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House of Commons

Monday 21 April 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock.


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Death of a Member

Mr. Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Member for Crewe and Nantwich. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member’s family and friends.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Illegal Firearms

1. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What plans she has to reduce the availability of illegal firearms in inner-city areas. [199721]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): Mr. Speaker, I associate myself—and, I am sure, all Members of the House—with your comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich was an inspiring and powerful parliamentarian. Parliament, her constituents and her family, with whom our thoughts are at this time, will miss her very much.

In September 2007, I set up the tackling gangs action programme to develop multi-agency action in inner-city areas of London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. The £1.5 million programme included a day of action, which resulted in 124 arrests and the seizure of 10 real and more than 1,000 imitation firearms. We will build on the work of that programme and continue to work with partners to reduce further the supply of firearms.

Tony Lloyd: I associate myself, Mr. Speaker, with your observations and those of the Home Secretary about the loss of our friend Gwyneth Dunwoody.

I thank the Home Secretary personally for her strong commitment to the agenda on guns and gangs; there is no doubt that what she is trying to do is making a real difference. However, although it is vital that we consider technical solutions for taking the gun
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physically out of circulation when that is possible, in the end the only way to resolve and drive against the problem of guns in our inner cities is by changing hearts and minds and the culture that says that the gun is acceptable. That means working with young people and finding them beneficial activities that they want to do and that the rest of society wants them to be involved in.

Jacqui Smith: I met my hon. Friend and representatives of community organisations and the police in his constituency, and that demonstrated to me what a difference can be made on the issue when the community stands by the police. When I visited his constituency, I was particularly pleased to see the work done by local police officers in Plymouth Grove primary school, for example. They were getting in early, alongside teachers, and not only talking to children and young people about the dangers of guns, but giving them the strength to resist some of the pressures, from their peers and others, that might well have led them into trouble later in life. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. What he has mentioned has been an important part of the programme.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I also associate myself with the Home Secretary’s remarks about the late Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was indeed a remarkable parliamentarian who will be much missed and long remembered.

I revert to the question. If the day of action was so splendidly successful, can we not have at least a week of action?

Jacqui Smith: The day of action is part of an ongoing programme of work in which police forces, particularly in areas that face the most gun crime, are involved all the time. It was followed up in some areas by a week of action and in others by a month of action. That work certainly focuses activity, and it will continue.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): A number of employees of the House have mentioned to me their sadness at the loss of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, and I should like to pass those messages on.

I am pleased by my right hon. Friend’s response to the first question. Shortly after we were elected in 1997, a lot of people from Dunblane, whose children had been killed, came to sit in the Gallery. We were promised, among other things, that there would be a national register of people who held handguns. How far have we gone down that road?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right that we have strengthened our legislation in a whole range of areas; it is now among the strongest gun legislation in the world. I reassure her that the roll-out of the national firearms licensing management system to all forces in England and Wales is now complete. The system is fully operational.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): As someone who was brought up in Dunblane and lives near Hungerford, I feel very strongly about the subject of
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gun crime in inner cities and elsewhere. Does the Home Secretary agree that it is not about £1.5 million-worth of one-day actions collecting 10 guns, or about working with children in schools, both of which are perfectly legitimate things, and that the only thing that the little neds who carry guns illegally will understand is tough sentencing? If these guys know that they are going to go to prison, they will not carry the guns.

Jacqui Smith: That is why I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is pleased that in bringing forward the proposals for a minimum sentence for gun possession we have increased the average length of time that criminals serve for gun possession from about an average of 18 months in 2002 to well over 50 months now.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party Members fully associate ourselves with the remarks made about Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was a truly formidable politician.

The Secretary of State knows that in Scotland we have a particular problem with airguns, which have resulted in three deaths and more than 1,000 injuries in the past few years. It is of such a scale that the Scottish Government have organised a gun summit that will be attended by the police, gun control campaigners and shooting groups—everybody other than herself and Home Office Ministers. Surely she could take a couple of hours out of her diary to come to the summit to explain what the UK Government are going to do about the issue, because if she does not, the impression will be that she could not care less about it and is prepared to do absolutely nothing.

Jacqui Smith: It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman’s party is using the very good initiative of the summit and a whole range of actions to make cheap party political points. I have discussed gun control with his colleagues in the Scottish Executive, and I discussed the issue of airguns. They, like me, will therefore be pleased that the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 ensures that it is now necessary to have a licence to sell an air weapon and has increased to 18 the age limit for acquiring or possessing an air weapon. It is probably better if we work together to implement that legislation and to review what more we need to do, instead of making cheap political points that have more to do with the campaign for independence than with a campaign against gun crime.

National DNA Database

2. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the number of convictions secured by the use of data from DNA samples retained on the national DNA database in 2007-08. [199722]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): Data are available on the number of detections with DNA, but not the number of convictions. The data for 2007-08 will be available this coming June. To give an indication, in 2006-07, 41,148 crimes were detected in which a DNA match was available or played a part.

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Gordon Banks: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that, if further restrictions were placed on the data that are held on the national DNA database, she and other Home Office Ministers would not be in a position to come to the House and give such positive numbers?

Meg Hillier: I agree completely. Taking the figures for 2006-07 alone, 452 homicides, 644 rapes and 222 other sexual offences were among the offences detected thanks to the help of DNA. The murders in Suffolk by Steve Wright and the murder of Sally Anne Bowman by Mark Dixie were detected and those men imprisoned thanks to the DNA database.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Dr. John Bond of the scientific support unit at Northamptonshire police has been at the forefront of developing DNA, forensics and other scientific techniques to detect crime and criminals. What specific incentives does the Home Office give to police forces to expand their scientific support operations?

