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House of Commons

Monday 15 January 2007

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—

Trafficking of Women

1. Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the link between domestic violence and trafficking of women; and if he will make a statement. [114675]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): The Government are committed to tackling all forms of gender-based violence through our national action plans, including those for domestic violence, sexual violence and trafficking. I fully support the multiple aims of the European convention on human trafficking and we participated actively in the negotiations for it. I believe that the signing of the convention and the protection framework it imposes for victims of trafficking remain a primary goal for the Government.

Margaret Moran: I thank my right hon. Friend for that very helpful reply. Is he aware that in the Ukraine, in the first ever parliamentary session on domestic violence, which I was privileged to address, it was estimated that more than 50 per cent. of people who are trafficked have suffered from domestic violence? Will the Home Secretary work with his European colleagues to ensure that we prevent these serial abuses of women? I encourage him to sign the European convention and to work hard to ensure that this valuable piece of European legislation comes into force as quickly as possible.

John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend, who has taken a keen interest in these matters. As regards domestic violence in this country, she will know that we have already taken a number of steps. For instance, every local authority has a local strategy to deal with domestic violence and there are domestic violence co-ordinators to meet the general strategic line that the Government have set out on this matter.

I also agree with my hon. Friend on the question of the European convention and I have made it plain that I fully support the multiple aims of the European convention on human trafficking. As I said, we participated actively
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in the negotiations for it. Obviously and as my hon. Friend would expect, I have wanted to make sure in my considerations that the convention is absolutely compatible with our enforcement of managed immigration into this country. However, I repeat that I believe that the signing of the convention and the protection framework that it imposes for dealing with victims of trafficking remains a primary goal for the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend will not have too long at all to wait— [Laughter]—until we have completed our assessment of its compatibility with managing immigration, which people of this country, despite the laughs of Conservative Members, take very seriously. When we are assured of that, we will go ahead and sign the convention.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): It is not only a question of dealing with trafficked women, but with trafficked children. Is the Home Secretary aware that it was announced yesterday that 48 young children in five local authorities—some as young as 10—had disappeared from local authority social services care and had never been found? What is his view on that matter, bearing in mind the fact that the Government have no central data at all on where trafficked children are? They will not provide the information and nobody knows where they are, what they are doing or where they are going.

John Reid: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that trafficked children, as well as trafficked women, are involved. Indeed, I was checking the figures this morning, as the hon. Gentleman will know that we are not waiting until we have signed the convention before taking action. For instance, Operation Pentameter—a three-month national enforcement operation—identified 84 potential victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, 12 of whom were minors or children. Through about 343 operations, we have been able to disrupt the problem, but it remains a very serious matter to me.

On systems of data collection, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is a subject close to my heart. I have asked my Cabinet colleagues for an overall review of all data collection relating to criminality. The volume and mobility of criminality and the easy transportation that is possible nowadays mean that we are living in a different age. As illustrated by some of the problems that we face, the old systems have not always been able to cope. Now that that is obvious to me in one particular direction, I want to extend consideration of data collection right across the board. I hope that that will meet the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that, where the victims of trafficking are brought to his attention and where they have co-operated with the police, we will not be as eager as we have been in the past to remove them from the UK? Can we have assurances that women who have come forward or been discovered by the authorities will be given exceptional leave to remain?

John Reid: I have discussed the matter with my ministerial colleagues. The issue is getting the balance right between ensuring, on the one hand, that that which is intended for good purpose, including the
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protection of those who have been the victims of this terrible trade, is achieved, and on the other, that we do not allow the abuse of the system that is meant to protect them by those who would use it for illegal entry. It is precisely ensuring that correct balance that has caused such prolonged deliberation on my part, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will not adopt a prima facie position that everyone must be removed. We have to look at a balance between managing immigration and humanitarian considerations, and therefore judge matters on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): Having looked at the issue of trafficked women in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, we are encouraged by what the Home Secretary has said about the Government’s intention. However, it is a question of leadership. We are not alone in failing to sign the convention and I am convinced that if this country signed, many other countries would follow suit.

John Reid: In terms of the convention itself, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I hope that he accepts the point that I have made: both sides of the House want to see us take a compassionate and protective step in relation to the victims, but they want us to ensure that, when we do so, we do it in a way that is commensurate with our obligation to the people of this country to manage immigration.

