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House of Commons

Monday 22 March 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked-

Counter-terrorism

1. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's efforts to counter Islamic extremism. [322938]

12. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government's counter-terrorism strategy. [322952]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): Contest is a world-leading counter-terrorism strategy that endeavours to meet the serious threat this country faces from international terrorism. I have today published the first annual report setting out progress against the objectives in the strategy. Since 11 September 2001, 230 people have been convicted of a terrorism-related offence and more than a dozen terrorist plots have been disrupted. The Prevent strand of Contest is aimed at addressing the causes of terrorism by challenging the ideology of violent extremists, supporting vulnerable individuals and building community resilience.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Does the Secretary of State accept that Islamism is a threat because of its refusal to accept the separation of religion and the state, its social intolerance, particularly as regards the status of women, and its attempted subversion of moderate Islam? If he does, will he undertake not to allow the introduction of sharia law into this country in any form?

Alan Johnson: First I should say that the threat comes from violent extremism. There are people with all kinds of views with which we may disagree, but it is when those views turn into violent extremism that counter-terrorism kicks in and those views become unacceptable. On sharia law, I should say that the law of this country is absolutely paramount. Where sharia law has been introduced in some small experiments in local communities it does not, in any way, subvert or detract from the law of this country.

Tony Baldry: Does the Home Secretary agree that we have to work with the Muslim community? In Banbury, the Thames Valley police force consciously seeks to recruit Muslim men and women as special constables, because when the Muslim community has people that it knows working with the police force, it is more likely to talk to them about things that are causing it concern. We therefore need to work with the Muslim community, as well as being suspicious of it on occasion.

Alan Johnson: I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. Not only in Banbury but elsewhere, the police and the local communities are working to break down these barriers, and part of that involves working with the Muslim community-indeed, the Prevent strand of our counter-terrorism strategy has about 1,000 projects, where work is being undertaken with 40,000 people in various communities. This is something that politicians and chief constables cannot do from on high; it must be tackled in the community and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, in part by recruiting people from the Muslim community into the police and other authorities.


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Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary agree that if by "Islamism" one means people who support the religion of Islam, that is not, in itself, a threat? However, subversive and criminal activity is to be found among some members of the Muslim community. The danger of trying to tar the entire Muslim community with the same brush is that that undermines our efforts to engage with the community, and to fight terrorism and crime.

Alan Johnson: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The only way in which we will succeed in this area is by demonstrating that the vast majority of Muslims just do not buy into the rhetoric of the ideologues and those promoting violence and division. That is the measure of success. It is essential that we in no way give the impression that our counter-terrorism policy is anti-Muslim, because it is not; it is very much pro-Muslim and pro the vast majority of the Muslim community, who believe in peace, justice and freedom.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is it not absolutely essential, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, to make the greatest distinction between the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who, like ourselves, totally oppose and detest terrorism, and the very few religious fanatics who distort their religion and glory in death? There is absolutely no link between those two groups, and we should never try to pretend, as some do, that Muslims are any more in favour of terrorism than adherents of any other religion.

Alan Johnson: Again, I agree with my hon. Friend, who has made an important contribution to these issues while serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The only point that I should make here-this reinforces the one that he has made-is that giving people in Muslim communities, particularly younger Muslims, the arguments and empowering them so that they can try to argue back against what are sometimes very forceful arguments coming from much older people in their community must be an important part of our counter-terrorism strategy. That is why Prevent is the crucial strand that it is.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): In the light of the Home Secretary's efforts to separate Islamic issues from terrorism, I wonder whether he has noted the following written evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government's inquiry into the Prevent arm of the counter-terrorism strategy:

Given that countering Islamic extremism is linked to, but is not the same as, a counter-terrorism strategy, does grouping these issues today not illustrate the point being made to the Select Committee?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman talks about grouping these issues, and I think it would be strange if we had a counter-terrorism strategy that did not seek to prevent people from getting involved in terrorism in the first place, just as it would be strange to have a policy on drugs that did not try to prevent youngsters from getting involved in drugs, or to have a policy on knives, guns
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and gangs that did not have a strand that aimed to prevent people from getting involved in the first place. We have to be very careful about the terminology-that is the hon. Gentleman's point-but we also have to be careful to realise that there are those who are opposed to Prevent because they are opposed to any voice of reason and to our trying to help vulnerable youngsters, in particular, to argue back against those who seek to persuade them down the route of violence. We must recognise that those people are against our strategy-not our Prevent strategy but against our whole Contest counter-terrorism strategy. We have to be aware of the devices they will use to try to suggest, for instance, that Prevent is about spying when it patently is not.

