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House of Commons

Monday 17 July 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—

Asylum Seekers

1. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What criteria his Department applies when dispersing asylum applicants across the UK. [85245]

8. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What criteria his Department applies when dispersing applicants for asylum across the UK. [85252]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): Our aim is to maintain good community cohesion when dispersing asylum seekers, and the arrangements for placing asylum seekers within regions are now considered on a regular basis by a range of stakeholders.

Mr. Jackson: I thank the Minister for that answer. We all know that, until April, it was the deliberate policy of the Home Office to ghettoise asylum seekers by means of the regional language list, to the cost of many areas including my own constituency. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the regional language list on assisting failed asylum seekers to avoid deportation?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman will know that the language list is no longer in operation. There are 11 dispersal regions around the country and, within those regions, about 60 different dispersal areas. Since 1999, when the Home Secretary took over responsibility for the support of asylum seekers from local authorities, it has become more and more important that decisions about dispersal between the different areas reflect the views of the local authorities in particular, but also of the police, the national health service and voluntary groups. That is exactly why those groups are in place. We will of course keep under review the way in which they work, but they represent a major step forward.

Mr. Holloway: Will the Minister tell us why the national asylum support service’s regional language list for allocating asylum seekers to the regions was discontinued?

Mr. Byrne: The answer is quite simple: it is important that a range of criteria be taken into account. Since 1999, when the Immigration and Asylum Act was passed, a particular premium was placed on the availability of accommodation, but other issues have to be taken into account, including the presence of other migrant communities and the availability of services. The various interested parties should therefore consider a range of factors when weighing up these decisions.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): No matter what difficulties are involved with dispersal, they are as nothing compared with the difficulties that were being stored up before 1999 in places such as Dover, before we had a policy of dispersal. Is it not a fact that, as the number of new asylum seekers is reduced, so are the difficulties of dispersal?

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Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This issue is now much easier to address because the number of asylum applicants last year was 20 per cent. lower than in 1997, and in the first quarter of this year, the number of removals hit a record high. None of that has happened by accident. It has happened because we have pushed the right legislative measures through the House, and put through the right level of resources—both of which were opposed by some Members on different sides of the House.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May I refer my hon. Friend to the case of Mustafa Ismail, as asylum seeker who was convicted of attempted rape and who escaped from custody while being moved from Preston Crown court to a tribunal hearing in Manchester? I do not expect my hon. Friend to comment on the details of the case, but will he cause an inquiry to be held into the circumstances of the escape? Will he specifically ask why 24 hours elapsed before the public were allowed to know that the man, whom the police described as too dangerous to approach, had escaped?

Mr. Byrne: I know that the House will forgive me if I do not comment in detail on the individual case that my hon. Friend has raised. This issue has been flagged up to me, however, and it is a matter of some concern. If my hon. Friend will permit me, I will write back to him with further details, once I am satisfied of them.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): How many failed asylum seekers are there in this country who are awaiting deportation, and how many does the Minister expect to deport over the next two years?

Mr. Byrne: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, since the phasing out of embarkation controls was undertaken in 1994, it has been difficult to determine precisely how many people have left the country. That is why we have to introduce plans to count everyone in and out of the country, and why we will persist with a tough but fair enforcement of the rules. I know that the Conservatives have either voted against or abstained from voting on key measures that we have put through, although I understand that their Front Bench is now developing a new philosophy on immigration that stands in marked contrast to the one that they put forward in 2005. I hope that they will now support some of the measures that we will propose in the coming months.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The best way to reduce the number of asylum seekers who are dispersed around the country is to ensure that the process of dealing with their applications is as speedy and efficient as possible. Since taking on his new responsibilities, the Minister has said that he wants to improve the situation at the immigration and nationality directorate. Bearing that in mind, will he tell the House what immediate steps he has taken to ensure that those applications are being processed, so that my constituents—and those of other right hon. and hon. Members—do not have to wait months or even years for a reply from the Home Office?

