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Mr. Byrne: The precise investigation to which the hon. Gentleman alludes is still ongoing and so I will not comment in detail on it now. He is right to make a broader point. We understand that IND staff are at risk of corruption, because individuals who do not qualify to remain in the UK may seek to do so fraudulently, and it does indeed require some courage for people such as the individual in question to raise the alarm, but that is exactly why we take the issue of counter-fraud so seriously and why we will continue to bear down on any allegations that we receive.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Some 10 weeks ago the private sector provider of the immigration handling facility at Heathrow airport offered me and two Front-Bench colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), an opportunity to visit their facilities at first hand. Since that time and after tortuous communication with Group 4 Securicor, the IND and the Minister’s office, we are no nearer to finalising that visit. Since the Home Office and its various branches appear to find it so difficult to arrange such a simple visit, can the Minister really be surprised that it is struggling so badly to do the really complicated things, such as protecting our borders and dealing effectively with immigration?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman’s information is different from mine. I had understood that that visit had been given not just a green light, but a glowing welcome. If that has not been extended so far, I will personally ensure that it is done when I get back this afternoon.

Sex Abuse Cases

13. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee Report on historic sex abuse cases. [85258]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Since the Home Affairs Committee report in 2002, much has been done to improve the way in which investigations of historical child abuse are carried out. In particular, guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service has been developed to reflect lessons learned from the original investigations, which took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The details are in the latest update of our response to the report, which was published in May 2006 and can be found in the House Library.

Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for the encouraging response to the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendations. Will the Home Office now address the 100 or so men—they are mostly in their twilight years—who were almost certainly innocent of crimes for which they were framed, for want of a better word, owing to the police methods on which the Committee made recommendations? Will the Minister work with the Criminal Cases Review Commission to speed up the cases of the men, who are almost certainly in prison for crimes that they did not commit?

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Mr. Sutcliffe: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is in the Chamber. I was a little worried that he was not here earlier, so I am glad to see him.

I am glad to acknowledge the work that the hon. Gentleman did on the Home Affairs Committee in 2002. Indeed, he remains a member of the Committee, so he will know of the work that has gone on. We are concerned about getting the balance right between ensuring that convictions are safe and making sure that people who are guilty are convicted. He will be interested to know that 30 per cent. of the people who came forward pleaded guilty after initially saying that they were not responsible. We are confident that the systems that are in place through ACPO and the CPS are providing the right results, and I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman and the Committee on the future success of the project.

Neighbourhood Policing

16. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing schemes; and if he will make a statement. [85261]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): Earlier this year, we published research evidence that showed that neighbourhood policing could deliver significant improvements in crime reduction, perceptions of crime and antisocial behaviour, feelings of safety, and public confidence in the police. In the trial sites, the research found that the reduction in the number of victims of crime was twice as high, and public confidence in the police increased by five times as much, in wards with neighbourhood policing activity compared with similar wards without.

Mrs. Humble: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that there have been substantial reductions in crime in my constituency, which are largely a result of the investment by Lancashire police in neighbourhood policing? The force has devolved budgets down to basic command units and ensured that there is proper co-ordination through community beat managers. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that sort of good practice is spread around the whole country so that all neighbourhoods can benefit?

Mr. McNulty: I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend says. I have met the Lancashire force over the past number of weeks for various reasons, including neighbourhood policing. I plan to go up there in September to see exactly what is happening in detail. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Getting as much down to the locality as possible, invoking BCUs, and working closely with local councils through crime and disorder reduction partnerships and other schemes are central to the real force—when it works it can be incredibly powerful—of neighbourhood policing. I congratulate the Lancashire constabulary on what it has done.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The recruitment of community support officers in north Oxfordshire is going rather slowly and I suspect that that is because of concerns about their long-term funding. Although the numbers of community support officers in many places
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look excellent on paper, the recruitment does not always follow the numbers. Will the Minister and the Department monitor how police forces are doing on recruiting and retaining these invaluable officers?

Mr. McNulty: We are monitoring recruitment. The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely fair point about some areas having difficulty with recruitment. We have some 6,300 people now and the numbers are growing, but as the Home Secretary said earlier, quite what the configuration in each area is, or should be, is entirely a matter for the local constabulary. We are committed to ensuring that the right numbers are in place over the coming year. We continue to monitor the situation because the matter has been raised by several forces.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned recent meetings with Lancashire police. Does he agree that the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing schemes would not have been affected had Lancashire police merged with Cumbria police, as both police authorities and most MPs in both counties supported? Does he share my regret that a voluntary merger was not possible following his meeting last week? Will he agree to meet me to discuss the matter further?

