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15. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the use of stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000; and if he will make a statement. 
The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): The Home Office and police keep the effectiveness of section 44 under constant review. The noble Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, also reviews the operation of section 44 and reports his findings to Parliament. I believe that section 44 remains an important tool in countering the threat of terrorism.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Since the police can use random stop-and-search powers to look for personal items such as cameras, and people can be stopped from photographing public buildings, are we not in danger of going back to what East Germany was like before the wall came down, when people could be arrested for photographing a bridge? As Parliament's intentions in this respect are being exceeded, will the Government look again at the matter in order to maintain confidence between the public and police?
I believe that Parliament's intentions are being met. We face a severe threat of potential terrorist activity. Every approval of section 44 powers is by a senior officer in the local police force, and is then subject to my approval as the Minister, and to independent review by the noble Lord Carlile. In London alone over the last year, we have seen a 40 per cent. increase in the
use of section 44. It remains an important tool in stop and search, not least because it is a deterrent and can help to foil potential terrorist activity.
"section 44 is being used far too often on a random basis without any reasoning behind its use".
"necessary and proportional to the continuing and serious risk of terrorism."
This is a matter for operational judgments by the police. In the Crime and Security Bill Committee, the Opposition tabled an amendment to delete the whole of section 44, which would not be sound or viable. Section 44 serves a function and protects the public, and I hope that the Opposition will support its use.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): As the Minister knows, the amendment concerned was a probing amendment to encourage debate on the matter. As he also well knows, the stop-and-search powers under section 44 have been falling into disrepute, given that 180,000 searches took place in 2008 under those powers. The Government's failure to act has meant that Liberty and the judges are now acting for them. Uncertainty about what powers will be available to the police have hindered planning for the Olympic games, for example. That has created a substantial mess. Will the Minister apologise to those who will have to sort out that lamentable inheritance?
Mr. Hanson: I will not apologise for the fact that we have a power that helps to protect people in the city of London-potentially-from severe terrorist activity. In the past year alone, there has been a 40 per cent. reduction in the use of stop-and-search powers in the Greater London area. The powers are strictly monitored, and they are used for a purpose. We will examine the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, and we are currently considering an appeal, but let us not get away from the fact that this is important legislation. It is being used properly, and I support its continued use.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): In March 2009, 62 police officers were employed in the firearms and explosives functions in England and Wales, alongside 582 police staff of whom five were police community support officers.
Mr. Robathan: I am sure that we are all very concerned about the scourge of gun crime in this country, but I wonder whether this expensive, bureaucratic paraphernalia does much to combat it. Can the Minister tell us exactly how many weapons used in crime have been legally registered?
Mr. Campbell: The number of firearms offences has fallen in each of the last five years, partly because we have some of the tightest controls on legally held guns to prevent them from being used by criminals. It is true that legally held weapons are being stolen, and the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Shooting Sports Council are trying to establish what further advice is necessary.
18. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of tier 4 of the points-based immigration system; and if he will make a statement. 
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): The review of tier 4 has made a number of recommendations, including the setting of a new minimum standard of English for those who wish to study at below degree level-including English language students-and measures to stop short-term students from bringing their dependants to the United Kingdom, to halve the amount of time for which students studying at below degree level can work, and to withdraw their dependants' permission to work. We will present consequential rules shortly.
Mr. Rob Wilson: A leaked memo revealed that the Government had been warned by an immigration intelligence unit that tier 4 of the points-based system was "significantly weaker" than the system that preceded it. Does the Minister now accept that his Government introduced a system that was far too easy for bogus students and bogus colleges to exploit?
Mr. Woolas: No, I do not, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman is worried if that leak is all that he has to go on. The report was not accurate. We have responded to the concerns expressed by our front-line staff, as we rightly should, but the information gathered by our officers misrepresented the position by suggesting that officers did not have enough powers. We are taking measures to give them more power, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured to learn that we are able to do that precisely because we established that system. In the past, there were no controls of this nature.
Mr. Woolas: I take the issue very seriously, which is why we are seeking to tighten the regime, but I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts the logic of my answer. It is not possible to say how many bogus students are working above those limits, because, by definition, they are acting outside the regulations. We have, of course, been given estimates, and the best estimate is that the new tier 4 system prevented about 2,000 colleges from admitting overseas students. The action that we are taking is consequential to that, as we continue to engage in what is in effect a cat-and-mouse game with those who wish to abuse our hospitality.
Mr. Swayne: Dos the Minister agree that points acquired for a course offer or a bank statement are no substitute for the judgment of an experienced immigration officer who has satisfied himself that an applicant is coming to the country only to study, will leave after completing his studies, and is not coming here to work?
Mr. Woolas: I have always admired the hon. Gentleman's common sense. The answer is yes, I do agree with him, but it is not a case of either/or. Of course the immigration official at port has powers, and we are seeking to enhance them. It is right for there to be checks on the finances-the availability of money for people to support themselves-but it is also right for officers, both in overseas posts and here, to be satisfied that an applicant is genuine. In that context, our biometric fingerprint visas and foreign national identity cards do a superb job.