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Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend will know that we have embarked on the roll-out of the new asylum model in many parts of the country, which will dramatically accelerate the pace at which decisions are made. That roll-out will be as rapid as possible, as the model is much more effective. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will have a great deal more to say on that in the coming days.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): If and when the Government come forward with sensible proposals on immigration, we would be happy to back them. Sadly, those opportunities have been pretty thin on the ground in recent years. The Minister is trying to evade the problem—as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) said, the Government’s policy until April was to concentrate specific national groups of asylum seekers in certain towns, without proper local consultation. That policy could have been designed to cause unnecessary tension. Can he now assure the House that the new policy will mean genuine dispersal? Any repeat of the previous failure means that he runs the risk of deliberately creating new ghettos, which would be a disaster for both the asylum seekers and the host communities.

Mr. Byrne: I welcome the positive spirit in which the hon. Gentleman has engaged in the debate. As I have said, it is right that decisions on dispersal between the 60-odd areas around the country are informed systematically by the views of local authorities, such as Peterborough city council, which, for example, has decided not to renew its contract for providing support. It is also important that the health service and police have a role in those decisions being taken in the right way.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend reconsider the 13-week period within which most asylum seekers think they will have their claims processed? We often get lots of complaints at surgeries, because asylum seekers think that the Government will give them an answer within 13 weeks, when we all know that that does not happen.

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend shares a challenge that I have encountered all too frequently in my constituency. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), however, it is vital that we accelerate the decision-making process in asylum cases, and that is exactly what our plans for the immigration and nationality directorate will set out to achieve.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Can we now have the figures for which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) asked?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman will know that if one cannot count people out of the country, it is theoretically impossible to know how many remain. Although my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is imbued with many qualities, omniscience is not one of them. He might, of course, correct me on that in a few moments.

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Heroin Addicts

2. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What the average age is of a heroin addict in the UK. [85246]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): As most heroin addicts lead chaotic, unstructured lives, they are not well represented in national surveys of drug use, so the best information that we have relates to those who are in contact with services. The mean age of individuals in treatment in England in 2004-05, with heroin recorded as the main drug of use, is 31.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): In my constituency, among the 400 former addicts treated by GPs—80 per cent.—virtually all those under 30 receive treatment, as has been found in countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden. Can the Minister take a close look at how GP-led prescribing services have managed to get so many people into treatment? Will he also consider the add-on effect that virtually no young people or teenagers become heroin addicts, because the addict role models that they see are grisly old men?

Mr. McNulty: I take on board what my hon. Friend says. The Government are working to ensure that comprehensive packages of support, not just in health but across the piece, are available to those who have come off drugs following treatment. As my hon. Friend does so much in his constituency in this regard, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss grisly old men further.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): The Minister will know that probably tens of thousands of young people under 18 are heroin addicts. Given that anybody over 18 who is arrested for what is called a trigger offence, such as theft or burglary, is automatically put through a mandatory drugs test—which is a good thing—why does that requirement not apply to under-18s?

Mr. McNulty: That is an interesting point, which I shall refer to those in the Home Office who are more directly involved in the policy than I am.

We should not run away with the notion that there has been an explosion in heroin use. All available evidence and data suggest that, sad though the position is, in terms of both age groups and the overall quantum the number of users is more or less the same. But the hon. Gentleman’s point about the role of under-18s in the criminal justice system is a fair one, which I will convey to my colleagues.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend liaise with health Ministers with a view to offering all heroin addicts in treatment voluntary screening for blood-borne diseases, especially hepatitis C?

Mr. McNulty: As I said earlier, the Home Office implements a number of measures with a range of colleagues, including those in the health team. As this is a specifically health-related matter rather than a Home Office matter, I will refer it to our colleagues in the health team.

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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Most young heroin users start as solvent abusers, perhaps as glue-sniffers. Will the Minister take this opportunity to praise groups such as Solve It, which is based in my constituency and is doing its level best to encourage young people not to engage in solvent abuse?