Mr. McNulty: I certainly agree that it is a matter of regret that we were not able to get the Lancashire and Cumbria voluntary merger under way. We do not resile from the position from which we started and which was endorsed by the O’Connor report that, ultimately, for many forces in many areas mergers will be the way to go forward. We said at the last Home Office questions on 19 June that we stepped away from enforced mergers, but I take the point that Lancashire and Cumbria, working together in a voluntary merged relationship, would do much to enhance policing in the area, including filling the gaps at level 2. We would have boosted Cumbria’s ability to get neighbourhood policing in place up to Lancashire’s level, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Part of the reason for going up in September is to talk to both Lancashire and Cumbria about how, following last Monday’s meeting, we can take things forward. If we do not resile from the notion that mergers are the answer for many forces, we certainly do not resile from the notion that there remain serious gaps up and down the country in level 2 provision which need filling.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): On the subject of police mergers, the Minister will be aware that many communities, including those in Beverley and Holderness, feel that neighbourhood policing would be undermined by forced mergers and the costs of that. What is the Minister’s assessment of that cost and the impact that it would have on front-line policing in areas such as mine?

Mr. McNulty: Without rehearsing all the arguments about mergers and the report from the inspectorate, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that those in his constituency who suggested that were entirely wrong. They were no doubt misled by him—in his constituency, not in the House, of course; I would not suggest that at all. We still think that sorting out the gaps at level 2—in terms
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of serious organised crime and counter-terrorism—as indicated in the report would enhance neighbourhood policing rather than otherwise, because every time a significant inquiry or investment of time were needed due to a major incident, the abstraction of neighbourhood policing would not be the very first thing to happen, as is still the case.

Terrorism Act

17. Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): What consultation he has undertaken with ethnic minority communities on implementation of the Terrorism Act 2006. [85262]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): The Government undertook a public consultation on the code of practice in connection with the detention of terrorist suspects for a maximum of 28 days. During the parliamentary term and recess, Home Office Ministers visited towns and other places throughout the country. In addition, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, has been asked to consider the impact of the Terrorism Act 2006 on community and race equality issues.

Lyn Brown: I thank the Home Secretary for that response. I understand that a number of Home Office working groups were set up last summer to discuss matters of community cohesion and ways forward. Despite the fact that I have a very large Muslim and Asian community in my constituency, none of my community was included in those working groups. If we do something similar again, could we look at representation across the country, to ensure that all communities feel that they are represented on such working groups?

John Reid: Yes, I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously, I was not involved in the make-up, but even if I had been, I must tell her that it is often impossible to ensure that every constituency is represented. Last year, two Home Office Ministers visited nine cities and towns with significant Muslim populations, where they held workshops and entered discussions. I hope that during the coming recess Home Office Ministers will repeat that experience, and perhaps we can see whether it is possible to have an engagement in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Asylum Seekers

19. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to tackle illegal working by asylum seekers. [85264]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): The Government are firmly committed to preventing illegal migrant working and the misuse of our asylum system by those seeking financial advantage rather than protection. We have significantly reduced the number of unfounded asylum claims, increased removals of refused applicants and strengthened controls on illegal working. Our strategy also involves increasing enforcement, encouraging compliance by business and developing joint working between relevant agencies.

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Mr. Bailey: I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he agree that that practice puts vulnerable people at the mercy of gangmasters, and undermines wages and working practices for legitimate employees? It is crucial that we target unscrupulous employers who are prepared to exploit such people for their own financial ends, so will he make it a high priority for his Department to target and deal with them?

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend’s analysis is right. As he will know, in 2004 we widened the number of documents that have to be checked. In the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, we proposed penalties for employers who knowingly employ workers illegally. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that those offences can be tried either way, and the maximum sentence is up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine. We proposed, too, to introduce biometric identity cards for foreign nationals, so that it is easier for employers to check what rights workers have. The measure does not stand on its own—it is part of a package—as we intend to pass the right laws in the House and put the right resources into the hands of the immigration and nationality directorate and relevant agencies.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Notwithstanding the reply from the Minister of State to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), and at the risk of sparking controversy, may I suggest that one way of tackling illegal working by asylum seekers is to increase the scope to make it legal? Given that there are thousands of asylum seekers in the UK who are qualified doctors, dentists and scientists as well as other professionals, does it not make sense to take a slightly more relaxed view and change the law so that those people can use their skills and earn a living for the benefit of the country?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman always brings intelligence and insight to our debates, and I very much hope that it will be taken fully into account in the review that the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is leading on behalf of his party. Under a concession that was updated some years ago, it is possible for asylum seekers to apply for the ability to work after 12 months. In the meantime, it is right that controls remain in place so we do not offer the wrong incentives to attract people to the UK.

