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House of Commons

Monday 23 February 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Victims of Crime

1. Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): What plans he has to widen access to compensation for victims of crime. [155743]

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): On 12 January we issued a consultation paper, "Compensation and Support for Victims of Crime", which invites views on proposals for amending the criminal injuries compensation scheme and for encouraging the wider and more effective use of compensation orders made by the criminal courts in the victims' favour. We will consider how best to proceed when all the responses to the public consultation have been carefully analysed.

Sue Doughty : I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree, however, that proposals to link

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punishment and compensation with driving offences are particularly unfair on drivers who may not commit other crimes, and that it would be better to link punishment and compensation with the crimes that take place? It is unfair to fine motorists for the purposes of compensation in respect of other kinds of criminal activity.

Ms Blears: The hon. Lady raises an issue that has been the subject of much speculation. I can reassure her that motorists are not singled out in our proposals. In setting up a victims' fund, we have to ensure that we strike the right balance between the taxpayer and the offender. Speeding is connected to some 1,100 deaths a year in this country, so it is a significant problem. It may well be appropriate to ask motorists, together with other people who commit criminal offences, to make a small payment towards the establishment of a victims' fund that can provide much better services for victims.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider ensuring that people who are guilty of committing crimes contribute more, instead of relying on the state to fund those poor victims who have suffered? That would be one way to ensure that we get fairness and justice for the victims of crime.

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he will know, restorative justice is an important thrust of Government policy: we want to ensure that those who commit offences have to make reparation to their victims and thereby have a stake in the system. Our criminal injuries compensation scheme is the most generous in the whole of Europe. We pay out more compensation than all the other EU member states added together—last year, we paid out £232 million. As my hon. Friend suggests, we must try to strike the right balance between funding by the taxpayer and what is contributed by offenders.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Can the Minister confirm that under the Government's new

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arrangements for compensating victims, police and other public sector workers will still be able to make claims in respect of injury at work? Last year, more than 3,000 such claims were made, many as a result of very grave actions. What would happen to those individuals under the Government's new scheme?

Ms Blears: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this is a consultation document and we are consulting employers, the insurance industry and a whole range of people with an interest in the matter. People in employment can obtain compensation in three ways: they can get a compensation order from the court; they can, and always have been able to, sue for civil damages for personal injuries caused as a result of such incidents; or they can get an award through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Through the consultation process, we are exploring the right balance between contributions from employers and from offenders, as well as the right to pursue civil damages through the court system. It is a complex area. Of course we want to ensure that people who are injured in the course of their duties have the maximum amount of protection, but it may well be appropriate for employers to play a bigger role in future.

Asylum Applications

2. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the backlog in processing applications for asylum. [155744]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): We continue to make good progress. At the end of September 2003, the latest date for which published data are available, the number of asylum applications awaiting an initial decision had fallen to 29,100—the lowest for a decade—and I anticipate that the asylum statistics that are to be published tomorrow will demonstrate further progress. We are determined to reduce the number of outstanding applications to normal work-in-progress levels and, at current intake and output levels, we expect to do so during the course of this year.

John Robertson : My right hon. Friend will be aware of the three asylum seekers in Glasgow who stitched up their mouths and went on hunger strike. Their applications for asylum were rejected, yet they have still not been sent back to Iran. These are not the first cases of that type, so what does my right hon. Friend intend to do about such people?

Beverley Hughes: I am aware of the case that my hon. Friend raises. Of course, like him, I very much regret the action that the men have taken. He will understand, however, that if a person's claim has been refused and, as in this case, subsequently refused at independent appeal, they are not eligible to remain in the UK and must return home. Clearly, there are difficulties in returning people forcibly to some countries, Iran being one of them, although that does not mean that they cannot go home voluntarily. We are working hard to open up returns agreements with several countries,

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including Iran—indeed, we are the only country so far to have returns agreements with India, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka—and we are making very good progress.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): While we welcome the Minister's announcement of the reduction in the asylum backlog, does it not result partly from a Government policy of deliberately ignoring illegal immigrants who would otherwise claim asylum? Is she aware of reports in the national press last year that stated that an immigration service directive was in operation, calling on officials to soft-pedal on investigations into illegal immigrants?

