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House of Commons

Monday 8 February 2010

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-

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

1. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What recent advice he has received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on drugs which cause so-called legal highs. [315829]

7. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent advice he has received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on drugs that induce so-called legal highs. [315835]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): In March last year, my predecessor commissioned the ACMD to provide advice on so-called legal highs or new psychoactive drugs. Following receipt of the council's advice, we have banned a number of substances, including synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice, benzylpiperazine and gamma-butyrolactone-BZP and GBL respectively. As a priority, I am now expecting advice from the ACMD on the cathinone group of drugs, including mephedrone.

Mr. Goodwill: Does the Home Secretary share my concern that the purveyors of those pernicious preparations can often be one step ahead of the authorities, either by reformulating the molecules slightly or by marketing them as, for example, plant food?

Alan Johnson: I do. That is why it is very important to get a generic classification, so that we can cover whole areas and not allow the manufacturers of those drugs to shift around. We can actually make illegal a whole range and classification of those drugs.

Mr. David Jones: There is growing concern in north Wales over the increasing use of mephedrone, which as the Secretary of State knows is a substance related to ecstasy, and which is readily available on the internet, where it is marketed as plant food. Children as young as 14 years old are reported to be using it. He mentioned that he is expecting a report from the ACMD on the group of substances that includes mephedrone, but can he say when he expects to receive it?

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Alan Johnson: Yes, I spoke to Professor Les Iversen, the new chair of the ACMD, last week. This is a priority for the council-an absolute priority. It expects to receive the advice on 22 February. Thereafter, it expects to make a decision in early March. It is a priority and the council is moving as quickly as it can, consistent-this is the point I made earlier-with trying to ensure that it deals not only with mephedrone, but the whole generic group, so we will not be fooled by the manufacturers' shifting around.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): As we consider substances in the cathinone group of chemicals-that includes khat, by the way, which is used by people from the horn of Africa-is there not a danger that, as we put more and more substances into the ABC classification, we merely displace the problem? There is an endless list of chemicals and natural products that chemists can supply on to the market. Is there not also a danger of displacing illicit drug users to using products in the legal market?

Alan Johnson: I accept that there may be a danger. That is why the ACMD is composed not only of scientists, but of others, including police officers, others from law enforcement agencies and so on. It is very important that I take the council's advice, and its advice will be much wider than just the classification; it will also look at the kind of issues that my hon. Friend raises.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Professor Les Iversen, the interim chairman of the ACMD is quoted this morning as saying:

that schoolchildren can buy legal highs such as mephedrone over the internet and take them freely. Professor Iversen wrote to the Home Secretary on 22 December advising that the selling of mephedrone in a form for which it is clearly unintended, as we have heard,

What action have the Government taken in response to Professor Iverson's advice?

Alan Johnson: Professor Iversen's advice is in the context of the work of the ACMD. His letter to me on 22 December pointed out that that is why this matter is the council's priority. We will receive its advice and guidance before we take action. That is the correct sequence of events.

Student Visas (Fraud)

2. David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce levels of fraud in relation to student visas. [315830]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): We introduced the points-based system for students in March 2009. We estimate that around 2,000 colleges have ceased offering courses to overseas students as a result. Our review of tier 4 is aimed to close down the consequential attempts to gain entry to the UK for non-student purposes.

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David T.C. Davies: Apart from language schools, colleges offering legitimate degree courses and other courses would be expected to have a high proportion of British nationals. The Home Secretary and his Ministers can almost certainly find many dubious, bogus colleges simply by investigating those with a surprisingly high number of foreign national students on their rolls. Why will they not do so?

Mr. Woolas: We have done so, and we continue to do so. As I said, we estimate that around 2,000 colleges have had to withdraw courses for overseas students or close. Previously there was not a sponsored licence system. The great advantage of the points-based system is that we can now hold not just the student to account, but the sponsor too.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): My understanding is that across the subcontinent, in places such as Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Nepal and New Delhi, the UK Border Agency has temporarily ceased processing tier 4 student applications because of the huge volume of work. When will reprocessing recommence?

