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We are going to tighten up dramatically on students coming in, the colleges which take those students...Secondly, making sure that those students who do come actually turn up on their courses, and dont disappear.
Since that promise, one university alonePortsmouthhas notified the Home Office of 2,500 students who were given places, and presumably got visas on the back of that, but did not turn up. What did the Home Office do about it?
Let us get on to the subject of foreign students. They bring considerable economic benefits to the UK, contributing more than £5 billion a year to our economy. We are determined to ensure that the student route is not abused, which is why it is already the case that students found ineligible for a visa are refused entry to the UK. Visa applicants, including students,
are checked on application against the warnings index of 17 million entries. From April 2007, a package of rules changes have taken effect, which tackle the abuse of the student route.
With respect to the right hon. Gentlemans specific question, there is already mandatory reporting of enrolment and attendance of students, when requested by the Border and Immigration Agency. Failure to do so would result in a college being removed from the current Department for Education and Skills register. The introduction of the points-based system with a much stronger focus on sponsorship will mean that all sponsors will have to be accredited, and any college or university that does not do so will run the risk of being taken off the list, and will thus be unable to sponsor students and get the benefits that come from that process. We have taken strong action to tackle the abuse already, and further is planned.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I understand that illegal raves have been a problem in East Anglia. Operational decisions on the use of the powers available to deal with them are for the police to take. The Association of Chief Police Officers met on Thursday 5 July and my officials tell me that they are taking forward work nationally to look at intelligence gathering, partnership working and current legislation regarding the issue of illegal raves.
Mr. Bellingham: The Minister will be aware that there was a time when raves were generally low-key, good-humoured events. During the past few weeks, there have been a number of illegal raves in my constituency where there has been substantial criminal damage and violence, a great deal of damage to property and the peddling of illegal drugs. The local police are fully stretched and are doing their best, but does he agree that the time has come for records of raves to be centrally recorded? The Government should look again at the powers the police have. Will he consider the matter urgently?
The issue of illegal raves is important; they cause considerable disquiet, distress and law-breaking in many areas of the country, including the hon. Gentlemans constituency. ACPO has set up a sub-group to look at the issue, and one thing it might consider is whether to take on board the central recording of illegal ravesa point made by the hon. Gentleman. I also point out to him that there are considerable powers available to the police under section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was amended by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, to prevent raves from taking place, and to deal with them if they come to pass. I hope that that gives some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): The Government continue to work with the internet industry to ensure that inappropriate material is not hosted in the UK and that there is a greater understanding of and clarity about when criminal offences have been committed on the internet.
As part of that approach, there is ongoing co-operation between internet service providers and law enforcement agencies. Most service providers have acceptable use policies in place that enable the removal of material from any site if it is illegal, distasteful or otherwise unacceptable.
Given the huge increase in videos that depict scenes of violence, antisocial behaviour and criminal behaviour, which are being uploaded on to such internet services, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for the police to have more powers when dealing with internet service providers who persist in the glorification of such acts?
Jacqui Smith: It is clearly unacceptable for such criminal acts to have been committed in the first place and then uploaded on to the sorts of sites that my hon. Friend mentioned. We need to look at the matter in two stages. First, criminal law already covers the first offence of the attackwhether it is assault, wounding, actual or grievous bodily harm or antisocial behaviour, which my hon. Friend mentioned.
Secondly, someone who records a violent offence could be criminally liable for uploading it either because they have committed the offence being filmed or because they were involved in planning it and would therefore be open to charges of conspiracy, incitement, aiding and abetting or being involved in a joint enterprise to commit the offence.
