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House of Commons

Monday 15 May 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Project IRIS

1. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): When he will publish the results and his assessment of Project IRIS. [70203]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): The iris recognition immigration system—IRIS—provides fast, secure clearance through UK immigration controls for pre-assessed passengers, reducing the possibility of identity fraud. The project will be evaluated once the roll-out of all 10 IRIS barriers is complete in December 2006. The results will be published following the evaluation.

Mr. Wallace: The answer that the Home Office gave me in September 2005 was that evaluation would be complete in October 2005. As the Minister and her colleagues know, I have constantly asked for publication of the results of the pilot scheme and the Home Office has constantly denied me those results. Will the Minister take this opportunity to explain why, eight months after the evaluation of the pilot project, the Government have not published the results? Will she confirm that it has met—

Mr. Speaker: Order. One supplementary is fine.

Joan Ryan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know of his interest in the matter and he is right: delivery of the project has been subject to some delay, albeit for some very good reasons. The pilot phase was extended after the terrorist attacks on 7 July 2005. Enrolment stations were closed and staff were deployed elsewhere to give the project supplier, Sagem, more time to demonstrate system stability. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the response to his question to the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), was that evaluation of the pilot roll-out was scheduled for completion by the end of summer 2006 and key findings would be reported within that time scale. I am pleased to tell him that the
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pilot roll-out is complete and I shall report my key findings within the time scale he was given. The project is important, so we think it is better to get it right rather than to rush it.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend commissioned any research to bottom the controversy that appears to be raging about changes to iris patterns, especially in pregnancy? The matter was denied by the man who developed the iris recognition project when he appeared before the Select Committee on Science and Technology a few days ago, but we should at least carry out research to prove, or otherwise, the claims that are being made.

Joan Ryan: My hon. Friend makes an important point about Project IRIS. There is ongoing research and review at all stages. I shall ensure that the information about changing iris patterns is taken on board and I will keep in contact with my hon. Friend to keep him up to date as we take note of research findings.

Antisocial Behaviour

2. Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of individual support orders attached to antisocial behaviour orders in preventing escalation of antisocial behaviour. [70205]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Liam Byrne): Although there are only a small number of individual support orders to look at in detail, a positive picture is already emerging about how young people’s behaviour is changing, which is why we are keen to see ISOs used more widely as an effective tool in the future.

Ann Coffey: As my hon. Friend is aware, most antisocial behaviour orders are applied for and issued on criminal conviction, when often a pattern of criminal behaviour has been established. Does he agree that the earlier agencies intervene the more chance there is of preventing young people from developing criminal behaviour? It is disappointing, therefore, that so few applications have been made for stand-alone civil antisocial behaviour orders with individual support orders attached? As he knows, they are designed to tackle the underlying causes of a young person’s antisocial behaviour before they begin to offend. Will he review the use being made of individual—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That will be fine.

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend has a long and proud record in helping to tackle antisocial behaviour in her constituency, which is, I am sure, why she has so much to say about the matter. As she knows, ISOs allow positive conditions to be attached to ASBOs for up to six months. We are keen to see them expanded, which is why we gave youth offending teams £500,000 to support their take-up, and I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that take-up is rising very rapidly indeed.

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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I find increasingly that ASBOs, especially when sought by local authorities, are cumbersome in terms of paper work and very expensive—sometimes more than £10,000 a time. Does the Minister share my anxieties on that front, and will he look at ways of streamlining the procedure and making it a little cheaper?

Mr. Byrne: A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends have told the House that we are very committed to considering how antisocial behaviour and local injunctions and other measures can be used and streamlined to ensure that they are more effective. They are, of course, part of a package of measures, such as warning letters, acceptable behaviour contracts, parenting contracts, parenting orders, injunctions and fixed penalty notices for disorder. A wide array of instruments are available to local authorities and to the police now, thanks to the antisocial behaviour legislation that the Government have driven through.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): My hon. Friend will have a long reading list, as he reads himself into his welcome new appointment, but will he include last year’s report of the Home Affairs Committee on antisocial behaviour, particularly our conclusion that significant funds in urban redevelopment, regeneration, social services and education could be brought to bear much more effectively on the support of individuals and dysfunctional families by using individual support orders and other means? Will he apply his mind to ways of ensuring that that money is well spent on those difficult and disruptive families?