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend is right. Precisely because we have the new system, we can monitor where we think there might be abuse. We have had to suspend tier 4 applications in three such posts. We will reopen those posts for applications as soon as possible, and we intend to lay out the findings of the new review as soon as possible.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Back in November, the Minister said:

What has changed since then?

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman is quick to criticise the points-based system. It is precisely because we can close down the bogus colleges, by having the sponsored licence system, that people who wish to abuse our hospitality then look for other methods to gain entry into the United Kingdom. He should know that controlling the borders is a constant campaign against those who wish to abuse our system. That is what we are doing, and I would welcome his support in that endeavour.

Chris Grayling: Three months ago the Minister said that

There will obviously be a suspicion that the Government are simply delivering pre-election rhetoric in an area where there are widespread concerns. Let me test the Minister on the substance of the proposals. Yesterday he announced that people on student visas will now be allowed to work only 10 hours a week, not 20. Can he tell the House how many students have been prosecuted for working more than 20 hours a week?

Mr. Woolas: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman drafts his questions based on a press cuttings service. What he described is neither what we said nor what the press reported, but let me assume that it is, just for his benefit. The proposals relating to dependencies and work times are for those at sub-degree level, as has been urged on us by some people. However, I repeat: I would seriously
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ask him to support the Government in this endeavour, otherwise he will rightly be accused of being more interested in criticising us than in providing an immigration system. We closed down the bogus colleges-around 2,000 of them-but there are attempts by some with bad intentions towards our country to get around that, so we have had to review that again.

Criminal Offences (Repeal)

3. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What plans he has to identify criminal offences that might be repealed. [315831]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): The Government keep all legislation under review.

Norman Baker: I am most grateful for that thorough answer, but may I point out to the Minister that in the 19 criminal justice Acts introduced since 1997, 68 sections and 25 schedules have not yet been fully implemented, and that of the thousands of new criminal offences that have been introduced, many are ludicrous or unnecessary, such as offering for sale a game bird killed on Christmas day? When are the Government going to stop their knee-jerk reaction every time a problem arises-saying that a new law is required-and have a policy of removing unwanted and unnecessary legislation?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of the number of criminal justice Acts that this Government have introduced. Perhaps he would include among the pieces of legislation that he would wish us to review the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allows new evidence for serious crimes, and introduces new sentences for murder, sexual and violent offences, and DNA fingerprints, bringing 37 killers and 90 rapists to justice, or the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which gives the power to close crack houses. The Liberals voted against both Bills at Third Reading. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would find a way to remove many of those provisions, because ultimately the record shows that the Liberals have been soft on crime.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the fact that in recent years up to 90,000 people have been charged with hate crime-crimes of racism and anti-Semitism, and attacks on gay people-with conviction rates of up to 80 per cent. That is making Britain a more decent and fairer place. I do wish that the Liberal Democrats would stop rubbishing efforts to bring a bit more justice to many areas where we have an unjust society.

Mr. Hanson: Indeed. Every Liberal Democrat Member of the House has lower crime, more police officers and more resources to tackle crime than in 1997. The Bills-now Acts-that we have taken through the House have helped to contribute to that. On balance-on the Criminal Justice Act, on antisocial behaviour and on licensing, and in the Lib Dem freedom Bill-the Lib Dems have voted against all those measures.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Everybody is in favour of updating and modernising the law, but in answer to our parliamentary questions, we learn that the sheer
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number of new offences under this Government since 1997 is now more than 4,200, which is frankly staggering. Up to 2008, we were churning out 27 new offences a month; under this Prime Minister, the figure has now gone up to 33. Many merely replicate perfectly serviceable offences. What proposals is the Minister making to ensure that new offences do not duplicate those that are already on the statute book?

Mr. Hanson: That is part of our overall general review. We want to see the police using effective legislation-for example, DNA recording for recordable offences, allowing the police to detain people who have been arrested for a recordable offence. That happened under legislation that the hon. Gentleman voted against, through which 37 killers and 90 rapists to date have been brought to court and are in prison as a result. That is the sort of legislation I believe in, but it is the sort of legislation that the Liberal Democrats have voted against.