Dogs (Crime)

4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the incidence of the use of dogs in crime. [322941]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The data are not collected centrally but we are aware of the growing concerns about the use of dangerous dogs to harass and intimidate people. This has prompted the Government to introduce the new gang injunction power under the Policing and Crime Act 2009 and to launch a public consultation on managing and controlling dangerous dogs.

Mr. Robathan: Let me get this right: the Home Secretary announces, for a headline in the pre-election period, that he will force all dog owners to take out insurance on their chihuahuas, or whatever their dog might be, but then the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that is absolutely ludicrous because it will penalise all responsible dog owners and it will have no effect on those who already have dogs that are used as weapons. Does the Minister agree with her colleague, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that this was a lunatic idea and take some responsibility on behalf of the Home Office for this ridiculous electioneering?

Meg Hillier: Let me make it clear that the proposal and consultation are a joint effort between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. It is right that we consider extending dangerous dog laws to cover places such as private property and give more powers to police and councils, including for dog control orders where necessary. The issue of insurance was raised with the Government because of the horrific injuries caused and so it was included in the consultation, although it has now been ruled out. I have not spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs personally about this but we are still interested, certainly from a Home Office perspective, in views on third-party insurance, particularly if a dog control order is in force.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend will realise that dog owners such as myself get very upset when we hear the term "dangerous dogs". It is not the dog that is the problem but the ownership and control of the dog. When are we going to start tackling
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this in the correct manner in this country by considering it a privilege to own a dog rather than thinking that there is an automatic right for irresponsible people to own or train a dog?

Meg Hillier: I look forward to responses from my hon. Friend and his constituents to the consultation. Responsible ownership is at the heart of what we need to consider. It is the deed not the breed that we are primarily considering but some breeds are bred to be violent. Unfortunately, that is one reason why we have to reconsider this issue. We must consider the full range of options.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): In my constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham, this has been an ongoing problem in many of our local parks, including the local park at the end of my road, Normand park. Just today, I have had an e-mail from a constituent of mine, Robert Hardman, who talks about an appalling incident in Normand park next to the playground where his children were playing last Thursday. There was a savage attack on a puppy by a free-range pit bull-we appreciate that it might not actually have been a pit bull-and the owner of the said pit bull hurled abuse and threats at witnesses, the children were distraught and the victim's owner is now faced with a £3,000 vet's bill. Is not one of the solutions to all this for the police to be able to deal with the dogs in situ rather than necessarily having to take them off to kennels?

Meg Hillier: There are a number of issues exactly like that that the consultation seeks to iron out. I can echo the hon. Gentleman's words from Hammersmith to Hackney: much the same problems are raised with me by my constituents on estates, by gangs and in parks. It is clearly an issue that we need to tackle. There are real problems and that is why I hope the House will back the consultation. I look forward to hearing and seeing the responses.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Some time ago, one of my constituents was savagely attacked by what was clearly a weapon dog. Finally, on appeal, she was granted criminal injuries compensation of £5,000. Only then did she learn that the dog had made two previous attacks, and we still do not know whether it has been destroyed. Whatever my hon. Friend does, will she make absolutely sure that such dogs are taken out of circulation permanently?

Meg Hillier: Obviously I do not know about that individual case, but I agree that when horrific incidents happen, proper action needs to be taken. If necessary, that sometimes includes destroying the animal.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): It has taken the Government a very long time to address this extremely serious issue, only for them to get it badly wrong. Will the Home Secretary or the Minister tell us why a flagship policy of introducing compulsory dog insurance was announced two weeks ago, but then overruled and killed off by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Surely the Home Secretary should admit that he has been muzzled on this issue.


