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Asylum Seekers

11. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What estimate he has made of the costs incurred to date by his Department on accommodation centres for asylum seekers. [16787]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham): A dramatic fall in the numbers of individuals claiming asylum, as well as a reduction in processing times for claims, led to a reassessment of the need for accommodation centres. The cost to date of accommodation centres is some £31 million, of which we expect to realise value from some £7.5 million if a prospective removal centre is built on the site near Bicester.

Tony Baldry: The cost thrown away on the Bicester site, according to the Minister's own parliamentary answers, is some £18.5 million. The House of Commons Library has calculated that, in Oxfordshire, £18.5 million would have bought us 3,000 trainee teachers, 600 probationary police officers and some 900 trainee nurses. Does the Minister now concede that that was a scandalous waste of money that would have been much better spent on nurses, teachers and police officers rather than being wasted on the scheme that the Government pursued for so many years?

Andy Burnham: It is true that, in the course of a protracted planning process, in which it was not only those on this side who had a hand, our measures to tackle the delays in processing asylum claims began to take effect. Now, 80 per cent. of asylum claims are taken
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within two months and the level of asylum support is £280 million less per year than it was in the year when the asylum accommodation centres proposal was made. The landscape has changed considerably. We think it sensible and prudent to take a decision that will mean that, over time, we will have an asylum system that enables us to process claims quickly and keep costs down.


13. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What proportion of (a) remand and (b) convicted prisoners in England are in prison more than 50 miles from their family home; and if he will make a statement. [16789]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): As at 30 June 2005, 13 per cent. of remand prisoners and 39 per cent. of convicted prisoners held in prisons in England were over 50 miles from their home address. Supportive relationships can have a positive effect on reducing reoffending and the National Offender Management Service assists prisoners to maintain their social and family ties through the assisted visit scheme and extended family visits.

Simon Hughes: I am sure that the Minister accepts that having families nearby is very important, especially when prisoners are on remand. She will also know that prisoners whose homes are in the south of England are much more likely to be further away from home because of the nature of the prison estate. Can she make it clear that it is Government policy to ensure that the figure for those who live within 50 miles of where they are in prison increases significantly in the near future?

Fiona Mactaggart: In our expansion of the prison estate since 1997, we have focused additional prison capacity in areas such as the south-east where there was a shortage, for exactly the reasons that the hon. Gentleman identified. He is aware that the Home Secretary made a speech on 19 September to the Prison Reform Trust, in which he highlighted the importance of community and family ties, and that he intends to develop a strategy for community prisons that will connect in the way that the hon. Gentleman described. At present, our prisons are very full, particularly in the south-east of England. That has consequences for prisoners' proximity to their families. We are doing our best to mitigate those consequences.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister confirm that, because there are fewer women's prisons, the average distance of women prisoners from their home tends to be larger than in the case of male prisoners? Can she say what the Government are doing in that regard? I hope that that does not include building more new private women's prisons close to population centres.

Fiona Mactaggart: My hon. Friend is right that the average distance between home and prison for a woman prisoner is 58 miles, whereas for a male prisoner it is 50 miles. We have already built additional prison
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capacity in the women's estate through Bronzefield and Peterborough in the south-east and eastern areas, where there was particular pressure. He also knows that the increase in the number of women in prison, which just a year ago seemed to be continuing apace, has stabilised over the past year. Although we have record numbers of men in prison, we have fewer women in prison than at this time last year. It is right to seek to reduce the use of imprisonment for women offenders where that is not necessary—where they do not represent a threat to the public—and we will continue to do so.

Information Sharing Code of Practice

14. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the code of practice on information sharing issued in response to the Bichard report. [16790]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): In response to recommendations 8 and 9 of the Bichard inquiry report, a new code of practice on police information management was laid before Parliament on 19 July this year. The code was developed for the Home Office by the National Centre for Policing Excellence, with input from the police service and others. It provides for far greater consistency in the management and sharing of information by the police service and will be underpinned by detailed operational guidance, which is currently being developed.

Mr. Illsley: As I understand it, the initial code of practice drawn up under the acquisition and disclosure of communication regulations included the clearing house model. It is clear that some parts of industry established to deal with acquisition and disclosure of information have based their set-ups on that model. Can my right hon. Friend say whether the clearing house model will be retained in the final code of practice?

Hazel Blears: What I can tell my hon. Friend is that the high level code of practice is about key principles of information sharing and management. The detailed
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operational guidance that we are working on will contain more of that detailed tactical advice and will be issued fairly shortly. What was important about the Bichard report, which will be groundbreaking in the extent to which it changes the way the police service shares and manages information, was that it required not only changes to the way we use information, but changes to the technology that underpins information sharing across the police service to make sure that nobody ever falls through the net again, as happened in those terrible cases that led to the Bichard report.

My hon. Friend raised a technical issue from the point of view of suppliers and I will be more than happy to look into that if he writes or speaks to me about it. I can assure him that the code of practice underpinned by the operational guidance will revolutionise the way the police service shares its information and make it much more fit for purpose.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Minister will be aware that better information sharing is being used as an excuse for the unpopular merging of small police forces. Will she give me an assurance that no police forces will be merged other than on the basis of pure facts and not merely on illusory cost savings that are unlikely to be prudent?

Hazel Blears: The current review resulting from Denis O'Connor's report concerns whether we can make our police forces fit for the 21st century, providing protective services to the community that we all serve. In taking forward the consultation, it is vital that forces consider how their services can be provided more efficiently and how they can provide a proper level of protection against whatever crimes we face. This is not about cost-cutting. This is about making sure that our police service is fit to do the job that we all want it to do. I look forward to receiving proposals from the hon. Gentleman's force on how it can improve its organisation to provide a better service.

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Business of the House

3.30 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about changes to the business of the House for this week. Before doing so, I should like to pay tribute to former distinguished Members of the House and Government who died during the summer recess.

It is perhaps fitting that I should pay particular tribute to a former Leader of the House, Robin Cook. I assume that he would have regarded his time as Foreign Secretary as the pinnacle of his ministerial career, but history will certainly remember him as a modernising Leader of the House of Commons, who carried through wide-ranging reforms to the way in which we go about our parliamentary business.

Mo Mowlam was held in great affection both here in the House and throughout the country, above all because of her simple and straightforward honesty in dealing with the people whom she met, whether the President of the United States or the chef whom she went out of her way to thank during a visit organised by the Ministry of Defence.

The business for Thursday 13 October will now be a motion to approve the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2005, followed by a debate on combating benefit fraud on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I can also announce that the Opposition day debates on Wednesday 12 October will relate to the regionalisation of emergency services and to climate change.

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