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In relation to where I am giving a degree of flexibility in the face of requests for discussion and dialogue and of legitimate questions being asked over local accountability, financing and all sorts of other areas, I am saying that the journey from where we are to where I think we should end up might be at a different pace and in a different fashion. We must of course allow for the possibility of changes and nuances,
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otherwise we would not be acting in good faith. Equally in good faith, however, I can tell the House that I am pretty convinced that we will—and ought to—end up at the destination identified in “Closing the Gap”.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for his opening comments, but will he explain why, if the status quo is acceptable in Kent, it is not acceptable in Essex? This morning the Essex police authority launched a county-wide consultation. If the verdict of the people of Essex is that they want their own police force and not a merger with the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire forces, will the Home Secretary support that majority opinion?

John Reid: The answer to that question is simple. There is no template for the exact size, configuration and balance of police services and specialities in any given region, and we should not assume that we will end up with any such uniformly imposed, centrally dictated template. It is, however, entirely possible that some forces are better able than others to stand on their own because of their size, configuration and specialities.

The key point is that unless protective services allow the police in a given area to respond to a crisis, such as a succession of serial murders or a terrorist attack, without continually drawing forces from the neighbourhoods, the whole idea of neighbourhood policing that is visible, accessible and responsive to local people’s needs will not be sustainable. We want the strategic configuration not just because it is suitable at a higher level, but because it supplements our aim of putting a record number of police into the neighbourhoods. The configuration will not be exactly the same in every single area, any more than it is now, but overall the strategic configuration will serve the public better.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am glad that there is to be further discussion, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the delay may send a signal that alternative suggestions that have been discounted locally may be given credence? Will he knock on the head once and for all the ludicrous notion of splitting the county of Durham in half and merging it with Cleveland, and will he back the idea that a single strategic force for the north-east is the answer?

John Reid: I entirely accept that. Resolution is sometimes portrayed as obstinacy, as dictatorial or as bullying. On the other hand, when people respond flexibly to the demands of Members of Parliament, that is sometimes mistakenly portrayed as irresolution. I am not irresolute. I do not seek another destination on the map. I am convinced, until persuaded otherwise, that the destination specified by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is the correct one. I do accept, however, that all the problems and questions that people have raised are legitimate and require further, deeper and wider discussion and dialogue. We will engage in that discussion and dialogue over the coming period, and if a better solution emerges, any open-minded person will consider it; but I do not think that that is where we will end up.

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Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Has the Home Secretary read the report by the head of finance of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which warns that police force amalgamations will contribute to a funding gap equivalent to 25,000 police officer posts nationally? It says that such a cut would

Is that not enough reason not just to delay these unnecessary, unwanted and expensive mergers, but to scrap the idea altogether?

John Reid: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman appears to have written his question before I gave my first answer. I always hate to disappoint the Opposition, but I am not going to withdraw my first answer.

I must confess that I have not read in detail the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but he will be gratified to know that I discussed it in detail with the authors, who tell me that the one example that he gave from a range of speculative options that they were considering was the worst and most extreme that they examined.

Nick Herbert: It was not.

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman is asking me to engage in a discussion about this paper, but I could not have done better than to speak to the people who wrote it; he merely read it. The hype and spin around it, which is some five weeks old now, prior to the Police Federation— [ Interruption.] No wonder the hon. Gentleman is laughing; he has tried it on and been caught. The scenario described is unrealistic; it is a speculative, in extremis case, which has been denied even by the authors of the report.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I do not want the Home Secretary to run away with the idea that all police forces are against these amalgamations; only voices against them are heard in this Chamber. May I point out that the west midlands force is very much behind them and says that the worst thing we could do is consult for too long and end up not making a decision, because uncertainty is bad for all forces?

John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. If I have found out one thing in the Home Office in the last five weeks, it is that it is very difficult to get anything right, whatever one says. So it is unsurprising to me that, as my hon. Friend legitimately points out, there are people who take a different view, and who reasonably believe that there is such a self-evidently correct destination that we should move to it at a far quicker pace. The design of those who say that they have specific complaints is to stop the whole process.