An immigration officer told one newspaper:

Can the Minister state categorically that she is confident that such a memo does not exist?

Mr. Speaker: Before the Minister replies, I should stress that although I am reluctant to say this to Front-Bench Members, I have often told Ministers to be brief in their responses. I also expect brief questions.

Beverley Hughes: I am glad that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) acknowledges that the figure of 29,000—I am sure that it will be lower by tomorrow—is much lower than 54,500, which represented the Conservative party's backlog in 1997. I categorically reject the assertion that we have asked staff to soft-pedal on illegal immigration to protect the asylum target. If the right hon. Gentleman had done his homework more thoroughly, he would realise that the evidence does not support that claim.

Non-asylum removals have increased from 3,500 in 1997 to more than 8,000 in 2002—the latest date for published figures. Operation Reflex is co-ordinating operations against organised criminal activity and immigration and has disrupted 60 criminal groups. The number of staff in immigration enforcement and removal has increased from 1,670 to 2,500 and the budget has increased by £40 million. The question that the right hon. Gentleman has to answer is whether he can commit the necessary resources—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call David Davis.

David Davis: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. You will have noticed that I did not get an answer—long or short—to my question. In view of that, let me ask the Minister another. After the Morecambe tragedy, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) called for an inquiry into inaccurate and misleading information that the Home Office had given her. Will the right hon. Lady authorise that inquiry? Furthermore, will she empower it to determine whether the memos that I cited earlier exist? She did not answer my question about them. Are there any other policies of soft-pedalling action on illegal immigration?

Beverley Hughes: There is already an investigation, which I have authorised, into allegations about the information. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the

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Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) for accepting that I faithfully reported to her the information that I was given. However, we will check for any disparity.

Again, I reject the allegation that there has been any ministerial instruction to soft-pedal on illegal immigration. Such an instruction would be completely counterproductive. Clearly, the way in which operational managers choose to deploy resources and make operational decisions about where need is greatest is for them. However, the overall picture shows that resources, operations and removals of illegal immigrants have increased. That is more than the right hon. Gentleman can say for the Conservative Government's record.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that many Zimbabweans are seeking asylum in this country. Is she aware of the concern that some of them, who have travelled here on South African passports, are being fast-tracked back to South Africa, where they are clearly not safe because of the Zimbabwean intelligence at work there? Will she assure us that no Zimbabwean will be sent back to either Zimbabwe or South Africa?

Beverley Hughes: No, I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance. Clearly, if someone claims asylum here as a Zimbabwean but does so falsely on a false passport and is really South African, that person should be returned to South Africa. [Interruption.] I am afraid that that is happening in some cases. Conservative Members like to talk tough to the media about asylum and what they would do, but at every opportunity during the passage of legislation on undocumented and inadequately documented passengers that we want to introduce, they fail to support such measures. Indeed, all they have done is try to dilute them.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): May I suggest that the processes for dealing with people who arrive unexpectedly in our country leave something to be desired? Is the Minister aware of the front page of the Brighton evening edition of The Argus, which—[Laughter.] Well, she ought to be, because it reported on two stowaways who arrived at Newhaven port in my constituency and were apprehended by the police and handed to immigration. The immigration service, apparently because it did not have enough staff, took the stowaways to Newhaven Harbour station and invited them to get on the train to Gatwick, changing at Lewes. Surprise, surprise—they are now anywhere but at Gatwick. Will the Minister look into that incident and find out why levels of immigration staff are so low at Newhaven, and why two people who were apprehended by the police were urged to escape into the country?

Beverley Hughes: On the face of what the hon. Gentleman has said, that incident appears unacceptable. However, I shall qualify that. Despite the substantial additional resources that we have put in, which I have just outlined and which mean that the immigration service can take on a large number of additional operations and is now removing more people than ever before, the service must also make decisions on the effective distribution of those resources between

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competing priorities. I do not know whether, at the time of that particular case, another operation was going on that was likely to yield many more illegal immigrants than those two. The immigration service has to make such operational decisions. However, I shall investigate the case that the hon. Gentleman raises and write to him on it.

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