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House of Commons

Monday 30 April 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—

Identity Cards

1. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): When he plans to announce the timetable for the introduction of compulsory identity cards throughout the UK. [134273]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): Identity cards can be made compulsory for all United Kingdom residents only after further primary legislation. However, we will start issuing identity cards to British citizens from 2009, alongside compulsory biometric immigration documents to foreign nationals from 2008.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Under-Secretary for that response. We understand that the cost of the identity card scheme will be more than £5 billion and that, to date, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not given his commitment to the resources necessary to make it compulsory throughout the country. What faith can people have in identity cards or in the Under-Secretary’s timetable when the Treasury could pull the plug on the scheme at the drop of a hat?

Joan Ryan: The Chancellor, the Treasury and the whole Government support the policy of introducing identity cards and I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of that. Perhaps he could tell us why—

Mr. Speaker: No.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Do “foreign nationals” for whom the biometric documents will be issued include citizens of the Irish Republic?

Joan Ryan: The identity card scheme will apply throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] It is intended to apply to people of any nationality who are legally resident and aged 16 or over. We were in regular contact with the Irish authorities, including the Irish embassy in London, during the passage of the Identity Cards Act 2006. The principle of the common travel area, which covers the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, will be unaffected.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Will the Under-Secretary explain why the ID card cost report, which was due to be published a month ago, did not appear, even though the Government have a legal obligation to ensure its publication?

Joan Ryan: The costs will be presented, as we are committed to doing, in the cost report, which will be published shortly, and in the Identity and Passport Service annual accounts for 2006-07. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the report will be before him soon.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I revert to the question that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) asked? Will citizens of the Irish Republic be among the first tranche of people who have the documents— yes or no? Who else will be in the first tranche?

Joan Ryan: The introduction of ID cards in Ireland is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a matter for the Irish Government.

Immigration Points System

2. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely impact on numbers of people entering the UK of the new immigration points system to be introduced in 2008. [134274]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): On 18 April, I announced the timetable for the points-based system. It will ensure that migrants can come to Britain to work or study only if they have something to give that Britain needs.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but how will the new system affect asylum seekers who are waiting for appeals and deportations, given that he has set new criteria?

Mr. Byrne: As my hon. Friend knows, the number of deportations has hit an all-time high—we now deport somebody, on average, every eight minutes. However, the points system will make it even easier to remove those who have no legal right to be here. Everybody who comes here under the points system to study or work in skilled jobs will need a sponsor. Those sponsors will be required to help us fulfil obligations. However, the commitment is backed by two important changes. First, there is £100 million extra for immigration policing, against which the Liberal Democrats shamefully voted when it came to the crunch in Committee. Secondly, there are the compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals. They derive from a system that I believe that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition still plan to shut down.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): The Government have spun the measure as designed to restrict the number of people coming into this country. Is it significant that the Minister failed to answer the question whether it would do that? In the light of the use of the existing points-based system for highly
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skilled immigrants in the opposite way to that intended—namely, when it was found that relatively few people who had the number of points applied, the Government simply reduced the number of points required until the numbers increased by a multiple of those under the previous system—what possible ground is there for believing that the Government will use the new system to restrict rather than to pretend to restrict numbers?

Mr. Byrne: The points-based system has a simple objective: it is designed to ensure that those who come to this country from abroad, either to work or to study, have something to give that Britain needs. One of the virtues of the points-based system is that it is easier to move the bar up or down. I happen to think that that is not a decision that should be taken in a dark room in the Home Office. We need a much more open debate in this country about where our economy needs migration and where it does not. That is why we propose establishing a migration advisory committee, so that we can receive that independent advice. I also happen to think that we should take into account the wider impact of migration. That is why we propose establishing a transparent forum in which people can come together to advise us on where migration is having a wider impact on communities up and down the country. Those are measures that I would have thought the right hon. Gentleman would support.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I welcome the points-based system, which is an excellent idea that will improve the quality of immigrants. However, what impact will it have on the 600-odd people who are entering the Bradford district, including my constituency, on the grounds of marriage for permanent settlement?

Mr. Byrne: Like the system in Australia, the points system is designed to apply to those people who seek to come to this country either to work or to study. There are provisions in the immigration rules to reunite British citizens with loved ones from abroad, which is an important objective that we continue to support. However, I say to my hon. Friend, with some gratitude, that we have further reforms to make to the immigration rules on marriage. There is a case for examining whether we should make English a pre-entry requirement, rather than one that is imposed once people are here. We must continue to bear down on forced marriage, an issue on which my hon. Friend has bravely championed her position in this House and beyond.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The Minister said that he wanted an open debate. He then mentioned the migration advisory committee, the creation of which is something that I have welcomed previously. Will he make a statement on the specific, narrow point of the number and type of people the Home Office has assessed are coming in, and where they might be going? The Minister will be aware that the risks and opportunities differ in the nations, the English regions and every local authority area. Will he make a statement to the House and allow questions on that specific, narrow point, so that people from all parts of the country and hon. Members from all parts of the House can have their say on the risks and opportunities that they believe their areas face?

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Mr. Byrne: When we finalise our plans for the forum designed to consider the wider impact of migration, we shall of course make a statement to the House and I shall of course be happy to answer questions, either inside or outside the House. Different regions in the country have different needs from migration. That is precisely why the First Minister was right to promote the fresh talent initiative in Scotland. I am not sure whether the scheme has the hon. Gentleman’s support, but it has been enormously successful in Scotland and shows that the immigration system needs to be flexible in order to take account of the different needs of different parts of our economy.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Much as I admire the Minister’s boyish charm, I am sorry to tell him, as I told his predecessor, that the points-based system will simply not work, because it will keep out the very people whom we need in this country. For example, there is a shortage of chefs, who wish to come to our restaurants. He cannot sell the policy unless he sorts out the mess that the Government have created over the highly skilled migrant workers programme. Does he have an answer to the questions put to him by the people he met at the meeting that I chaired in the Committee Room upstairs?

