The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): May I begin this afternoon by paying tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) during his most distinguished period of office, both as Secretary of State for Education and Employment and as Home Secretary? He has been an outstanding leader of this country and I pay tribute publicly to his tremendous work.
The Government are discussing with European Union colleagues the best and most durable solutions to processing applications for asylum effectively, and our focus remains clear: first, to continue to offer protection to genuine refugees while protecting our asylum system against abuse and, secondly, to strengthen protection in regions of origin to protect people and reduce secondary movement.
Mr. Clarke: There has been a great deal of progress. The fact is, as I hope Members on both sides of the House will recognise, that the key to solving asylum issues lies in international action, and in particular in action with our EU colleagues. Since the discussions at Thessaloniki to which the hon. Gentleman refers, there has been a substantial advance by many colleagues in the EU analysing the best ways to proceed, so there has been great progress since then.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)
(Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that representations have been made from some quarters that it would be possible to transfer all
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applicants for asylum to an island somewhere where no costs would be involved? Is he aware of progress in this fantasy island proposal?
Mr. Clarke: I have heard that, and I was briefed to that effect. Frankly, the idea was so fanciful that I could not believe that anybody had put it forward in any kind of serious way. I therefore dismissed it as absurd, as I assume it to be. I cannot believe that anybody would seriously believe that that is the right way to proceed.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position? I am absolutely certain that he will serve with great distinction. Will he assure the House that if processing centres are set up outside the United Kingdom in the applicants' countries of origin it will in no way divert resources from the immigration and nationality directorate, that general immigration work does need to be dealt with as quickly and as efficiently as possible, and that we should ensure that the good start that began in 1997 is continued, so that people have decisions as quickly as possible?
Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's best wishes, which I very much appreciate. I can confirm that he is entirely right that the Government will remain utterly focused on creating the most efficient and fair system of immigration and asylum that we can achieve in this country, and that is where our resources will be directed.
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): We estimate that dispersal orders were authorised in over 400 areas between January and September this year. Half of all crime and disorder reduction partnerships reported that dispersal powers had been used in their area.
Mrs. Campbell: Will my hon. Friend consider whether local authority intervention is necessary in the use of dispersal orders? My local authority, which is Liberal Democrat controlled, voted against the principle of dispersal orders in 2003, voted to use them in 2004 and is now considering whether to renew their use in 2005. Such dithering and delay has a bad effect on some of my constituents.
Not only do I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that these powers are used, but intriguingly the leader of the Liberal Democrats apparently called in 16 Liberal Democrat council leaders last week, read them the riot act and told them that they needed to get tough on crime, because his closest advisers believe that he is vulnerable to accusations of failing to be tough on thugs who terrorise the neighbourhood. What we have here is a party that
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decides to adopt such powers not as a matter of principle, but as a matter of naked, cynical, political opportunism.
John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): I welcome the introduction of dispersal orders[Interruption.] I hope that the Liberal Democrats will get a bit less excited. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the mechanism for introducing them can be cumbersome and that the process can take a long time to carry out? Will she consider the possibility of having an interim dispersal order, which could then be subject to the current mechanisms? I am thinking particularly of Rainham in my constituency, where quite a lot of time is being taken to introduce dispersal orders and a more rapid system would be beneficial.
Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. He will know that we introduced interim antisocial behaviour orders for that very reasonto try to ensure that the courts can put an order in place very quickly indeed. We have 400 dispersal orders and they have been fairly easy to use, but I am more than happy to look at his suggestion. Some members of the Association of Chief Police Officers have suggested that interim dispersal orders may prove useful in dealing with town centre disturbances associated with binge drinking. I am more than happy to look at those ideas.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Where is the joined-up government between, on the one hand, the new power for issuing dispersal orders and, on the other, the arrangements under the Licensing Act 2003 by which up to 500 people can hold a rave, creating any amount of nuisance in an area, at just 48 hours' notice after serving the police with an application?
Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman will know that in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 we strengthened the powers to act against gatherings of people in the very circumstances that he describes. We are trying to work across government not only through the Anti-social Behaviour Act, but by working with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on town centre guidance. We are also working with young people themselves to ensure that we can divert many more of them away from antisocial behaviour and into more constructive activities. This Government have a very good joined-up policy across the piece.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
(Lab/Co-op): In the village of Whitwick in North-West Leicestershire, the local Hermitage leisure centre has been the focus over a 12-month period of sustained antisocial behaviour by young people towards local residents and staff who work there. Does the Minister agree that the decision by North-West Leicestershire district council to sanction a dispersal order is to be welcomed, but that applications need to be the result of effective partnership with the local police and that, in parallel with the application for a dispersal order, some provision needs to be made for positive activities for young people in the area concerned, perhaps with concessionary prices targeted at the age group concerned?
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Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The way in which the orders are framed means that a superintendent of police has to suggest the order, but must get the agreement of the local authority for it to be made. Fundamental to the use of the dispersal power is that kind of partnership working to ensure that the local authority is drawn into the process and that the issue is not simply about enforcement. The whole of our antisocial behaviour strategy is about a twin-track approach of tough enforcement and support, particularly for young people, to get them involved in a range of activities so that we can prevent them from getting on to that cycle of crime and disorder for the future. We have to have tough enforcement to ensure that communities such as that of my hon. Friend are protected from the harassment and intimidation that all too often take place in this country.
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