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House of Commons

Monday 25 February 2008

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—

Student Visas

1. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): What account she takes of the contribution of foreign students to the UK economy in taking decisions on student visas. [188113]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): Foreign students benefit our country to the tune of almost £8.5 billion a year. Students will be included in the new points system, which will make the system easier to police.

Mrs. Humble: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Overseas students make a valuable contribution to this country’s economy. Universities recognise both that and their role as sponsors under this new visa scheme, but they are still unclear about how it will be administered. Will he talk to education institutions about how the new certificates will be administered and, above all, how the new registration requirements will be monitored?

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend is right that big changes will be introduced in the granting of visas to students under the points system. In particular, a new register will come into place with much tougher obligations on colleges to report events such as non-attendance and extended periods of absence, but, more importantly, students will, for the first time, be tied to a specific institution—they will not be able to come in under the sponsorship of one organisation and switch in-country to another. As these are big changes, I plan to publish blueprints of how the new system will work as early as possible so that there is as much time as possible for us to discuss the details with universities. I will certainly make sure that I talk to universities in my hon. Friend’s area as we try to get these proposals right.

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Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Foreign students undoubtedly make a valuable contribution to this country’s economy, but with one in five students dropping out of full-time education, many of whom are foreign students, how confident is the Minister that universities are communicating foreign student drop-out rates to the Border and Immigration Agency?

Mr. Byrne: We introduced changes in April last year, through a change to the immigration rules, that made it mandatory for education institutions to keep effective records on, for example, enrolment, and to report those records to the BIA when asked to do so. The new proposals under the points system take that tightening of the system a stage on, so that it becomes mandatory for universities and other higher education institutions to report not only students who do not turn up for their course, but extended periods of absence. We are giving universities time to prepare for these changes because we realise the new burdens that will be put on them, but I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that the system needs to be tighter in future.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Is the Minister aware that a large number of language schools are completely bogus and are nothing more than a front to get people illegally into this country? What action is he taking against such bogus language schools?

Mr. Byrne: We are determined to take colleges off the register of licence sponsors whenever we come across evidence of such abuse, and if the hon. Gentleman has information about colleges perpetrating such abuse I would, of course, be grateful to receive it. Well over 100 colleges have been taken off the register over the last year and a half, thanks to the work of the BIA.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Foreign students make a valuable contribution to many of our disciplines, particularly in manufacturing industry. However, there is one discipline through which they make little contribution to the UK economy: journalism. Will my hon. Friend therefore make sure that foreign journalists who apply for visas come here on the basis that they deal with factual evidence and factual evidence only?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that observation. It is important for it to be much harder for organisations to get on to the appropriate register in years to come. Under the points system, it will be easier to police new regulations on how colleges get on to the register. I will, of course, look at any new ideas for such requirements that my hon. Friend might like to suggest.

Police Numbers

2. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What representations she has received on police force strength following the publication of the Flanagan review. [188114]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): The Flanagan report makes it clear that we must think seriously about how we can make best
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use of police resources to meet the demands that the service faces. The changes that Sir Ronnie recommends could release up to 7 million police hours—the equivalent of 3,500 extra officers. I welcome Sir Ronnie’s contribution to the debate, and the strong case he makes for reform to improve the outcomes that we can all achieve for the public.

Mr. Harper: The Home Secretary did not really answer my question, but she will know that I asked what representations she had received about the Flanagan report. May I commend to her an excellent article by Gloucestershire’s chief constable in The Citizen last week, in which he refers to Sir Ronnie’s recommendation that damping be removed? If that were to happen, Gloucestershire would lose 100 police officers or have 6.5 per cent. added to its council tax. Will she rule out the removal of damping?

Jacqui Smith: It is because we ensured not only a 2.9 per cent. overall increase in revenue support for police forces, but a floor increase of at least 2.5 per cent. for all authorities that the hon. Gentleman’s authority has been protected at that floor. We managed to find the balance between moving partially towards the formula for which many hon. Members on both sides of the House have called and protecting police forces such as his.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): May I express my gratitude to Sir Ronnie Flanagan for the expeditious and efficient way in which he conducted this review of policing? I know that the Secretary of State shares my view, which motivated the commissioning of this report, that we need to reduce bureaucracy and red tape. How quickly will she be able to act on his recommendations, particularly the important ones such as the streamlined reporting of crimes, which is being piloted by Staffordshire police?