Mr. Byrne: I am glad to tell my right hon. Friend that the Home Affairs Committee’s report was on my reading list over the weekend, and I greatly enjoyed it. He will know that the reforms that we have proposed for the months to come include reform of youth provision, £52 million for extended parenting support and £28 million for intensive family support projects throughout the country. Yes, we intend to toughen the sanctions for those who commit antisocial behaviour and cause hell for their neighbours and communities, but effective support for those families must be part of the deal.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Given the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) about the cost of ASBOs, is the Minister convinced that, in all cases, the police thoroughly follow up ASBOs, because there seems little point in issuing them if they are not properly enforced?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point. It is important that breaches of ASBOs are followed up and that offenders are given a clear message that, where there are breaches, there will be sanctions. Between 2000 and 2003, nearly 800 breaches of ASBOs were reported to us, 437 of which resulted in a custodial sentence being imposed, so it is absolutely right to say that a clear message must be sent when ASBOs are breached.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Does the Minister believe that drug-related antisocial behaviour is an emergency that requires a 999 number to be dialled or a non-emergency that requires a 101 number to be dialled?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman and I have in common a part of Birmingham where antisocial behaviour has been a problem for some years, and he will know that the response that is required depends on the circumstances in which the breach of an ASBO occurs: professionals working on the front line should make that judgment, not a Minister standing at the Dispatch Box.

Probation Service

3. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): What plans he has to increase the resources of the probation service to take account of his proposed measures on overseas prisoner removals. [70206]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): Before answering the question, I should like to take the opportunity to offer my own heartfelt condolences to the family of Nisha Patel-Nasri, whose tragic death in the early hours of Friday morning touched us all. The role of the special constable is often a forgotten one, but I believe that I speak for the whole House in thanking that group of public servants, whose endeavours provide a invaluable link between a local community and its police service.

My first priority is to protect the public by addressing urgently the need to identify, control, consider for deportation and, where appropriate, deport those foreign nationals released from prison where no such process was applied. Additional resources are being allocated to that task. In slightly slower time, I will formulate proposals based on recent experience and my analysis of underlying problems. That process of investigation was started by my predecessor, and as it proceeds it is uncovering systemic problems that need to be addressed, and I will address them.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): May I and my right hon. and hon. Friends associate ourselves with the Home Secretary’s comments about Special Constable Nisha Patel-Nasri?

The Home Secretary will be aware of the role played by the probation service in supervising some overseas prisoners already released into the community, but he will be aware that, with things such as custody plus and the new special orders that will come into place, the probation service’s resources are under very great pressure indeed. If it is to be effective, will he, in his new role, review the resources available to that service, to ensure that it can continue to do its very professional job?

John Reid: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about the hard work being done by the probation service. From his previous experience as a Minister covering probation between 1992 and 1993, I know that he will understand the work that is done and
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the great challenges that are faced. On his substantial point, there has already been an increase in probation service resources and in personnel—I think from some 14,000 people to 20,000. We have certainly had 5,000 extra since 2001. In addition, we are revising and reforming the probation service under the National Offender Management Service. However, neither of those two things leads me to believe that we have anything like perfection. As I study the urgent requirements—following up in the case of the deportees, which has engaged the House—I believe that we are uncovering some very serious and systemic underlying problems in the relationship between prisons, probation, deportations and so on. I hope, in the not too distant future, to come to the House not with solutions, but with a statement about what I think the problems are and how I think we should proceed in solving them. Resources may be one of those aspects.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): In his second recent statement to the House on overseas prisoner removals, my right hon. Friend’s predecessor referred to prisoners being deported straight from prison. May I remind my right hon. Friend of the fire that was deliberately started at the Yarl’s Wood removal centre in 2002? One of the features of that incident was the presence of prisoners en route to deportation who had been convicted of violent crimes, mixed with ordinary failed asylum seekers and looked after by staff untrained in dealing with formerly violent prisoners. Will he review the current practice and try to ensure that potentially violent prisoners are removed straight from prison and not via the detention estate?

John Reid: I shall look at that, among many other aspects. As I said, I hope to come to the House with a statement in the not too distant future. There are three things that I ought to attend to. The first is the urgent nature of the discovery and consideration for deportation of those 1,023—now accurately defined as 1,019—people who were released without due consideration. The second is continuing the process started by my predecessor of examining the underlying problems—one of which may be what my hon. Friend mentioned. Thirdly, there is setting the shape for the future. In that, I have no doubt personally that it is the feeling of the people of this country—and ought to be the position of the Government—that any foreign nationals who are convicted and serve a significant custodial sentence in this country should face deportation when that is finished.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his eighth promotion, which I am told brings him perilously close to the dispute between Nos. 10 and 11 Downing street? Has he noted how fitting it is that one of his first tasks as Home Secretary is to deal with the problem of the Afghan highjackers? May I suggest that he would get off to a flying start if he sent them home and brought the British troops back, as I advised him in his previous appointment?

