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19 July 2006 : Column 334

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): In supporting the broad thrust of my right hon. Friend’s proposals, may I gently remind him that, as those of us who have had extensive experience of the Child Support Agency know only too well, arm’s-length agencies are not of themselves necessarily a solution? What steps will he take to ensure that the combination of challenging targets and a head-count reduction do not lead to the sort of collapse of morale that occurred in the Child Support Agency? That has many implications not just for the effective management of the system, but for meeting the needs of vulnerable individuals within it and, of course, for community relations, particularly in multiracial communities such as those in my constituency.

John Reid: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not go into the details of the immigration and nationality directorate reforms at this stage, because I hope to report back to the House with further detail shortly, as I have said. At that stage, I hope that she will be satisfied that we have achieved the right balance in respect of general accountability, regulation, objectivity, advice and autonomy of leadership. I agree with her that, on its own, agency status will not solve all the problems. I do not believe that an organisation’s being in the private sector or the public sector necessarily makes it good or bad. Similarly, being an integral part of a Department or an executive agency is not necessarily all good or bad. However, I believe that what we are suggesting will provide a good degree of freedom for top management, in whom I have confidence, to take on the responsibility to lead and, in the midst of all the pressures on immigration from all sides, to sustain objectives. The maintenance of objectives is the first rule of achieving them.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I would be most grateful to the Home Secretary if he would accept from me that my immigration case load has gone up from 50 to 80 per cent. of the total in recent years and that that is primarily to do with the inordinate length of time that the Home Office takes to make decisions. What assurances can he give that, while the changes take place in the IND, a primary management objective will be to ensure that no further delays occur in my constituents’ cases—or should I write to them to suggest that they must wait even longer?

John Reid: I certainly hope not. I assure the hon. Lady that the issue is very high in all our priorities. She is absolutely right to suggest that unacceptable delays, which run through from answering questions from Members of Parliament to dealing with immigration cases, are not only inconvenient for the individuals involved but highly deleterious eventually if anyone wants to deport those individuals. The longer that they stay here, the more that they have a case under article 8 of the European convention on human rights about the disturbance to their family life, as they have become settled. So there are all sorts of reasons why we ought to do such things far more swiftly.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I welcome the statement, particularly as it contains no reference to the over-ambitious identity card scheme. I remind the Home Secretary that for the past nine months police forces in this country have not been, in his phrase,
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sharply focused on their core purpose of catching criminals, because they have had to put up with the massive distraction of police reorganisation. Can he assure me that police forces such as my own in Gwent, which put a great deal of effort and resources into preparing for reorganisation, will be compensated for the money that they have wasted?

John Reid: I hate to disappoint my hon. Friend on a number of fronts. I hope that he is pleased that we have decided to abandon an approach by diktat and to try to fill the gap, which everyone thinks is there in the protective services, by discussion, dialogue, collaboration and partnership and, where possible, by strategic mergers. I hope that that will be done, and most people would think that, on balance, it is a far better way of doing it. That has certainly been the reception that we have had. I am sorry to disappoint him, however, about ID cards: the more that I see of the problems that we face in counter-terrorism, fraud and organised crime, the more that I become convinced that we made the right decision on ID cards, and I therefore reaffirm our commitment to them.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I support the Home Secretary’s firm intention to shift resources over time from headquarters to front-line services—I wish him well with that—but will he look urgently at the resources behind border controls? Certainly in Plymouth and at other ports of entry, there is a very real fear that many people, perhaps undesirable, and many undesirable substances are coming into the country with not a sign of a border guard or a Customs official to detect or deter them. Will that be looked at very urgently in his great new Home Office?

John Reid: I note what the hon. Gentleman says—most of our exercises in that respect are intelligence-led—but he may find it of interest to be here when we discuss in further detail some of the plans for the IND and wider, associated issues, if Mr. Speaker allows us to do so in the near future.

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend give any assurance at this stage that hon. Members will continue to have access to Ministers on behalf of constituents who are involved in particularly difficult immigration and asylum cases?

John Reid: Certainly I and the Ministers associated with me have always tried to make time available to hon. Members who want to speak to us on any matter. However, we all accept that a system whereby there is routine reopening and re-examination of every decision that is taken by the IND adds very little to its fairness but hugely to its inefficiency. So we must try to get that balance right. Again, we will return to that subject when we discuss the matter in the near future, I hope.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): May I ask the Home Secretary a question on ministerial accountability? On Monday, I asked the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality a question about the sex for visas issue, which strikes right at the heart of the problems at the IND. I am afraid that I got a reply that showed that the Minister simply does not understand
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the issue and that the people concerned—the victim and her solicitors—have not been kept informed. That is an issue of fundamental importance to the integrity of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department and the directorate. Will he look at a letter that I have written to him today, follow that case through and assure the victim of that incident and me that her concerns are being met?

