The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): We are committed to reducing police bureaucracy, including the time spent on unnecessary administrative tasks. This is why I have taken steps to reduce the amount of data that we collect from police forces, scrapped the lengthy stop-and-account form and invested in mobile phone technology to allow officers to work in a much more efficient and smarter way.
Mr. Amess: The Minister will know that, whenever the police are criticised for how they do their job, they invariably say they are hampered by the number of forms that they have to fill in. The Home Secretary said that he would deal with the matter in a radical way. How exactly has he addressed form filling and bureaucracy in a radical fashion?
Mr. Hanson: I take it that the hon. Gentleman has not looked at clause 1 of the Crime and Security Bill currently going through the House of Commons. Has he? I suspect that he has not. If he had, he would have seen that it contains radical proposals, approved by this House, to reduce the stop-and-search form-a measure that by itself will ensure that around 700,000 hours of police time are saved.
In addition, we have accepted 13 recommendations from Jan Berry, the independent adviser on police bureaucracy. We will implement them over the next six to nine months, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep up to speed on these matters.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): When the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Tim Godwin, gave evidence to the Select Committee last Tuesday, he said that only 30 per cent. of his officers had hand-held devices. The Minister will know that we recommended in our report last year that every front-line officer should have a personal digital assistant, as that would help to cut bureaucracy significantly and ensure that police officers are more visible outside police stations. What are the Government going to do to ensure that every officer has such a device?
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who will know, I hope, that we have invested £80 million in securing support for mobile data services. They will save an average of 30 minutes per shift for officers who will not have to go back to the station to complete paperwork that the House does not wish them to do. We want to extend that. I was in Manchester this morning, visiting the Stockport police. They are due to receive their hand-held devices in the next week or so, and that positive approach is being rolled out across the country to ensure that we reduce bureaucracy and improve efficiency.
Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Will the Minister tell us what actions, in addition to those that he has set out, have been taken to introduce voice recognition technology? In his answer, he mentioned the Government's approach to hand-held computers for police on the streets, but what steps are being taken with regard to hiring civilian staff to help to complete forms over the telephone? What progress has been made in pilot schemes to cut the proportion of officers' time spent on paperwork?
Mr. Hanson: There are a number of measures. In the Bill currently before Parliament, we have reduced stop-and-search forms, which will save time, and we have invested £80 million in hand-held devices. I am looking at how we can develop still further the use of modern technology to reduce paperwork and, as I mentioned, through Jan Berry's work in her second year, we will look at implementing the recommendations that we have already accepted to reduce paperwork. There is more that we can do, we have an appetite to do it, and I am confident that that will help support police officers to be more efficient and to reduce the unnecessary paperwork that is being undertaken.
Chris Huhne: We can all agree on the need to cut red tape, even if we disagree on the speed at which the Government have moved. Despite the latest initiatives, the figures show that England and Wales are under-policed by international standards. We had 264 police officers per 100,000 population, compared with a European average of 357. Does the Minister agree that that is the main reason why our offences per head of population are so much higher than in other countries, and that a real increase in police numbers, such as that proposed by my party, is what is needed to cut crime?
Mr. Hanson: There are 24,000 more police officers than when the Government were elected in 1997-147,000 police officers now. There are 17,000 police community support officers, whereas there were zero when the Government were first elected. Crime is down by 36 per cent., burglary is down, robbery is down and violent crime is down. That is a record worth defending. We can do more, we should do more, and we are committed to support the funding. The hon. Gentleman can always outbid us because he knows he will never be in a position to have to implement any of those decisions.
"commitment to protecting the record numbers of police officers . . . is clear."
Can the Minister guarantee to the House that if the Government are re-elected in May, over the course of the next Parliament there will be no reduction in the total number of police officers currently serving in England and Wales?
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know that for 2010-11 we have given a 2.5 per cent. minimum increase, and that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have said that there is no reason whatsoever why police forces should reduce the number of warranted officers or police community support officers because the resources will be available. That commitment contrasts with the position of the hon. Gentleman.
Chris Grayling: I notice, interestingly, that the Minister did not answer my question. The reason is straightforward. Last week the Home Office published details of progress on its plans to modernise the police work force. Its document specifically refers to it being difficult for forces to use work force modernisation
"as one of their levers to meet the cost pressures ahead if they are not able to reduce officer numbers."
Mr. Hanson: Let us be clear about this. The Home Office is not planning to cut police officer numbers. The Home Office will support sufficient resources to ensure that the number of police officers and policy community support officers that we currently have can be kept in place, should police chiefs wish to do so operationally. The challenge is for the hon. Gentleman to match that commitment on resources when we go in to the election. Last year the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) would not commit to the funding for next year's police funding. That is the challenge, and the electorate will see it.
"there will need to be constructive engagement"
"regarding the impact on officer numbers."