Meg Hillier: The forensic science capability in this country is a very important issue. We are keen to ensure that we have proper forensic support across those bodies that supply that, including the police, and we now have a permanent regulator in the form of Andrew Rennison, who ensures that our forensics work is of top scientific quality.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Of course, I accept but the beneficial aspects of the DNA database, it is now the largest of any country in the world. It is estimated that there are 500,000 mistakes connected with the database. Can the Minister assure the House that that will be dealt with, and that the information contained on the database is protected from any unfortunate loss?

Meg Hillier: Security is of course an important issue. The National Policing Improvement Agency, which is responsible as the custodian of the DNA database, is also responsible for other key national databases and has a good track record. My right hon. Friend mentions replication, which is currently at 13.3 per cent. but going down. That is partly because in the early days of new DNA testing, police forces took extra samples to meet higher evidential standards. Much work has gone on to educate police forces in taking DNA samples, so that replication is being reduced. However, that does not adversely affect any of the individuals involved.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): More than 2,000 Dutch DNA samples, many relating to serious offences, were mislaid in 2007 for over a year due to the incompetence of UK authorities. Will the Minister tell us today exactly how many suspects have now been arrested by the UK police, and which offences were committed in this country?

Meg Hillier: This is an ongoing police investigation and it would be inappropriate for me to talk about any partial findings while that investigation, which is an operational matter, is going on. It would be wrong to identify or alert any of the individuals suspected, as it might give them the chance to go under cover. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a commitment
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to this House to report back when we have all the information after a full, thorough investigation by the police.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Does it bother my friend at all that DNA samples are held on people who are innocent of any crime?

Meg Hillier: We have solved an enormous number of crimes because of the data held on people who have had their DNA taken on arrest, whether they were charged or not. Up to 2005 alone, 3,000 offences were identified involving those arrested and not charged, including 37 murders, 16 attempted murders and 90 rapes. I ask my hon. Friend which of those crimes he would like not to have been solved.

Counter-Terrorism Bill

3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What recent representations she has received on part 6 of the Counter-Terrorism Bill. [199723]

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): The Government have received representations on part 6 of the Counter-Terrorism Bill from four non-governmental organisations—Inquest, Liberty, Justice and Amnesty International—three trade organisations and a small number of private individuals, including one submission entitled “Fascism—the UK Government wants to change the law on inquest. Will this give the freemasons a licence to kill?”

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but is he aware that the Bill gives the Home Secretary fundamental powers to overhaul the coroners system completely? For example, the Home Secretary will have the power to appoint the coroner, and to issue a certificate requiring an inquest to be held without a jury. Is today’s terrorist threat so different from what we faced under the IRA that it is vital in the minds of the Home Secretary and the Minister to tear up hundreds of years of judicial procedure? Is that really necessary? Surely the Government should wait until a coroners Bill is before the House so that the matter can be properly discussed and debated.

Mr. McNulty: I do not agree with much of that. I certainly do not agree that the legislation fundamentally changes the whole coroners system; it does not. It simply says that in one or two specific cases—terrorist and non-terrorist cases, by the bye—it might be necessary to go into such a context to get full closure for the families involved on the circumstances in which someone dies and how they have died. Some Opposition Members indicated that they had difficulties with that provision in the Bill and I am happy to discuss it further in Committee.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): In the summer, I lost nine of my friends in Afghanistan. None of their deaths has so far been the subject of a completed inquest. Their families are grieving. I utterly fail to understand why such a provision should be part of a counter-terrorism Bill. Will the Minister listen to many of his Labour colleagues who have said to me that we need a proper coroners Bill, not a provision that is part of a totally different and overweening Bill?

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Mr. McNulty: I agree with the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. The whole House agrees that there is a need for substantial reform of the coroners system, which is forthcoming. But to alleviate and obviate at least some of the delays that he talks about—I have huge sympathy with what he says about them—it is important to include the provision in question at this stage. The hon. Gentleman will be on the Committee considering the Bill, and as I indicated on Second Reading, I am open to exploring how we can resolve a problem that everyone is aware of—the use of sensitive and secure material in such cases—to ensure that the system works well and is expeditious, so that people are not left in the sort of limbo he describes. Let us talk about that in Committee.

Right to Remain

4. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What the average time taken to determine applications for the right to remain in the UK was in the last 12 months; and if she will make a statement. [199724]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): Published targets are to make 70 per cent. of decisions on postal applications within 20 days of receipt and to make 90 per cent. within 70 days. Complex cases and applications by overstayers, or by those in breach of the rules, can take a bit longer.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful for the Minister’s answer and his earlier contact. However, he knows that I—and perhaps other colleagues—have several cases that take considerably longer to determine. One problem appears to be the delay in allocating case workers to each application. Some applications will be refused, and people will have to go back to their countries, but at least that is a decision, and they can get on with their lives. However, it is often difficult for people who are waiting to start education courses or who wish to visit their country and then return here. I had a constituent whose mother was dying in hospital abroad and, because of delays, she could not visit, and her mother died. Will the Minister do what he can to speed up the process? Some results will be negative but that is better than the delays that currently occur.

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for not only for his question but for the conversation earlier today. I hope that we can resolve quickly the cases that are on the table. Approximately two thirds of applications for indefinite leave to remain are resolved within 20 days and nearly 90 per cent. are resolved in 70 days. However, many cases are outside that target, and the UK Border Agency needs to work faster to get them resolved quickly. Many of the lessons that we drew from creating fast-track asylum teams around the country are being applied to those cases. I therefore hope that faster progress will be made on that front in 2008.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend assure me that the right to remain in the UK is forfeited if somebody commits a serious crime and serves a sentence of imprisonment? Can he confirm that, in those cases, such people leave the country?

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