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Will the Minister give my constituents an assurance that their jobs are not under threat from legitimate immigration, and that he will be tough on bogus immigration?
Mr. Woolas: Yes and yes. The system my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has put in place is a fantastic system. It says that we will allow people into the country under tier 2 where there are skills shortages, but also that in those skills shortage areas there must be training programmes for indigenous and local people, so that the jobs are also available to them.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Minister will recall the debates we had last year about the two Patagonian women who wanted to come to Wales to learn Welsh. How will the imposition of a minimum level of English assist them and other people in their circumstances? Instead, it will make things 10 times worse, will it not?
The Government are fully aware of the importance of the cultural links between Wales and Patagonia. Indeed, if I was not previously aware of that, I am now, but I am afraid I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that however lovely the two girls were-and they were-we cannot waive the immigration rules just because he likes them. We have to have robust rules, and there is a consensus in the House-there was not one
five years ago, but there is now-that English language is a desirable requirement for people who wish to immigrate into our country.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I am glad that the Minister has now worked out what he actually did announce yesterday. Let me probe him on that, therefore. The reality is that these announcements will only have any value if they are enforceable, so can he answer this question: how many students have been prosecuted for working more than the current 20-hour-a-week limit?
Mr. Woolas: To be fair to me, I did not announce anything yesterday. Turning to the hon. Gentleman's serious point, however, I do not have the figures for prosecutions in respect of the number of hours worked, but I will see whether I can provide them to the House as I am sure they are available. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not welcome these policy proposals, however. It is important that the system is not abused. If somebody is coming here to study for a genuine course, that should be facilitated given the importance, which I know he accepts, of overseas students to our economy in the short and long term. That should be the reason for entry, rather than so that, as an indirect consequence, people are in fact coming here to work, which undermines the points-based system that I think both he and I support.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The Government are working with a number of agencies to tackle identify fraud and advise the public. This is coupled with our continuing roll-out of identity cards and, in future, modern passports, to provide people with a highly secure means of protecting and proving their identity.
John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. A national identity fraud prevention week study found that more than 59,000 criminal acts of impersonation were recorded in the first nine months of 2009, a 36 per cent. increase on the figure for the same period of 2008. Will my hon. Friend take whatever steps are necessary to make the public aware of these fraudsters, and what legislation can she bring forward to ensure that people are protected?
Meg Hillier: We have no intention of introducing any further legislation because we believe we have the tools in law to deal with this issue, and we already have the identity fraud communications awareness group, a multi-agency group that works to highlight the challenges of identity fraud. I should also reiterate my point that we are rolling out a programme of more secure identity cards and passports, which will enable citizens to protect themselves against this form of crime.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con):
Identity cards will not help people to protect themselves against fraud on the internet. I chair the all-party group on identity fraud, so I am aware that identity fraud is one of the
fastest-growing crimes in the world. Does the Minister believe that financial institutions have a responsibility to make their customers aware of phishing attacks, boiler room fraud and other sorts of ID fraud so that they can better protect themselves?
Meg Hillier: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on leading some of the work on this matter as chair of the all-party group on identity fraud, and I agree with him that online fraud is a big problem. However, I disagree with him on other things, because ID cards can be a major way of tackling such fraud. In Germany and Belgium, ID cards are often used as a way of proving age online, and that in itself can help to prevent certain fraudulent transactions. Proving identity online can be a way of helping to tackle identity fraud in that area.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The MPs' visa inquiry line was merged on 4 January with the UK Border Agency's main MPs' inquiry line to provide a single point of contact for hon. Members to inquire about constituency cases.
Mr. Gerrard: I understand the theory that having a single point of contact is a good idea, but what seems to be happening in practice is that the inquiry line cannot answer any questions about visas so they go to the MP account manager, who then takes the matter up with the visa inquiry line people-and thus we go round in a circle. As a result, it is taking far longer to get replies and far longer for us to be able to respond to inquiries from constituents.
Meg Hillier: I am aware that a number of hon. Members used to contact posts direct, but that caused some difficulties because not all overseas posts had a dedicated visa inquiry line. That meant that a visa officer might often not have been available to take calls; it diverted visa officers from dealing with the cases in time; and it meant that they might have had to take certain things out of the queue. It is important that we have a fair access system, so I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about his experiences, as a very assiduous constituency MP, in this matter. I am happy to arrange a meeting with him to discuss any particularly problematic cases.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas):
UKBA continues to build on our achievements of the past few years, bringing together customs and immigration functions, as well as visa services, here and overseas. UKBA has made strong progress in improving
performance. That has included a significant increase in the number of removals of the most harmful foreign criminals, the speeding up of the rate at which we deal with asylum cases, and the introduction of screening of passenger movements into and out of the UK, which has resulted in more than 5,100 arrests.
Mr. Benyon: Three years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a hard-hitting report, containing serious recommendations, on the agency's predecessor organisation. It is with great dismay that those of us involved in that report have recently learned of 40,000 cases that remain unresolved. In addition, the current Home Affairs Committee has produced a good report stating that
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