As regards the data collection point and exchange of information and our co-operation with our European colleagues at various levels, I take that very seriously. This morning, I had a helpful discussion with Commissioner Franco Frattini in order to impress on him the need to carry forward more quickly stronger modifications and standardisation of the exchange of information, so that we can tackle not just this problem but a number of other problems that have arisen recently.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In a way, ensuring that women who have been the victims of trafficking know what to expect if they shop the men who have trafficked them is more important than European systems. What can they expect, and how can we help them to know that the state is there to protect them?

John Reid: That is part of our commitment, not only now, but when signing the convention. My hon. Friend, who has experience of dealing with some of these issues in a ministerial post, will know that. She will also know that the Government have provided something like £2.4 million over the two-year period to continue providing the 25 crisis beds and to extend the service to include the 10 step-down resettlement places to help women live independently, as well as the first ever outreach service for victims of trafficking in the United Kingdom. The POPPY project provides secure accommodation and a range of other protective services for women. I would not like to think that the indication that we are considering before signing—which I hope that we can do—means that we have not been taking practical measures to protect women up till now. I believe that we have, but a lot more needs to be done.

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Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I sense that the Home Secretary is on the brink of announcing that he will sign up to the European convention. We have been urging him to do that and, when he does so, it will be right to welcome the fact. He also knows that we proposed signing the convention as part of a package of measures needed to stamp out the evil trade in human beings. May I return him to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) about his reaction to the report from the charity ECPAT? It revealed the truly deplorable fact that, of 80 children who had been victims of trafficking and had been taken into care, 48 have gone missing and have never been found. He talked about effective action. Does he recognise that signing the convention is an important step forward, but that unless the Government take effective action to guarantee the safety at least of those victims who have been taken into care, this will be a terrible waste of an opportunity to do some good?

John Reid: First, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that in terms of our compassionate approach and our constructive and benign attitude towards this convention, I do not think that there is any difference between the two sides? The difference is that we are the Government, and we therefore have to try to make sure that we do not, by doing one thing, create problems in another area. He and his hon. Friends will be the first to point out if such problems occur—quite correctly.

Secondly, I take the points that the hon. Gentleman makes very seriously. We will try to make sure that they are addressed in an improving fashion over the period; improvement, as I know only too well, comes slowly, but it comes in substance eventually.

Police Detection Rates

2. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of measures to improve police detection rates. [114676]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): The effectiveness of the police and their Crown Prosecution Service partners in detecting and prosecuting crime is measured through the target of bringing more offences to justice. This has seen the numbers of offences brought to justice rise to 1.3 million last year and sanction detection rates increase from 19 per cent. in 2003-04 to 24 per cent. at the end of 2005-06.

Mr. Jackson: I thank the Minister for that reply. Overall detection rates remained static at about 27 per cent. in 2006, while the figure for violent crimes reduced from 69 per cent. in 1998 to 50 per cent. Can we be certain that a cash squeeze involving more than £250 million, as set out in the recent Treasury paper on delivering a step change in police productivity, will not mean a real-terms cut in police funding? Such a cut would have a huge impact on front-line policing and on detection rates.

Mr. McNulty: I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point about productivity, efficiencies and how much further police forces can go. As one commentator said on the radio this morning, they are very adept at
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squeezing down efficiencies. But in reality the police, like other public services, will have to do more with the same amount of money, on the back of the best part of seven or eight years’ significant increases and of record resources and police numbers throughout the 43 forces in England and Wales.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the introduction of the fixed-penalty notice for disorder has played a part in increasing the detection of crime by ensuring that officers are not spending time taking people to the police station after they have been arrested and going through the courts? Instead, people are being punished straight away for minor offences of disorder; they pay their fixed-penalty notice, and the police can get on with the job and arrest somebody else if necessary.

Mr. McNulty: I agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said, since 2001 there has been an almost continuous improvement in the number of offences brought to justice. Certainly more needs to be done, but it is estimated that fixed-penalty notices save between one and a half and two and a half hours’ worth of police time, which must be in the interests of everyone who has policing as a core concern.

Indeed, the chief constable of north Wales, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on these matters, said that penalty notices for disorder

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Does the Minister agree that detection rates might be improved if the police had accurate information about offences committed by British citizens abroad? In that context, will he answer a very specific question? Did his ministerial colleague who replied to the letter from ACPO that was sent to him draw that letter to the attention of the Home Secretary, as ACPO had specifically suggested she should, or not? If not, why not?