Uploading the video as well as taking part in the offence could be an aggravating factor when sentencing is considered. It is important to keep the matter under review and my hon. Friend has put her finger on something that concerns many people. However, the law is in place and we need to continue working with the police and internet service providers to ensure that we limit that unacceptable activity.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): The Home Secretary will know that paedophiles regularly download some appalling child abuse videos and films on to their computers. Increasingly, they are encrypting the material so that the police cannot get access to it. The police have been waiting about five years for the statutory instrument relating to encryption and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. When will they get it?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a strong interest in the matter. Since coming into the Home Office, I have been impressed by the work of
the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the work that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) is leading. I understand that we are looking at that specific matter to bring it forward. I hope that we can get back to the hon. Gentleman with news on that soon.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friends attention to a substantial piece of work that Zentek Forensics in my constituency carried out? It showed that it is ever so easy to google ones way around the firewalls that prevent children from accessing some very undesirable material. That is happening in schools, libraries and childrens bedrooms in the evenings at home. Will my right hon. Friend look at the providers of commercial filters and try to get them to strengthen their firewalls?
Jacqui Smith: I am happy to look at anything we can do to protect children from some of the dangers of the internet. I recognise, of course, that the internet plays an important role in the lives of children and young peopleat their schools, in their social lives and in their ability to research. However, it is clearly unacceptable if we cannot put the technical safeguards in place. We have been considering how we can, for example, kitemark some of the products that are involved in filtering and monitoring software. Perhaps, as part of that activity, the company to which my hon. Friend referred could make some progress. However, we take the issue extremely seriously.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Although I welcome the Home Secretarys comments, does she agree that it is a tragedy that what used to be the place where childhood innocence was protected and preservedthe homeis now often the place where it is corrupted and destroyed?
Jacqui Smith: If that were the sole impact of the internet and some of the new methods of communication, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, as the parent of a teenager, I have had my eyes opened and been amazed by the scope for friends to communicate with each another and talk to each other through sites like Bebo. Sometimes I wish that they would talk face to face; nevertheless, important elements of social networking take place through such sites. We need to put in place the technical safeguards necessary to educate parents and children about how to use them safely. That is an important part of CEOPs work. I know that work is going on to consider especially those social networking sites. We will soon produce guidance on the technical matters and the way in which we can better advise parents, who need to take responsibility for what their children do in the home.
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on her new role. Will she join me in paying tribute to Liz Longhurst, who has campaigned tirelessly since the horrific murder of her daughter, Jane, for the outlawing of extreme images of violent internet pornography, which will be made illegal in the recently published Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when that welcome measure is likely to receive its Second Reading?
Jacqui Smith: I think that the legislation to which my hon. Friend refers is due to receive its Second Reading in the autumn. He is right that the campaigning of Liz Longhurst, ably supported and championed by him, has brought the issue to the fore and applied the necessary pressure to bring about those legislative changes, which will be important in offering protection in this area.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): In February 2004, the Home Office, the Metropolitan police, Dixons and Woolworths launched the ShopWatch initiative, which recruits employees as special constables from retail establishments to patrol their own retail areas. The ShopWatch programme succeeded in reducing retail crime by a half in 2004 in the participating stores and is a prime example of proactive partnership working across the community and forces. The freedom to decide whether to go ahead with the scheme lies with individual police forces and their partners. They need to decide whether it would suit their area and be useful. The National Policing Improvement Agency offers support to any areas that wish to take the scheme up.
Bob Russell: May I welcome the Under-Secretary to her position, congratulate her on her promotion and, somewhat rarely for me, congratulate the Government on a project that is very worth while? While thanking employers for allowing staff to join the ShopWatch scheme, I should like to place on the record our appreciation to them and urge the Under-Secretary to encourage every police force to introduce it. It is the best news that we have had for special constables, with the first six in Essex joining last week, in Colchester.
Meg Hillier: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter of the scheme and has been a driving force behind its introduction in Colchester. I am certainly happy to congratulate Colchesters business specials, as they have been dubbed, and congratulate the participating stores, Asda, Sainsburys and Tesco, Colchester borough council, Bluestone and Essex police for getting the scheme off the ground. The best advert for the project is a successful scheme, as well as the hard work that the hon. Gentleman has put into highlighting it. I shall be watching with interest and I hope that other hon. Members will highlight the project in their areas, too.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that volunteering in the police force, the ambulance service or the fire brigade is an excellent way of creating sustainable communities and getting collective responsibility within them for their safety and well-being? If so, is there any way that we can expand the ShopWatch scheme to other private and public sector bodies?