Chris Huhne: The Minister really should not be making partisan points when, frankly, the degree of new legislation is plunging police officers, magistrates and other others who are forced to deal with it into considerable confusion. The Home Secretary and the Minister may know of a useful precedent in another common law country of Canada, where they have simplified the criminal law with a penal code. Does the Minister agree that that is a useful initiative for us to follow and will he commit the Government to looking at establishing a simple penal code for England and Wales?

Mr. Hanson: The Government's priority is cutting crime and making sure that we have sufficient powers to tackle it. I am sure that there is common consent across the House that legislation for parenting orders, fly-tipping, dispersal orders and closing crack houses are all useful. Again, the hon. Gentleman voted against them.

Ports (Security)

5. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on security at ports. [315833]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I speak regularly about security matters involving port security, as well as wider security issues. My officials also work closely with those in the Department for Transport.

Mr. Crabb: Given that the Government have now given the green light for the privatisation of Dover and the other remaining UK trust ports, does the Home Secretary agree that a port like Milford Haven in my constituency, which controls access to 20 per cent. of the UK's gas supplies and a quarter of the UK's remaining oil refineries, is not a suitable candidate for privatisation and that ports that house critical national infrastructure should stay under national control?

Alan Johnson: I feel like signing up to this campaign. Unfortunately, it is not my responsibility, but that of the Secretary of State for Transport.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome the steps taken by the Government in respect of body scanners at Manchester and Heathrow airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what are necessary now are international standards to deal with international terrorism because although we can do the very best we can in this country-and, indeed, within the EU-if countries outside the EU do not raise their game, this will pose a real problem in dealing with international terrorism?

Alan Johnson: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Incidentally, we are introducing scanners at Birmingham airport as well. The issue is an international one. That is why I was pleased at the progress made at Toledo when the EU Interior and Justice Ministers, together with Janet Napolitano, the American Secretary of State for Homeland Security, agreed on a way forward not just in relation to what we do extra-EU, but intra-EU as well. Issues such as providing information on passenger records must be as important for travellers within the EU as for those travelling outside it. That, together with measures on body scanners and other security matters, must be tackled on an international basis.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The Home Secretary always makes a lot, as he has just now, of the importance of embarkation controls on e-Borders when he talks about security at ports and airports. Will he confirm that the previous embarkation controls were dismantled by this Government? Yesterday, the Home Secretary said on the "Andrew Marr Show" that the previous Government "did away" with embarkation controls when, in fact, that happened on 16 March 1998 under the present Government. I have the written answer here with me. Will he confirm that he was misleading viewers yesterday and also that the full replacement system will not cover all our ports until 2014, giving us 16 years of unprotected borders?

Alan Johnson: The embarkation controls for most medium-sized airports and ports were abolished in 1994 under the previous Government. I believe I also said on the "Andrew Marr Show" that the previous Government were probably right to do so, in the sense that those embarkation controls were worth very little when it came to checking whether people were leaving the country. There was supposed to be a marrying up with the landing cards, but there was horrendous incompetence. What the Conservative Government failed to do was to introduce a replacement, which we have sought to do. As for the hon. Gentleman's comments about 2014, 95 per cent. of e-Borders will be in place by 2011. The remaining 5 per cent. relate to the small ports and harbours, which will necessarily take longer. However, all air travel will be covered by 2011.

Police Officers (Criminal Records)

6. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How many serving police officers in England have a criminal record. [315834]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): Police officers are expected to demonstrate the highest professional standards of behaviour. Information on the number of serving officers
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who have criminal records is not held centrally. Decisions on whether to employ an individual who has such a record are a matter for each individual force.

Mr. Prentice: My spies tell me that hundreds of serving police officers have a criminal record. My question is about applicants with a criminal record, who can be rejected by the chief constable concerned without the chief constable giving reasons. Is there not a case for an appeal mechanism, perhaps to a police authority, for someone who desperately wants to become a police officer, has turned over a new leaf and is a completely reformed character?

Mr. Hanson: The regulations for police applications are governed by the Police (Conduct) Regulations 2008, which, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, set out the conduct and standards of professional behaviour expected of police officers. Those hoping to join the service must declare on application whether they have any convictions or cautions, spent or otherwise. As my hon. Friend has said, the matter is one for the chief constable concerned. I am happy for police authorities to have roles on the issue, but ultimately it is for the local force to determine the seriousness of the offence concerned.

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