Jacqui Smith: I thank my right hon. Friend for his prescience in asking Sir Ronnie to undertake the review when he was Home Secretary. He is right to say that it contains many important recommendations, including the one to which he refers. That approach is being piloted in Staffordshire. It reduces the reporting down to one page of recording for the vast majority of crimes and enables more emphasis to be placed on caring for victims. I expect to be able to roll it out much more widely very quickly—in fact, before the end of this year.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Government have indicated that they want the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Does the Home Secretary accept that many people across the divide in Northern Ireland would much prefer additional resources to provide more police officers on the ground to combat criminal activity before we go down the line of devolving policing and justice?

Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman knows, extra resources are being made available and ongoing discussions are taking place about the governance of policing in Northern Ireland. The point that Sir Ronnie makes has wide relevance. He says that the reforms that
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he has proposed, upon which we are acting and which I am sure will be relevant in Northern Ireland, will enable us to maximise police officer time spent on the front line and to use our resources as effectively as possible.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): As the Home Secretary knows, the Select Committee on Home Affairs launched its new inquiry into policing in the 21st century this morning in Newark and tomorrow we will examine Sir Ronnie and his findings. Will she confirm that the police constable is central to the Government’s strategy on policing, that all the other parts, such as police community support officers and new technology, are secondary to that visible commitment to policing and that there is no question of a reduction in police numbers as a result of this report?

Jacqui Smith: Nothing in this report implies a reduction in police numbers. My right hon. Friend is right to say that the office of constable lies at the heart of policing, which is why officer numbers have increased by 14,000 since 1997. That increase has occurred alongside increases in other police staff, who work alongside those officers to do the job that our communities expect of them and that they are delivering so successfully.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): The Flanagan report, which the Home Secretary welcomes, states that

Will she unambiguously pledge to the public and the police that those numbers will not be cut?

Jacqui Smith: I believe that between 1993 and 1997 police officer numbers fell by 1,100. We are increasing the resources available to support revenue funding for policing by 2.9 per cent. both next year and the following year. We are providing the resources necessary for chief constables to make the required decisions about their force’s staffing levels of police officers and others. It is difficult for Conservative Members to make a credible case for increased resources when they have not supported the increases in resources and they had such a pitiable record in government.

Alcohol Restriction Zones

3. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of alcohol restriction zones in reducing levels of alcohol-related crime. [188115]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): No assessment has been made nationally of the effectiveness of designated public places orders; however, I am aware that some local authorities—Southampton, for example—have made assessments of their DPPOs. The fact that more than 554 DPPOs are in existence suggests that they are effective in combating alcohol-related crime and disorder.

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Mr. Kidney: I thank the Minister for that answer. The Stafford town centre zone was so successful in cutting crimes of violence and public disorder that last year the police, the council and the public agreed to extend the zone, so does that not show how effective the measure can be in tackling alcohol-related crime? Does my hon. Friend agree that to tackle alcohol-related crime, we need more measures such as the zones and the more general application of laws that permit the police to seize alcohol in public places?

Mr. Coaker: I agree with my hon. Friend and I am pleased that he has referred to the success of designated public places orders, because there has been a massive increase in their number. Personally, I am surprised that there are not even more of them spread out across the country. My hon. Friend is also right to point out the need for further powers to be given to the police and for further campaigns. He will be aware that a number of such campaigns have been conducted recently, including confiscation of alcohol from schoolchildren during half-term. We hope to see many more such activities in due course.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): What are the Minister and the Home Secretary doing about the problem of cheap alcohol? Will they respond to the initiatives taken last week by Tesco and others?

Mr. Coaker: I have already discussed with Tesco the proposal it made and we shall consider how we take the matter forward. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a review of pricing and promotion is being undertaken by the Department of Health. The report is due in July; we look forward to it and will take appropriate action then.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): We are all very aware of the growing number of under-age drinkers who drink excessively in our streets and parks. Will the Minister tell us how the new confiscation measures will work to ensure that young people do not simply reoffend and carry on with the same practices?