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a commitment from the Government to maintain the level of numbers if police chiefs wish to have those numbers. We will maintain the resources to do that. We have a record of 24,000 more officers and 16,500 to 17,000 police community support officers. I do not believe that that record would have been maintained if an alternative Government had been in place. I commend that to the House in due course.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): We are committed to preventing and reducing drug use by young people. Drug use among young people has continued to fall over the last decade-
Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for her reply. Mephedrone, the substance that contributed to the deaths of two young men last week, is a legal high that can allegedly be bought for as little as £4. Should the Government not take more seriously the threat that legal highs pose? What steps is the Minister taking to get across to young people the consequences of taking such substances?
Meg Hillier: The hon. Gentleman makes very important points about a very worrying issue. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is reviewing mephedrone and other legal highs as a priority, after a schedule of work that the Home Secretary set last summer. The report on mephedrone is due on 29 March, and if we need to lay an order before Parliament in order to get a measure through, we will do so.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Minister will know that legal highs are killing young people. She will know also that many headmasters and headmistresses throughout the country believe that consideration should be given to banning these drugs. When will the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report on that matter and, I hope, say that those drugs will be banned, so that young people are not tempted to take them to get a temporary high-and do not kill themselves in the process?
Meg Hillier: I refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous answer: 29 March. However, we seek to continue to educate young people and their parents about the matter, mainly through the Frank website, which has reported on mephedrone issues in particular since September and has regular updated guidance.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government invest enough money in early intervention programmes, which result in less criminalisation of so many of our young people later in their lives?
Meg Hillier: We always keep an eye on that issue, but we already invest more than £55 million each year in tackling young people's substance misuse, and that includes funding treatment, area-based grant work for under-18s' misuse, Positive Futures and the Frank website.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): At the last Home Office questions in February, when the use among young people of legal highs such as mephedrone was discussed, the Home Secretary said that the consideration of the issue was now an absolute priority for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Government. Yet it is reported today that the Home Office was advised five years ago of the problem of those synthetic drugs being bought online. Why did the Government fail to act sooner?
Meg Hillier: The Government have acted, and I shall explain a little of the background to the report to which I believe the hon. Gentleman refers. It was a report on the internet discussing the availability of psychoactive medications only, and our drug laws apply a criminal sanction whatever the route of availability. That report was looking at, and horizon-scanning on, drug futures up to 2025. It set out possibilities rather than realities and made no recommendations to the Government. However, as a result of a number of issues, the Government commissioned more work, and that led last year to the Home Secretary asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look at this, which it is doing to its normal time scales.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I have not received any specific representations on the exploitation of victims of trafficking in lap-dancing clubs. Human trafficking is a serious offence and the police will of course investigate allegations of trafficking wherever they occur.
Mr. Steen: I wonder whether the Minister has any plans to ensure that local authorities, which from 1 April have powers under the Policing and Crime Act 2009, will be able to do anything in the 350 relevant lap-dancing clubs that have been identified, bearing in mind the fact that local authorities have no experience of identifying human trafficking victims. Is she thinking of involving the police, or just relying on local authority officials?
Meg Hillier: The police go into lap-dancing clubs, as necessary, and as the House would expect them to do, in order to catch traffickers. It is important that they work closely with local authorities, such as my own in Hackney, which is getting a real grip on the issue now that local authorities have much more say about the licensing of such premises. It is crucial that in something as important as trafficking the right expertise is deployed, but I do not believe that there are any problems in that direction.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): On the human trafficking of youngsters, will the Minister have a word in her Department about the cases where young teenage women who have been transported from other parts of the globe are rescued or identified by the local authority and brought into care, but when they reach the ages of 19, 20 and 21 cannot get any papers regularised in the United Kingdom and are falling between two stools? Will that be addressed with some urgency and dispatch?
Meg Hillier: We do, on occasion, grant people leave to stay in those situations. Clearly, every case is individual, and I will happily talk to my hon. Friend if he has any particular cases that he wishes to raise.
14. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will request Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons to undertake an immediate inquiry into the recent protests at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre. 
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): The UK Border Agency has commissioned a management review of the incident which will report shortly. The investigators have not raised any concerns thus far, so it is not expected that the matter will require further investigation. However, if overriding concerns are identified, we will of course review that decision.
Alistair Burt: I appreciate the Minister's answer. I also appreciate the involvement at a personal level of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), which is very helpful. Will the Minister reconsider the involvement of Dame Anne Owers? He will be aware that there is increasing concern about the condition of some of those who have been refusing food, that there were reports that some were taken to hospital last week, and that there have been allegations of suicide attempts. There is a continuing difference between the views of those health issues taken by Serco and the UK Border Agency and by those outside who look after detainees, and that will not be ended unless there is an independent review by Anne Owers rather than a management review.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. This is an issue in his constituency. He wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on 18 March, and a reply is being drafted for him. I take the point that he is making. Thus far, we have found no substance whatsoever in the allegations; indeed, the opposite is the case. If you will indulge me, Mr. Speaker, let me point out that the resident who claimed that she was not a criminal has in fact served time for drug supplying and has attacked
two of our officers. CCTV footage is available, and the independent monitoring board, which has written to me and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, was witness to the alleged incidents, but I have an open mind on the hon. Gentleman's point, because it may be needed to give status-let me put it that way-to these concerns.