John Reid: Yes. I will not refer to that incident, because I think that I am correct in saying that criminal investigations are still going on in that case. That is partly why my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality was reticent. Investigations are certainly going on in one or two of the cases. Therefore, we must be rather careful about what we say about them, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that it is entirely unacceptable that such things go on. When they are discovered—we have strengthened our fraud investigations internally—people ought to be investigated and, where appropriate, disciplined and, again where appropriate, criminal charges should be brought, and they are being brought in some of those cases.

However, we are rather reticent to discuss cases openly for two reasons: first, if judicial proceedings are going on; and secondly, although we can try to ensure that such people are discovered and penalised, the intervention in individual and specific cases that involve members of staff is normally better left to the permanent secretary and others who manage the staff side. That is partly intended to maintain the integrity of the relationship between Ministers and officials. However, I fully accept the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about keeping the victim of that incident informed. If he would like to see me and my colleagues afterwards, I will see how we can do that in a way that is commensurate with not intervening in any judicial proceedings.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): While my right hon. Friend is reforming his Department, can we give some thought and appreciation to the people on the ground who are fighting crime, particularly crime reduction officers and community support officers? Will he join me in congratulating Crime Reduction Officer Steve Barrett in my constituency on coming up with the simple idea of producing a key fob with the picture of the community support officer on it, so that local people can recognise their CSO, and with the contact details on the back? That is a very effective way of helping community policing to work. Will he encourage other police forces to take up that simple idea?

John Reid: Yes, indeed. I congratulate the local neighbourhood policing team and the gentleman in question on that. I have not thought of doing something similar for the Home Secretary; it might not be as warmly received throughout the nation.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): The Home Secretary will be aware that most members of the public have contact with the Home Office through their local police. In his statement, he talked about simplifying the procedures for the police and improving front-line services. In view of those comments, would he like to take this opportunity today to rule out clearly, unequivocally and without hesitation any prospect of those wholly unwelcome police mergers?

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John Reid: I have already made my position known on that. In fact, I told the Police Federation within a week of coming into the post, I told the Association of Chief Police Officers a week later and I have told the House several times that I do not intend to force people to merge. The legislative, parliamentary and local support and the community, judicial, financial and fiscal problems of doing so were sufficient to deter even a Glaswegian from going in there, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that the status quo is not acceptable and that some protective services need to be provided, and that therefore either through collaboration, partnership or some sort of voluntary merger, we should try to do so. That is what I have asked the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to do. I hope that we never have to return to do that by diktat, because that is not the route that I prefer, and I have ruled it out certainly for the foreseeable future.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and what he is trying to achieve. May I direct his attention to the asylum seekers in my constituency, who have been there for at least five years? Their children have gone through primary school and are heading to secondary school. Adding another five years will mean that those children will be more British than from the country of their parents’ origin. Will he ensure that they are looked after?

John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The longer it takes us to deal with cases, the more likely it is that the scenario that he outlined will occur. Then, of course, however fair or unfair the original entry into this country was, it becomes difficult to ask people to leave, not least because it is in contravention of article 8 of the European convention on human rights on settled family life. That is precisely why, if we are to have a fair system, it needs to be a speedy and efficient system. I certainly aim to ensure that that is the case so that we move from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle. That will not happen quickly and it will require great endurance. I hope to go into the detail in a few days’ time.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The creation of an agency is like moving around the deckchairs on the Titanic, rather than keeping an eye open for icebergs. One of the icebergs is hospital orders. Does the Home Secretary agree that we need to consider how offenders are handled if they are given hospital orders and how the National Offender Management Service deals with people at the end of such orders?

John Reid: Yes. Quite separately from what I am telling the House today, a written ministerial statement has been issued by my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, which addresses several issues regarding foreign national prisoners and associated areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I would point out that while we will have another opportunity to discuss the immigration and nationality directorate, we have hugely reduced the number of asylum seekers and hugely speeded up the process of dealing with them. For the first time in our history, we are deporting more false asylum claimants than we believe are coming into the country. That is what is allowing us to tackle the inherited legacy of
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cases. We are slowly winning the battle, but I hope that people recognise that—apart from the IND—the document published today about the transformation of the Home Office is very significant and will be challenging for the permanent secretary and everyone involved. I hope that we will all give them a great deal of support as they try to transform this old, important and venerable Department of State into one that is fit for purpose in every conceivable direction.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Notwithstanding the connection that the Home Secretary has drawn between the ending of the cold war and mass migration, the statistical fact is that there was a sharp and significant increase in net migration into this country after 1997, in no small measure as a result of Government policy. Will the Home Secretary reflect on the estimate given by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on housing demand, namely, that up to 2026 around a third of net household formation—65,000 additional households a year—will be attributable to immigration?

