ago.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) received a parliamentary answer in November 2002 stating that there were 231 vacancies in London for probation officers. A recent parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) showed that by June 2003 the figure had fallen to zero and that the shortfall was therefore eliminated in seven months. Will the Minister comment on whether that happened or whether the establishment has been reduced by that figure to show that there are now no vacancies?

Paul Goggins: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the establishment has not been reduced. However, the figure has changed since the earlier parliamentary answer. There are 166 vacancies in London, but I assure him that there has been no reduction in the establishment. The Government's commitment to ensuring that there are sufficient probation officers in training and in service is illustrated by the current number of trainee probation officers, 1,520, and the figure for 1996, which was a nice round figure—nought.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): With the shortages of prison officers and the addition of the proposed national offender management service, the probation service will be forced to make major changes when it is already understaffed and overstretched. It was recently reorganised in 2001 and is now sinking under bureaucracy. With a senior member of the probation service saying,

how will the Minister avoid the new agency burying probation staff in even more red tape?

Paul Goggins: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role and look forward to many interesting debates with her across the Floor of the House.

I do not know where the hon. Lady gets her information. Many of the responses on the national offender management service that have been returned to me have been very positive. Far from the dearth of probation officers that she describes, 4,300 more probation service staff are employed today than when the Conservative Government left office. The national

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offender management service has received a generally warm welcome and joining up prisons and probation will be a wholly good thing. I invite her to be more enthusiastic about it after she has studied it in greater detail.

Passport Fraud

10. Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): What action he is taking to reduce passport fraud. [148333]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): The United Kingdom Passport Service is working now on a group of projects to reduce passport fraud through improved fraud detection and prevention. The focus is on developing the professional skills, technology, improved systems and intelligence methodology needed to tackle passport fraud. Among these are new arrangements for lost and stolen passports and the reintroduction from February of secure delivery for all passports. However, it is also crucial and in line with international developments that we incorporate biometric identifiers in passports as soon as possible and work on this has already begun.

Mrs. Calton : I thank the Minister for her response. She has assured us that things will change from February, when the new special mail service is introduced. Will she also check what happens after a decision is made? Mr. and Mrs. Crossley are two of my constituents. As her office well knows, Mrs. Crossley's documents, decision and passport were untraceable for three weeks over Christmas, although a special delivery, which apparently vanished into the ether, was used. The number was given to the Minister's office, Mr. Crossley and my office, yet for three weeks it was untrackable.

Beverley Hughes: If the hon. Lady gives me details of that case, of which I was not aware, I shall investigate it. I am not sure whether in talking about special delivery numbers she was referring to the Post Office not being able to trace the document, which is of course not the responsibility of the UK Passport Service. It is to eradicate the problem of passports being lost in the post as well as to deal with claimants saying that their passports have been lost or stolen that we intend to introduce secure delivery. We have appointed a company to do that. As part of the implementation of that project, there will be full tracking of every document from the point that it leaves the passport office to its delivery. Those new arrangements will begin in February and implementation will be completed in March.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that organisations on the Indian subcontinent are openly advertising the provision of various travel documents, including passports? Will it be possible to do anything about that?

Beverley Hughes: We are aware of that activity in India and, indeed, one or two other countries. The Foreign Office and our immigration staff whom we second to UK Visas have been working on those issues. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the

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Home Secretary will be going to India very shortly. It is certainly one of the issues that he will want to raise during his discussions.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will the Government confirm that they will be putting biometric information into all new passports? When will that be introduced? Has the Minister considered not waiting until passports expire, but introducing, beyond a specific date, biometric information in all passports?

Beverley Hughes: This is an important development, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. There is a pilot scheme at the moment. He will appreciate that the operation is complex, large scale and technical, so it is important that, before we start introducing biometric information for real, we ensure that we can handle the logistics. That work is being done now. Under a major pilot scheme, 10,000 people will be enrolled in a realistic environment. During early to mid-2005, we hope to be able to begin embedding microchips in new passports and in those that come up for renewal. That will involve storing an image of the face and selective passport information in a chip. That is an important development to enable us to position the United Kingdom population to meet international standards as well as to meet our objectives on document and national security.

Knife Sales

11. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What discussions his Department has had about current controls on the sale of knives. [148334]

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): We take our responsibility for public safety in this area extremely seriously. My officials are seeking the views of the Association of Chief Police Officers on the adequacy of legislation and its enforcement.

Mr. Marsden : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She will be aware, because I have written to her about it, of the concerns in Blackpool over the sale and availability of knives, particularly to the 16 to 18-year-old age group. The issue has been commendably taken up by my local newspaper in Blackpool, The Gazette. Does she share my concern that the Department's statistics do not differentiate between offences involving kitchen knives, for example, and those involving combat knives, which could be obtained on the street? Does she agree that it is important that the Government have more precise information about such offences so that they can judge whether the age of purchase should be raised?

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in taking up the matter on behalf of his constituents. I have read the articles in The Gazette and I am highly aware of the campaign. As he knows, there is a range of legislation on the matter, banning the carrying of offensive weapons, banning blades on school premises especially and banning the sale of knives to under-16s.

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of differentiating between the types of knives used in offences. Clearly, we do not want to overload the police

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with bureaucracy in an effort to identify every single type of knife, but the reason I have asked ACPO to re-examine the matter is that I share some of his concerns.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): Is the Minister aware that concern is spreading because knives are now being used in areas that are not used to violent crime? On Sidcup high street, a young teenage constituent of mine was stabbed in daylight, at tea time on a Saturday. Even in such areas, the culture of violence is becoming a problem. Do the Government intend to have an amnesty for handing in knives?

Ms Blears: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that, in the past few years, there have been several amnesties in different parts of the country, many of which have been extremely successful, with a huge number of knives handed in. It is an offence under existing legislation to sell knives to under-16s, but violent crime and the carrying of knives are issues of concern, which is precisely why the Government have asked ACPO to consider the matter in detail and see what more we can do. An extensive range of current legislation bans the manufacture and sale of knuckledusters, swordsticks, martial arts equipment of the type that is often used, flick knives and gravity knives, but I am concerned that young people in particular are gaining access to such weapons.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the sale of other offensive weapons? I recently received an advertisement for a pepper spray that was directed very much towards women buying it for self-defence. I can see that it might be tempting to keep such an object in one's handbag, but of course possession is an offence under the Firearms Act 1968. Is there not a need either to take strong steps to stamp out the sale of such weapons, or to consider liberalising the law?

Ms Blears: My hon. and learned Friend raises an important issue. The general ban on the carrying of a range of offensive weapons goes back as far as 1953. I advise the House that there is legislation that bans the marketing of knives in particular where that might encourage combat. That legislation is difficult to enforce because it deals with the way in which products are marketed, but it establishes a precedent for legislation on not encouraging the use of a range of weapons in an aggressive fashion. I shall ask the police to examine that issue as well.

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