It may well be that there are two extremes in respect of this matter. There is probably a mainstream position that says, “We are willing to enter into discussions but want clarification of a large number of points about accountability, finance and so on, on the basis of which, we would be prepared to proceed.” It is on the
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basis of such good faith that I enter into the discussions, and we will see whether that is a flexible and intelligent way of approaching them, or merely the naivety of a young and aspiring politician.


9. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What plans he has to increase prison capacity. [77879]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Some 900 additional places are being provided at existing prisons, which will increase total capacity to around 80,400 by the end of 2007. We will of course keep under review the need for additional capacity.

Mr. Hollobone: Given that our prisons are bursting at the seams and that one in 10 prisoners are foreign nationals, should not the Home Office redouble its efforts to ensure that, during an early part of their sentence, as many as possible of the 8,000 foreign prisoners in our jails are returned to secure detention in their own countries?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the prison population is rising, and he is right to suggest that we have repatriation agreements with many countries. He will know that we have 97 prisoner transfer agreements with particular countries. My right hon. Friend Baroness Scotland has met representatives of other countries, particularly Jamaica, to see what we can do about repatriation. We continue to work in as many ways as we can to get people out of our prisons who do not need to be there, and we are looking at the arrangements.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): What effect will the extremely welcome letter that my hon. Friend sent to me on Friday have on prison capacity? He said unequivocally that no sex offenders will go into the Bunbury House bail hostel, thereby reversing a policy position adopted under the Conservatives. Will that have any impact on the prison population?

Mr. Sutcliffe: It clearly will. My hon. Friend is referring to our decision to make sure that child sex offenders will not be in approved premises adjacent to schools, which is entirely sensible and in the interests of public protection. I know that he, like other Members, is concerned about how we deal with what is a very difficult problem, and I look forward to working with Members in all parts of the House on addressing the issue of child sex offenders.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I say that the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the impact on prison capacity of imprisonment for public protection and extended sentence provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003? There is a very real concern that they will result in many people spending many years in prison, not least because parole boards, against the background of the current tabloid campaign, will be reluctant to release them. Much injustice might be done this way.

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Mr. Sutcliffe: The Government’s position is that serious offenders and dangerous people should be imprisoned. That is what we want. Of course, the courts are responsible for sentencing, which is quite right—

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): You are responsible for prisons.

Mr. Sutcliffe: As the shadow Home Secretary says, I am responsible for prisons, but I will not be doing any fag-packet calculations about new ones. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has many years of experience, that we need look at the wider issues to do with the prison population, including whether the right people are in prison and whether capacity is right. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says, we need to take account of that in the review. It is interesting to note that, since 1997, nine new prisons have been built with an increased capacity of 19,000 and a greater than 50 per cent. rise in the prison population. Those are serious issues that have to be faced, and it is important that the whole House reflects seriously on them to ensure that the right decisions are taken.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that one thing we should be doing is ensuring that people in prisons really need to be there? Far too many people are in prison at the moment: they are there fundamentally because they have mental health problems or because in many cases they are on remand. Will my hon. Friend reflect on what happens now as a result of the fact that remand practices vary so much from one court district to another? Prisons as overcrowded as they are now are more difficult to manage and reduce the chances of the work done inside them to stop reoffending being effective.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend, who is noted for the work that he does in this area for the all-party group, is entirely right to say, as I said earlier, that we should reflect on the prison population and consider who is in prison and who needs to be. We also need to ensure that public protection remains at the forefront. I am aware of issues around remand, which will be dealt with in the review.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): What the Minister may not realise is that he has just admitted that prison capacity has not expanded at the same rate as the prison population. If he looks at the Prison Service business plan for 2006-07, he will see, as I am sure he knows, that it has seven main priorities, but that increasing prison capacity is not one of them. Since the document can have been published only with the Minister’s and the Home Secretary’s knowledge and prior consent, it follows that, despite their sentencing policy, and despite the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), the Government have no plans to increase prison capacity. Why not?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I wish that the hon. and learned Gentleman had listened to what I said. We will consider all options in the review that the Home Secretary is undertaking, and capacity will feature. I
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have already said that capacity will increase by 900 by the end of 2007. I have also already said that we are looking at the prison population. Yes, it is at its highest level, but we still have spare capacity in our prisons and we are looking into all the available options.


10. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to give better support to rape complainants. [77880]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): In this financial year, the Home Office is investing around £2.75 million in services supporting victims of sexual violence, including sexual assault referral centres, independent sexual violence advisers who will provide support through the criminal justice system and specialist sexual violence voluntary organisations providing therapeutic care.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. In a recent report, Portsmouth was cited as the city with the highest number of reported rapes in the country, but that was partly due to the fact that we have an excellent rape crisis centre, offering support to men and women and giving them the confidence to report rapes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Does my hon. Friend agree that such services are important, and will she agree to come to Portsmouth to see for herself the excellent work being done at the rape crisis centre and to use it as a model of best practice?

Joan Ryan: I thank my hon. Friend and am aware of her efforts and support for the provision of quality services in this area. I hope that a visit can be arranged, as I would be most willing to go to Portsmouth. My hon. Friend will know that we are working across Government to develop an action plan on sexual violence, aimed at preventing such violence by increasing reporting of cases, increasing access to help and support services, and improving the criminal justice system response to victims of sexual violence.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

11. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What steps he is taking to improve the administration of the immigration and nationality directorate. [77881]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): We are engaged in a review of the immigration and nationality directorate as part of the wider reform agenda for the Home Office.

Paul Rowen: I thank the Minister for that question.

I ask him, however, to look at the deportation of husbands of arranged marriages. I know of several examples of women who are being harassed. They have given information to the Department. Even though their husbands’ appeals have failed, the IND has not taken steps to remove them.

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Mr. Byrne: I hope that what I gave was something of an answer, rather than a question.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I will be happy to look into it further with him.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): One suggestion that the Minister has already made to reduce the backlogs that plague his Department is an amnesty for all illegal immigrants. His predecessor rejected it because he could not give even a rough estimate of how many illegal immigrants there are in Britain. It would be highly irresponsible even to consider an amnesty
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without knowing the numbers that it would cover. I am sure that the Minister is not irresponsible, so can he give us that number?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman talked about an amnesty. It is true that we have asked officials to look at quite a wide range of analysis as we prepare to reform the IND. However, the point that I made to the Home Affairs Committee was clear: we expect the enforcement and removal regime to be strengthened. Therefore, there are no plans for an amnesty, because that would cut against the position and direction of policy that we set out so clearly.

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European Council

3.31 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about the European Council held in Brussels on 15 and 16 June. I would like to thank Chancellor SchÃ1/4ssel and the Austrian Government for their arrangements for the summit and for the way in which they conducted their presidency.

There were two parts to the Council. On the constitutional treaty, it was agreed that there would have to be a further period of reflection, because at present there is no consensus on how to proceed. [Interruption.] A Europe of 25, not 15, soon to become 27— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Opposition Members often want Ministers to come to make a statement. Hon. Members ridiculing the Prime Minister, or anyone else, is not behaviour that I can condone.

The Prime Minister: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

A Europe of 25, not 15, soon to become 27 and in time enlarged still further, needs a modern set of rules to function effectively. As regards this treaty, around 15 states have ratified it, but of course there have been the no votes in France and Holland, and as a result others, including the UK, have not proceeded with ratification. The German presidency in the first half of 2007 will therefore consult member states and present a report to the European Council. Decisions will then be taken by the end of 2008, but it was made crystal clear that, in line with the conclusions of the Council in June 2005, there can be no presumption as to the outcome of this discussion.

The bulk of the conclusions of the Council, however, deal with the specific issues of most immediate concern to Europe's citizens. One of the key outcomes of a positive attitude towards Europe on the part of Britain was the election of President Barroso to the Commission. I therefore thoroughly welcome his commitment to the Council to transmit direct now to national Parliaments all new Commission proposals and consultation papers and to take due consideration of their views. That is an important boost to a long-held British concern over subsidiarity.

In addition, on better regulation, the Commission has already announced the withdrawal of some 70 pieces of legislation. The European Council invited the Commission to report by early 2007 on further progress, and in particular asked the Commission to make proposals by that time on how to reduce administrative burdens on businesses by 25 per cent. That, again, is a central British objective, on which we built alliances with other partners.

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