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that apart from mass migration being easier because of the porous nature of borders, failed states and the push factor of civil wars, there was also a magnet effect in this country after 1997. The economic development and the employment opportunities provided by 2.5 million extra jobs, which had not—in fairness—existed under the previous Administration, pulled people in. That is why it became an even greater challenge. The reduction of 72 per cent. in the number of asylum applicants, the speed with which they are dealt with, and the tackling of the inherited legacy—which goes way back to the early 1990s—are all stages on a journey that has had measured success. However, we now need to redouble our efforts and transform the whole of the system.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): On 31 January, the Home Office presented a set of accounts to Parliament that was unaudited. I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree that that is not only unacceptable, but disgraceful. Can he give a guarantee that that will not happen next year and that Sir David Normington will have the top team support that he needs to ensure that it does not happen? Who will do the external audit of progress that will be conducted in December?

John Reid: Yes, it is entirely unsatisfactory that the accounts should be in that state, and that is why I included them among the difficulties in my statement. However, I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that things will go as swiftly and as orderly as I would like with the next set of accounts, because the difficulties were not remedied until halfway through the financial year that has yet to be approved. That might be a qualification. I can assure him that Sir David is well on top of the issue and has been at the centre of all the work of the past few weeks. He will have all of the assistance that he requires. I cannot guarantee, however, that there will be no problems.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): On the issue of indefinite leave to remain, rather than asylum, can the Home Secretary tell us how many outstanding cases
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there are and the time taken to process those applications? How will his reforms impact on that waiting time? Many of my constituents wait five, six or seven years to get through the process and have still not reached the end by the time they come to see me. It would be helpful if the Home Secretary could give some opening statistics on where we are today.

John Reid: If I could get reliable statistics of that nature, it would be very helpful. One reason why we are carrying out a fundamental overhaul of our systems, including our information systems, is that such information is not easily to hand—and when it has been in the past, it has proved unreliable. I accept that verifiable databases and information systems are a fundamental part of any modern organisation that is trying to tackle such problems. I invite the hon. Lady to take part in our longer discussions when I make a statement—if I am allowed to do so—on the transformation of the immigration and nationality directorate. Everyone gets a second bite of the cherry under a new Labour Government.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): On Monday, I asked a junior Minister if he could tell the House the exact number of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation. He could not give me that number. Surely, if someone fails their asylum application appeal, a record must be kept somewhere. How can the Home Secretary have any confidence in his ability to sort out the asylum system unless he has that vital information to hand?

John Reid: I thought that I had covered that point honestly in my statement. I gave the House the number of cases—or files—but I pointed out the complications of that number, in that some files are duplicates; some are in error; some may not have been asylum seekers, but people whose stay here had been approved and who had not been contacted yet; some may have left of their own volition; some may now be here legitimately because they came from states that have subsequently become part of the European Union; and some may even have died. For all those reasons, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact figure. I have a quote from the last Conservative Home Secretary, who said:

[ Interruption. ] Well, illegal immigration and failed asylum seekers who have disappeared like illegal immigrants and are trying to evade the authorities bear a striking similarity in terms of how difficult it is to calculate their number —[ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman should listen to the answer that he sought from me, which is that we can give the estimate that the National Audit Office produced last year of up to 283,000, to which we should add dependants. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an accurate figure, but nor could the last Tory Home Secretary.

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Points of Order

1.39 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, there have been exchanges between hon. Members and Mr. Speaker about parliamentary answers. On 10 July, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he had made of the frequency, scale and sophistication of Taliban attacks on British forces in Helmand province. In reply, I was told what we knew already—that attacks had increased with the deployment of British troops in the south of Afghanistan. However, the end of the right hon. Gentleman’s answer was extraordinary. He said that neither the Taliban nor the range of illegally armed groups currently posed a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. That is exactly the opposite of what the House has been told over recent months. This country has deployed troops to Operation Enduring Freedom and to the NATO mission precisely to secure the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, ask Mr. Speaker to use his good offices to ask the right hon. Gentleman to come to the House and explain what he meant by that answer, which hon. Members will find as perplexing as it is disturbing?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): As the hon. Gentleman knows, Mr. Speaker has no direct responsibility for the quality of ministerial replies to questions. If he consults the Table Office, I am sure that staff there will be able to assist him in following up answers that he regards as inadequate. I am sure that Mr. Speaker will have noted again the points that the hon. Gentleman has made today, as they will be on the record.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During questions to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister this morning, I asked a question about casinos. In his reply, the Deputy Prime Minister accused me of receiving money from casinos via my Conservative association. That is wholly and totally untrue; it is a very concerning accusation that has no substance. What advice can you give about how I can place it on record that the accusation is untrue? Does Mr. Speaker have the power to call the right hon. Gentleman back to the House of Commons to set the record straight?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think that accusations of any kind, from any side of the House, should be thought through very carefully before they are made. They should not be made as often as they are, but the hon. Gentleman has succeeded in putting the matter on the record.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On 28 June, I asked the Prime Minister a question about infant class sizes. I put it to him that he had not met the pledge on that subject that he made before the 1997 election. He said:

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