John Reid: As I move effortlessly from position to position—[Hon. Members: “Higher, higher.”] Such support will no doubt endear me to the Labour party
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conference. As I shift endlessly from position to position, I find that the hon. Gentleman, with great ease, shadows me to the point of stalking. On this occasion, I have had quite enough difficulty coping with the dangerous terrain of Afghanistan under his supervision, without entering the even more dangerous territory of Downing street.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Is not the most fundamental issue relating to overseas prisoners the identification of those prisoners in the first place? At present, neither the police nor the Prison Service have any way of verifying the information that is given to them by the individuals who present themselves. Is that not the best argument yet for having an identity register?

John Reid: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. One of the many problems that we face is that at no stage of the whole process—through investigation, arrest, inquiry, interview, trial, sentencing, consideration, custodial sentence and release—as far as I have been able to determine in the limited time that has been available to me, is there any legal requirement on anyone to be responsible for discovering a nationality, or indeed, on anyone else, to volunteer their nationality. That is a not inconsiderable problem when it comes to dealing with foreign nationals. As my hon. Friend says, this is one of the areas in which identity cards would be a huge boon.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Home Secretary accept that one of the underlying problems to which he refers in the context of the probation service’s costs and resources is the cost of being involved in questions of deportation, extradition, control orders and the like, all of which fall within the framework of the Human Rights Act 1998 in one form or another? Will he thus look to reducing that cost by repealing or amending the Act so that we can guarantee that the public’s safety in this country comes before so-called human rights?

John Reid: Just as the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) has a route map on which all roads appear to lead to Afghanistan, in the case of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), all roads appear to lead to Europe. Let me address the question of the Human Rights Act. People in this country want a system of law and order and justice that is intrinsically fair as enshrined in law, and by “fair” I mean getting a balance between the rights of one individual and the rights and safety of millions of other individuals. Secondly, they want the interpretation of the law to be fair and, thirdly, they want the administration of the law to be competent and fair. Those three areas are at the forefront of my mind as I approach my new position, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will attempt to achieve those aims. If legislation is needed, we will consider it, but if the matter is merely one of interpretation and competence, we will deal with it in such a way. We will end up with laws that are interpreted and applied in a system that the people of this country believe to be fair to the vast majority of decent, law-abiding citizens, as well as other individuals.

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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is any responsibility being taken by the most senior civil servants who were then in the Home Office and the Prison Service for the failure to deport those overseas prisoners who certainly should have been deported? Although the political head obviously takes responsibility, as the Home Secretary’s predecessor did, should not the people to whom I refer recognise their responsibility for the failure that undoubtedly occurred?

John Reid: I ought to pay tribute to my predecessor in this post because I believe that he was a big man in every way. He took responsibility for a series of serious matters and mistakes, which, ultimately, he probably discovered only relatively lately. He took responsibility for beginning to remedy the problems, and we should accept that he dealt with the situation in a very honourable fashion. As elected politicians, it is in the nature of our position that we are quite rightly often expected to bear the burden of responsibility for our Departments and not to lay the blame on civil servants, and he was careful not to do that. In fairness to some of the leading members of the Department—I include in that group the permanent secretary and several other directors—they have relatively recently arrived in post. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that they will be engaged fully in answering to me to make sure that some of the underlying and long-standing problems of the Department are rectified.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I associate myself with the condolences offered by the Home Secretary to the friends, relatives and colleagues of Nisha Patel-Nasri. I also add my admiration for the courage of that remarkable young lady.

When does the Home Secretary believe that he will fulfil the Prime Minister’s undertaking of 3 May automatically to deport every foreign national who has served a prison sentence?

John Reid: It is my aim, as I made plain today, to ensure that foreign nationals who serve significant custodial sentences—[Hon. Members: “Significant.”]—in this country face deportation automatically. Five days into my position, I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a date by which that will be achieved, but I can assure him that that is my strategic objective. I hope to come, in the not too distant future, to the House with a statement outlining honestly what I see as some of the underlying problems, and thereafter to make proposals on how they may be rectified. I cannot at this stage tell him in what time scale the proposals will be put forward, because I want to ensure that we all, as openly as possible, address underlying problems, which I believe in some cases have been in existence for decades, not just weeks, months or years.

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