Meg Hillier: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we all take collective responsibility for our safety. It is fair to say that my hon. Friend Sir Alan West highlighted that at the weekend, which is an important aspect[ Interruption.] As someone asked from a sedentary position, Is he a friend? He is indeed. A man who has held such a high position in the Navy, patrolling our waters, certainly has my friendship and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asked whether we could extend the scheme to other areas. It is worth highlighting the fact that although we are discussing ShopWatch, we also have hospital watch, campus watch and borough beat, which run in conjunction with hospitals, universities and local authorities.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I ask the Minister whether there are any arguments of principle against a paid special constabulary, as with retained firemen or the Territorial Army? If there are no such arguments, why have not the Government put a paid special constabulary in place during the past 10 years?
Meg Hillier: One of the special aspects of the special police is that they are volunteers; they are paid only out-of-pocket expenses. The Government introduced police community support officers, who play a vital role in our neighbourhood policing teams in constituencies up and down the country. It is worth noting that while the Government supported the introduction of police community support officers, the right hon. and learned Gentlemans party voted to delete some of their powers of arrest in April 2002, when the Police Reform Bill was in the Lords.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): We in the House agree that these schemes are excellent and provide a good way forward for community cohesion. How should we expand them? What work is being done with employers to persuade them that the skills that volunteers learn as special constables are transferable to their place of work, and to encourage more of them to take up those schemes?
Meg Hillier: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of employers being on board in terms of such schemesspecial constables might require their employers to allow them some time off work. ShopWatch special constables have highlighted that the transferable skills that they have gained have given them confidence in spotting potential shoplifters, for example. The scheme has contributed to a reduction in shoplifting when those specials are off duty as well as to the safety of the area when they are on duty.
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of special constables has fallen from 19,900 in 1997 to about 13,000 today. When does the Minister expect the number of specials to rise and to get back to the 1997 level that new Labour inherited?
The Conservatives can hardly criticise the Government, given the enormous increase in numbers in the Metropolitan police service, whose
numbers are now at their highest level ever, and the introduction of police community support officers. As for special constables, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be great to see more volunteers, and we need to encourage employers to support the various schemes that I have outlined. We have seen a small increase in numbers. Up to 2006, we had 13,405, and we are awaiting the figures for this year, which will be published on 26 July.
Keith Vaz: When the Home Secretary visits the agency, perhaps with the Minister of State, would they care to look into the in-trays, the filing cabinets and the post room controlled by the director general to get an explanation as to why it takes so long for Members of Parliament to get replies to simple questions and to obtain information requested from Ministers? I know that the Minister will try to deal with this question with his usual boyish charm, but these are serious issues that affect our constituents, and we need to get basic replies to our letters.
My right hon. Friend will know that we have systematically dealt with our priorities over the past year. We started off by tackling the problem of foreign national prisoners, and moved on to ensure that we had the right amount of resources in immigration policing. He is right to say that resolving the legacy that has built up over the past few years must be tackled. We make something like 1.4 million immigration decisions a year, and about 85 per cent. of right hon. and hon. Members letters are now dealt with inside 20 days, compared with 32 per cent. in 2003. We need to go further, however, and that is why further investment is required and will be delivered.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): But is the Minister aware that on 5 August 2005, in response to the July bombings, the present Government made their top security priority the need to establish new grounds for deportation there and then? Is he also aware that in a written reply of 6 June this year, the Government said that since then there had been only one deportation? That means that in the intervening two years we have had three times as many Home Secretaries as we have had deportationseven if a small number of deportations have taken place since 6 June. Why is it that, as with Hizb ut-Tahrir, so many dangerous individuals are still with us?
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