Mr. Speaker: Order. That question was far too long.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Let’s have a boyish answer.

Mr. Byrne: As ever, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his advice. I was grateful, too, to him for bringing together a group of those who had applied under the highly skilled migrant programme, in order to understand the impact of tightening the rules on their opportunities in this country. However, we have an obligation to ensure that only those who have something that Britain actually needs are able to come. The meeting that my right hon. Friend organised was helpful to me in getting the planning of the points-based system right. The system will be introduced in January, so there is still time for some fine-tuning to be made and for some of his observations to be taken on board.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The sheer scale of increased immigration in recent years has made it easier for traffickers and smugglers to bring in women for the purposes of sexual exploitation, to the extent that we are now perhaps Europe’s No. 1 destination for such women. Will anything in the new points system make it easier to identify the traffickers and smugglers, and thereby reduce the trade and prevent that monicker from being applied to this country any longer?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that global migration has changed; it has doubled since the 1960s. Net migration into this country is pretty much in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. Of course, as global movement becomes easier, people will seek to exploit it, and that is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for
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Gedling (Mr. Coaker), have brought forward the UK action plan on trafficking. That will have to be backed up by increased resources for immigration policing, which is why our measures are so important. It was a disappointment that the Liberal Democrats opposed them. Biometric identity technology will be important too, because it will help us to understand with confidence precisely who is coming into and leaving the country. That will make the business of enforcement much easier, and I urge the Conservatives to support our plans.

Knife Crime

3. Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): What his priorities are for tackling knife crime. [134275]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The Government fully recognise the importance of tackling knife crime. This is a complex issue and we are using a variety of measures, encompassing legislation, enforcement, education and prevention, to address it. Those measures form part of the Home Office action plan on guns, knives and gangs, which is being taken forward through the Home Secretary’s round table.

Ms Buck: The recent spate of knife crimes, including those that claimed the lives of two young men in my constituency, might not be an indication of a worsening trend overall, but that is not how it feels on the street. A recent poll found that one in three Londoners thought that knife crime had reached an all-time high. Does my hon. Friend accept that perception is as important as actuality, particularly when it comes to discouraging young people from carrying knives for the purpose, as they see it, of defending themselves? What steps will he take to support the voluntary and community organisations, such as Working with Men, which deal with young people who carry weapons to defend themselves?

Mr. Coaker: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is important to get the facts out about knife crime. Without being complacent or underestimating people’s very real fear of knife crime, and given that knives are generally available, the British crime survey reports that only 6 to 7 per cent. of violent crime is knife-related. That figure has remained relatively stable for several years; in 1997, the figure was 5 per cent. However, we need to address the problem of knife crime, and we shall do so using a variety of measures, including tough enforcement of the law, increased police powers and, as my hon. Friend says, working with community organisations to try to address the fear of crime. We have done that through organisations such as the Damilola Taylor Trust and the Boyhood to Manhood initiative, and we are working through the Connected Fund to support more community organisations in getting across the message that knives are dangerous. We are doing all that we can to reassure communities.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): In the areas of London where knives are routinely carried, the police could use section 60 of the Criminal Justice and
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Public Order Act 1994 to carry out random stop-searches. Will the Minister tell us why that is not being done, and whether it is a priority for him that it should be done?

Mr. Coaker: It is being done when appropriate and when the police consider it necessary. The hon. Gentleman will also know that we have recently increased the sentence available to the courts for simple possession from two to four years. Knife crime is a problem that we need to address through tough enforcement of the law, through giving the police more powers and through working with communities to try to prevent young people from carrying knives in the first place.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the violent gang culture that generates knife crime also generates the gun crime that we see on the streets of my constituency? As well as ensuring that we have effective policing and the right sentence tariff, the Government need to do more to deal with family breakdown and educational under-achievement, which are partly at the root of the issue.

Mr. Coaker: Of course we need to address the problems that my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Government are considering whether to make membership of a gang an aggravating factor in relation to sentencing. It is clearly a worry for us all that some young people seem to give more credence to the values of their gang than to the values of society in general. We will tackle that problem through a variety of means including increasing police powers and supporting communities. A recent community initiative that I have looked at is the Boyhood to Manhood initiative, which tries to give young black people, in particular, positive role models.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Given the Minister’s earlier comments, he recognises that effective enforcement to stop knives getting into the hands of young people is an essential part of the fight against violent crime. Yet in 2005, the last year for which figures are available, just 19 people were convicted of selling knives or blades to youngsters under 16. What commitment can the Minister give to address the failure in enforcement and to make it clear that there is no knife amnesty for selling blades to those who are under age?

Mr. Coaker: The clearest indication of the fact that the Government take knife crime extremely seriously is the increase in the sentence for possession from two to four years, which we expect to be enforced. The sentence given to anyone charged with that offence and brought before the courts is a matter for the courts. Let there be no doubt, however, that the Government consider possession to be a serious offence, and expect the courts to act accordingly.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Will the Minister support and welcome the “Knives Ruin Lives” campaign run by my local newspaper, The Shields Gazette? Does he agree that the only way to tackle this blight on our streets is to ensure that anyone convicted of carrying a knife serves a jail sentence?

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Mr. Coaker: I am happy to congratulate The Shields Gazette on its “Knives Ruin Lives” campaign in Jarrow and beyond. That is just the sort of community initiative that we need. Of course, it is up to the Government to pass tough laws and see that they are enforced, which is what we want. The community and local media must also take action, however, and we must all work together to show that the knife culture in certain parts of some of our communities is not acceptable, and that we will take steps to deal with it.

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