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman is right. All groups that try to dissuade young people from embarking on the path of solvent abuse and any subsequent abuse are indeed to be praised considerably, and I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the group in his constituency.

Sexual Offenders

3. Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to increase the number of sexual offenders who are brought to court. [85247]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): We are committed to rebalancing the system to ensure that there is justice for all victims, including those who have suffered at the hands of sexual offenders. We are already introducing procedures to make it easier for victims of sexual crime to give evidence, we have already invested some £6.5 million in the rape crisis voluntary sector and sexual assault referral centres over the last three years, and we are working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to improve the investigation and prosecution of sexual crimes. We are also about to publish plans to rebalance the criminal justice system further in favour of the victim.

Lynda Waltho: I am sure we are all pleased about the positive steps that are being taken, but I am also sure my right hon. Friend agrees that for the victim the ordeal does not end at trial. It is vital for all rape survivors, male and female, to be supported after trials: they must be helped to deal with the after-effects.

I was shocked by recent news that the number of rape crisis centres had halved since 1987. Will my right hon. Friend assure me, and all rape survivors, that the Government recognise the importance of providing that vital support, and will he take steps to deal with the funding aspect?

John Reid: I agree that these are important matters. We are always willing to consider the distribution of funds. I believe that this year we are spending some £350,000 specifically on rape crisis centres. In total, we have spent about £6.5 million on the rape crisis voluntary sector and on sexual assault referral centres over the past three years. We are funding and encouraging other forms of assistance, not least general guidance for police investigations, specialist prosecutors in every CPS area and continual development of the sexual assault referral centre network, but we will of course consider whether we could be doing any more than that.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Given the public anxiety about serious sexual offenders, is the Home Secretary in a position to tell me whether all those who had committed serious sexual offences and were not considered for deportation were placed on the sex offenders register?

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John Reid: They certainly ought to have been. I am not in a position to guarantee that all of them were, but I will give a guarantee to the hon. Lady that I will go back and write to her immediately with a specific answer to her question.

Identity Theft

5. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What steps he is taking to tackle identity theft. [85249]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): Identity fraud costs the UK economy at least £1.7 billion each year. We have set up a public-private sector work programme to tackle all aspects of that problem. Our plans for a national identity scheme will also provide people with a highly secure means of protecting their identity.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for that answer and for the assistance that the Minister has given me with regard to my constituent, Rev Ted Spiller. In that case, the identity that was required to be supplied by the claimant on applying for redirection of mail was fraudulently used. I understand that she will be having discussions with the Royal Mail, but what precautions does her Department propose to prevent such fraudulent use and abuse of identity and to prevent the spread of identity theft?

Joan Ryan: I commend the hon. Lady for the work she has done on that issue both with the all-party group on identity fraud and on behalf of her constituent, who was the subject of attempted identity fraud. She will know that we have put extensive advice both on our website and in a leaflet that is available, which explains what to do to try to avoid being a victim, or what to do if you are a victim. On 7 June, we brought into force the offences in the Identity Cards Act 2006, which creates a new criminal offence of being in possession of or controlling false identity documents. Those offences will provide the police with additional means to disrupt the activities of organised criminals, terrorists and those supporting them. I understand that, following my meeting with the Royal Mail, it will contact her constituent to discuss those matters further and to learn from his experience.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): A number of things are going on slightly behind the scenes to combat this dreadful crime, which costs the country a huge sum of money both in terms of the impact on our constituents and the cost to the law enforcement agencies. One of those good things is the get safe online website, which seeks to promote some of the basic steps that individuals and businesses should be taking. Will my hon. Friend look at such schemes and at ways in which they can be promoted more widely, for example, by television advertising, so that more people become aware of the important safeguards that they can put in place to protect their own identity?

Joan Ryan: I will indeed ensure that such actions are co-ordinated. My hon. Friend may find it helpful if I tell him that we have established a network of single points of contact for all police forces and a range of Government Departments and agencies that undertake identity fraud investigations and prosecutions. It is a growing crime. We take it very seriously indeed.

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