Mr. Coaker: To stop young people reoffending we must first stop them believing that they can drink in public and act in any way in public without consequences. My hon. Friend is right to point out that our confiscation campaigns are directly focused on young people, to say that it is not acceptable to drink in public and then to use that as an excuse to vandalise and commit other acts. The confiscation powers enable the police, where they believe there is a risk of disorder, to confiscate alcohol from young people and, alongside our campaigns to tackle under-age sales, we believe they will make a real difference to the problems that I know exist in many estates across the country.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): This week, a Home Office report is expected to show that in the year after the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003, crimes of serious violence committed in the early hours of the morning jumped by a quarter. In January 2005, the Government claimed that giving local councils the right to charge pubs, clubs and other alcohol retailers for the costs of policing was a priority, through the establishment of new alcohol disorder zones, yet three years on they are still not in place. Why not?

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Mr. Coaker: We will bring forward measures to introduce alcohol disorder zones in the near future. The hon. Gentleman referred to the review of the Licensing Act; the interim report into the implications of the Act, which we published last July, showed that serious violent crime over a whole night had actually fallen by 5 per cent.


4. Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): What progress has been made on regulating wheel clamping on private land. [188116]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The Security Industry Authority will undertake a feasibility study of various policy options for the regulation of vehicle immobilisation companies—commonly known as clampers—in the private sector, the results of which will be available in early 2009. Further details will be published in the SIA’s business plan for 2008-09.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): First, may I say that it is a pleasure to see you in your place, Mr. Speaker? May you long stay there, as a reminder that in this country the Speaker is chosen not by an attempted coup from the Press Gallery, but by the Members of the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that since 1992 wheel-clamping has been banned in Scotland, yet in the midlands and the rest of England cowboy clampers still inflict outrageous penalties on motorists. Will she give civil servants clear instructions to put a stop to that outrage, not in 2009 but this year?

Meg Hillier: I thank my right hon. Friend and congratulate him on the tenacity and vigour with which he has pursued the issue for a number of years. Scotland has a different legal jurisdiction, under which theft is defined differently, which is why such activity is illegal there.

Fees are supposed to be reasonable, and it is intended that anyone who is clamped can raise the matter, because the individual clamper will be registered and licensed by the Security Industry Authority. There is recourse while we take the time to ensure that we get a proper, proportionate response.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): In high-density, high-rise developments such as Winterthur way in my constituency, where residential parking was limited by design, the threat of wheel-clamping is part of everyday life. Will the Minister ensure that the review places enough emphasis on not just deterring unwanted parking but protecting residents to ensure that they are not penalised unnecessarily as part of the process?

Meg Hillier: The hon. Lady rightly mentions the balance that must be struck: people who are clamped are not happy about it, but there is a clear need to protect landowners and residents from illegal parking. I would welcome her comments and her input into the suggestion of options for the feasibility study. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), will take up the very points she raises.

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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): But are there not clear rules at the moment that forbid the absolutely outrageous behaviour of private companies that clamp people’s cars and charge exorbitant rates? Is it not the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government to make that very plain to the public, who are getting fed up with such behaviour?

Meg Hillier: The law requires individual clampers to be licensed as members of the Security Industry Authority. They must charge a reasonable fee and have adequate signage in place. If any individual has any concerns, they have recourse to complain to the SIA. We hope that we will be able to tackle the concerns that hon. Members have raised in the ongoing study.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Surely that is not the case. Under present legislation, there is no control over the fees charged to unclamp a car. Extortionate fees are being charged, and nothing can currently be done about it. When will the Government introduce fresh legislation to put that right?

Meg Hillier: I am in danger of repeating myself. We recognise the points that hon. Members raise, but fees currently have to be reasonable. However, there is clearly concern, which is why we are undertaking a feasibility study to ensure that we get a balance between fees charged and protection for landowners. That is what we are going to do, and we will unveil plans in 2009.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Is not the way forward simply to restrict wheel-clamping to the police and to directly employed, accountable staff of local authorities?

Meg Hillier: My hon. Friend is welcome to put his views as part of the ongoing review, but there would be some issues of cost for landowners were they forced to use only a limited, narrow group of suppliers.

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