Mr. McNulty: I certainly agree with the starting point of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question. We will put it in the context of a regime where the number of convictions fell by a third, where the chances of being a victim of violent crime trebled and of being a victim of burglary more than doubled, where crime doubled and where violent crime, by the by, increased by 168 per cent. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), made it very clear in last week’s Standard that she did not refer the matters in the letter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary because they were not about the backlog and the 27,500 cases—they were about the ACPO contract and the efficacy of that contract since May 2006. In terms of the more general points, we will take with a very, very strong dose of salt anything said by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, given his lamentable record.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Minister for his reply concerning fixed-penalty notices. Does he agree that the Opposition, by opposing fixed-penalty notices, seem to be supporting more—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Nick Clegg.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): If the letter of October to the Minister did not refer to the problem that ACPO was having in detecting the offenders on the files passed to ACPO in May last year, will the Minister tell the House whether, at any earlier stage, ACPO asked for more resources when it realised how great the backlog was? To whom might that request have been addressed, at ministerial or official level, and what was the answer?

Mr. McNulty: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the request was not addressed to Ministers. The substance of the answer to his question will come out in Sir David Normington’s inquiry. That is the whole purpose of the substantive inquiry.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend take a look at the excellent work done by volunteer police cadets in my constituency, who are helping Merseyside police to detect shopkeepers who sell alcohol to children? Is not the sale of alcohol to children a significant factor in youth offending, and did not youth offending convictions fall dramatically in the 10 years between 1984 and 1994?

Mr. McNulty: I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. She is entirely right, and there are any number of programmes and projects, voluntary and otherwise, that work with the retail industry and others to ensure that, where possible, we drive down alcohol-related crime, particularly violent crime. All of them are to be commended, as is their work with police community support officers and police officers, particularly in the context of rolling out further neighbourhood policing. I commend the schemes in Liverpool and elsewhere.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The Minister has admitted that it does not help to improve detection rates if police forces do not know about criminals’ previous convictions for crimes committed while abroad, and on Friday he admitted that he did not know whether crimes committed by British criminals in non-European countries were reported to British police. Will he tell the House two facts: first, whether he is confident that the criminal convictions from all non-European countries are properly recorded on the police national computer, and secondly, whether the foreign criminal convictions of foreign citizens approved to live and work in Britain are put on the police national computer?

Mr. McNulty: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we are seeking to write to all Cabinet colleagues to ensure that there is a root-and-branch review of all aspects of the notification, across all Departments. As I understand the position at the moment, the system is in part rooted in Interpol, and beyond that in bilateral and other relationships between the UK and other countries. On a factual point, I think that what I actually said on Friday was that I could not say with confidence that every single record from every single source, under whatever treaty, was on the PNC. The review that my right hon. Friend
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the Secretary of State is carrying out will clear the matter up entirely, and will take us to a stage at which the House, collectively, can be assured about public protection.

David Davis: If I understood what the Minister said in toto, I think that his answer was “Yes, in part.” The fact that the actions are taken in part undermines the operation of the Criminal Records Bureau, because many people have been missed out. It also undermines the sex offenders register, and as a result, it undermines the detection rates that the police can achieve. The public want the police to be able to do their job, and as a result they want to know three things: what has gone wrong in this fiasco, who is responsible, and what will be done about it? As the answers may involve ministerial decisions, it is entirely inappropriate for a civil servant to carry out the inquiry. It is also bogus nonsense to claim that an internal investigation should preclude the public’s knowing what happened. Why can the Minister not publish the letters and minutes now? Why can there not be an independent inquiry, and why is it that civil servants are suspended for admitting the truth, but Ministers are not suspended for hiding it?

Mr. McNulty: The right hon. Gentleman will know that the permanent secretary wrote to him today, although I do not know whether he has received that response yet. To respond directly to his three points—what has gone wrong, who is responsible and what is to be done—they are precisely the points that the Home Office is considering now, by getting to grips with public protection issues, carrying out the inquiry, and remedying the situation in Europe and beyond, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in relation to his conversations earlier with Commissioner Frattini.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the role played in crime detection by PCSOs such as Tracey Taylor and Sarah Nicholson of the central sector in Plymouth, who, much to the relief of John Boyd and other residents of Federation road, have solved some intractable antisocial behaviour problems? Does he agree with the basic command unit commander of Plymouth, Morris Watts, that PCSOs do not need to be marketed, because when people meet them, they market themselves?

Mr. McNulty: Members throughout the House, whether or not they favoured the introduction of PCSOs, accept that those officers have made an enormous contribution to fighting crime and improving detection rates up and down the country. I am happy to commend my hon. Friend’s BCU commander, because PCSOs are complementary to, rather than replacements for, the police. They work alongside them in neighbourhood policing in a truly effective way throughout the country.

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