National Insurance

20. Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions on verifying the immigration status of applicants for national insurance numbers. [85265]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): Colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions consulted the Home Office on the decision to strengthen arrangements for issuing national insurance numbers, and we welcomed that approach. In addition, IND officials have been fully engaged in detailed discussions on this matter with their counterparts in DWP on the practical arrangements.

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Adam Afriyie: Can the Minister tell the House how many national insurance numbers were issued to individuals who may be working here illegally, and how much tax the Treasury collected from them?

Mr. Byrne: I have already commented on the omniscience, and the limits of it, of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that information is not available, but it is important that we continue to bear down on illegal working, which is why, in 2004, we tightened the number of documents to which employers must refer when they employ people. We will continue to introduce measures to increase penalties on employers who employ people illegally. It is unfortunate that the Opposition abstained from a decision on those measures. I was leafing through my back copies of—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I suggest that the Minister drop the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) a note.

Essex Police

23. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What representations he has received opposing the merger of the Essex police force. [85269]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): May I say what a delight it is to see the hon. Gentleman in his place, given that he
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was not there for the past 58 minutes? Surprisingly few is the immediate answer. I have had the great pleasure of meeting Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex county council, to discuss the matter. He was not terribly happy with it. Tomorrow or Wednesday I have the great delight of meeting a series of Essex MPs, including, no doubt, the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Burns: May I reassure the Minister that in Essex the proposal was disliked root and branch? In view of the confusion that was spread by the comments of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last Wednesday, can the Minister confirm, for the sake of clarity, that if a police force such as Essex does not want to merge, it now may not have to merge at all?

Mr. McNulty: Let me give the hon. Gentleman the starting point for clarity. The orders that were tabled with an intent to enforce the mergers have been withdrawn. I cannot give him clarity on the second point, because we have said clearly to all forces throughout the country, “Show us how you will fill very real gaps in level 2 provision.” I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is confident that Essex can do that and show how it can co-operate with other police authorities in that regard, but not merge. I look forward with interest to our meeting this week and to the forthcoming proposals for the eastern region.

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Middle East

3.31 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on developments in the middle east. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on British activity and policy.

The United Kingdom is gravely concerned by the escalating crisis in Lebanon. Not only does it pose a serious threat to the relationship between the Israeli and Lebanese Governments, but it threatens the wider security of the region and is causing huge harm to the civilian populations, with casualties mounting on both sides. We offer our condolences to the Governments of Lebanon and Israel for the losses that they have suffered and to the families of all those affected.

The United Kingdom is committed to helping resolve the crisis. The Prime Minister has spoken to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. We appreciate the pressures that both Governments are under at this very difficult time, but both have a responsibility to help to end the crisis. Our priority must be to create conditions to allow a ceasefire and to explore quickly how the international community might facilitate a peaceful, diplomatic resolution guaranteed, perhaps, by the deployment of an international force into the area.

Ultimately, the only way to achieve a sustainable solution to the situation in both Gaza and Lebanon is to address the root causes. That means getting back to a state where negotiations can resume on the basis of the Quartet road map. With that objective in mind, the Prime Minister is discussing the crisis with his G8 counterparts at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. The European Union high representative, Javier Solana, and a UN team representing Secretary-General Kofi Annan have been in Beirut today. We fully support their efforts to broker an end to the conflict and we are also offering both teams logistical assistance on the ground. We are urging all involved parties to do all they can to address the crisis and to prevent the situation from worsening.

We reiterate our call for the urgent release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers and for an end to attacks on Israeli towns and cities. We urge all those countries with influence over Hezbollah to play their part. We are very concerned about the role of Syria and Iran. Through their support for Hezbollah, they are encouraging extremism, threatening the stability of the region, and putting peace in the middle east further out of reach.

Israel has every right to act in self-defence, but we and the international community have urged it to act in proportionate and measured ways—to conform to international law, to avoid civilian death and suffering and to refrain from acts that destabilise the Lebanese Government. Disproportionate action only escalates an already dangerous situation.

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