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Meg Hillier: Clearly the hon. Gentleman does not know the Home Secretary as well as I do, because he is a very difficult man to overrule. Indeed, he is not someone who is overruled. We need to be clear that we all want a solution to this problem, which was looked at in a consultation-let me correct any misapprehension that it was a Government policy. It is important that we should still consider insurance, particularly when dog control orders are in force, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). We need to consider that, and I hope we can all agree that this vital issue needs to be tackled. It is interesting that the Opposition choose to concentrate more on the process than on the outcome, in which we all have a shared interest.

Offences

5. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): How many criminal offences have been created in legislation sponsored by his Department since May 1997. [322942]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): Since 1997, the Home Office has brought forward legislation as necessary, to address the needs and challenges of the day. When legislation has included criminal offences, these have been proposed only after careful consideration and with the support of Parliament.

Simon Hughes: That is a cop-out of an answer. The Minister knows that there have been 4,200 new offences over 13 years of Labour Government. Looking back, at the end of that time, does he think we would have done far better to pass far fewer laws and to take far longer to make sure that we got them right? Would not the best legacy that he could leave be a penal code so that people could find all the laws in the same place?

Mr. Hanson: I do not accept that there are too many laws. We have put in place a range of legislation that is designed to protect the public, cut crime and increase confidence. I can name three pieces of legislation that the hon. Gentleman has voted against-measures on DNA retention, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, and measures on tackling disorderly drinking in the streets. I know that those things matter to people in Southwark and throughout the country, so I am sorry that he voted against them.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Bearing in mind the careful consideration that my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, will he tell the House how many of the new criminal offences that were created by the Labour Government never came into force before then being repealed by the Labour Government?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as ever, for his helpful question. He will know that there are occasions when the situation changes, people look at the legislation and Ministers take decisions accordingly. He will also know that, as a result of legislation that we have introduced, crime has fallen by 36 per cent., violent crime is down, burglaries are down and confidence in policing is up to a record 50 per cent.-all things that never happened before we considered that legislation.


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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I suggest that when criminal offences are introduced, great care should be taken not to attach prison sentences to them unless absolutely necessary? We are creating an atmosphere in which prison becomes approved by Government, but we should not do that. We should be sentencing people to imprisonment only when absolutely necessary, and we need to be careful about the penalties that we attach to criminal offences.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for those comments. He will know that the Ministry of Justice, where I spent two years before coming to this post, is concerned to ensure that we encourage community-based sentences where possible, and to ensure that they will, on some occasions, have a better chance of preventing reoffending than does a short-term prison sentence. We need to consider those issues in the round. Happily, the separation of the judiciary and the legislature is part of the UK's constitution, so the judiciary will ultimately decide the appropriate sentences for offences.

"Cutting Crime"

6. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the recommendations in the first report from the Justice Committee, "Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment", HC 94-I; and if he will make a statement. [322943]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): The Government are grateful to the Justice Committee for its contribution to the debate on how to cut crime, reduce reoffending and manage some of the most difficult individuals in our society. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice published our response on Tuesday 16 March.

Alun Michael: I am delighted that the response is so positive. The strength of the Committee's report is that it looks across the whole criminal justice system instead of being trapped in one part of it. What victims want-other than not becoming victims in the first place-is not to become victims again. Given that, is it not essential that all parts of the criminal justice system, whatever Department they come under, are clear that they are required to focus on reducing offending and reoffending?

Mr. Hanson: It is absolutely vital that we tackle reoffending. That is key to preventing further offending because, sadly, a number of people still go through the prison and justice systems but then ultimately reoffend. Reoffending rates for both adults and youths have fallen by 20 per cent. since 2000, but we need to do more. I know that there is a consensus on that in the House, and it means we must look at employment opportunities, housing and reintegration, and at ensuring that people leave prison in a better place than when they went in.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I welcome the Government's positive response, but does the Minister accept that the Home Office has an opportunity to develop strategies that will save people from ever becoming victims of crime in the first place-especially
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if he is able to get his hands on some of the money that might otherwise be committed to further prison expansion?

Mr. Hanson: One of the key things that I have tried to encourage, both as a Justice Minister and now as a Home Office Minister, is integrated offender management. That means that we look at managing offenders through the system, from prison through release and back into the community, where police and probation services work together with important local authority services to make sure that everyone has an opportunity not to reoffend in the future. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's report. I think that it has some merit, and the Government have responded in what I hope is a positive way.


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