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House of Commons

Monday 25 March 2013

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—

Human Trafficking

1. Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): If she will bring forward legislative proposals to introduce a modern slavery act. [149407]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): The Government have a strong record on tackling the appalling crime of human trafficking. We have a clear strategy, robust legislation, good-quality support for victims, and strong enforcement against offenders, both in country and at the border. We are also working closely with our international partners to tackle the problem at source. Today is the 206th anniversary of the Act for the abolition of the slave trade, as well as the international day of remembrance for the victims of slavery, and it is entirely right that my hon. Friend reminds us of the issue today. We must continue our efforts to eradicate human trafficking, which can indeed be seen as a form of modern-day slavery.

Fiona Bruce: I thank the Home Secretary for that reply. She has stated that fighting human trafficking is a Government priority, but with the number of victims found increasing month on month, what consideration has been given to a new initiative such as an independent commissioner?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue, which has also been raised by others. The Government are not convinced of the need to introduce an independent commissioner and we have, we believe, a very effective inter-departmental ministerial group, chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration. Crucially, that group includes not just representatives from Departments across Whitehall, but also from the devolved Administrations, and we believe that that is working well. It is necessary, however, to consider continually our effectiveness in this area, and we will keep the work of the inter-departmental ministerial group under review to ensure that it is carrying out the effective work that we want it to do.

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Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Prime Minister has made ending modern-day slavery one of his top priorities. Does the Home Secretary welcome, as I do, the fact that he will open the hidden slavery in UK constituencies exhibition in the House of Commons on 22 April?

Mrs May: I am pleased at the excellent news that the Prime Minister will open the exhibition, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work in chairing the all-party group on human trafficking and on bringing forward that exhibition. I am sure that it will remind us not just of the hidden trafficking that exists in UK constituencies as a result of cross-border trafficking but also—unfortunately—of the fact that trafficking takes place within the United Kingdom.

Neighbourhood Policing

2. Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing. [149408]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): We know that the public want a visible police presence, working with them to identify and tackle issues in their communities. Year on year the crime survey for England and Wales shows that that approach to policing is valued by the public, helping to build public confidence and bring crime down by 10%.

Simon Hart: For neighbourhood management to be really effective it requires the active involvement of other Departments such as those for health and housing. That works quite well in Dyfed-Powys, but is the Minister happy that it is working well everywhere else?

Damian Green: I agree with my hon. Friend that, for neighbourhood policing to be completely effective, it requires not just the police to work with others, but also with other Departments. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has written to chief constables and police and crime commissioners to emphasise that it is important, particularly in the field of mental health, for the police and the health service to work better together than they have in the past and to improve their response to that particularly vulnerable group of people. There is always more that we can do on that.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): A few weeks ago the Mayor of London said that he would not close front-office counters in police stations unless he could replace them with a superior— or equivalent—service. Today he closed 63. Does the Home Secretary agree with the assessment of the Daily Mail, which a few weeks ago described the Mayor as “faintly ridiculous” and changing his mind “every five minutes”?

Damian Green: I understand that as part of the changes to the overall policing and crime power, which, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, is the responsibility of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, 2,600 officers will be redeployed from back offices into neighbourhood policing. There should therefore be more police on the streets of London than before, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming that.

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Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): The Mayor of London’s redeployment of counter staff will lead to 74 additional bobbies on the beat in a borough such as Barnet. Does the Minister welcome that redeployment of officers on to the streets?

Damian Green: I do welcome that redeployment, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it in his borough and other London boroughs. Getting effective neighbourhood and community policing is about officers rather than buildings.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister believe that someone who is set to leave London with fewer police constables and fewer police community support officers in 2015 compared with 2010 is a suitable candidate for future Prime Minister?

Damian Green: As this is Home Office questions, I will stick to the Home Office’s responsibilities, which include keeping our streets safe, which we are doing more effectively than ever before. Crime is down 10%, and it is down in the Metropolitan police area. I am sure the action the Mayor has taken today will make London’s streets even safer in future.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, Boris Johnson, aided by Home Office cuts, is to close 50% of London’s police stations, to lose 4,000 police constables and PCSOs, and to reduce police numbers in 17 of the 32 London boroughs. Will the Minister confirm that yesterday’s interview on “The Andrew Marr Show”, bad though it was, was the lesser of several evils the Mayor is inflicting on London?

Damian Green: I would have hoped that the shadow police Minister would have welcomed the fact that Metropolitan police crime figures are down by 3% in the past year, showing that the effective co-operation between the Home Office at national level and the Mayor’s office at London level is making London’s streets safer than ever before.

Foreign Nationals (Employment Status)

3. Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): What steps she is taking to record the employment status of foreign nationals who reside in the UK; and if she will make a statement. [149409]

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): We are rolling out biometric residence permits to non-European economic area nationals in the UK granted leave for more than six months to make it easier for them to prove their entitlement to live and work. From next year, all non-EEA nationals will require a biometric residence permit, and we expect employers to check a migrant’s right to work prior to offering employment.

Gordon Henderson: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s answer, which I find encouraging, but will he explain how the success of that initiative can be monitored unless records are kept of where and by whom foreign workers are employed?

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Mr Harper: I have two things to say to my hon. Friend. First, the sponsorship system provides a good mechanism for employers to track and record who is working for them when they come to fill skills shortages. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will, with the roll-out of universal credit, collect as a routine matter the nationality of those who claim benefits.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): On the issue of foreign nationals and all others, is the Government’s response simply determined by the rise and threat of the United Kingdom Independence party?

Mr Harper: No, not at all—the speech that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made earlier today was informed by work that has been going on for a number of months in the cross-ministerial committee that I chair. It is a well thought-through policy area as we further tighten the immigration system. The hon. Gentleman will know that, since the Government came to power, we have reduced net migration to the UK by a third and will continue to reduce it.

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the vast majority of people in this country will support his work and the emphasis in the Prime Minister’s speech? Nevertheless, there is still a net increase in immigration of 160,000 every year. Will the Minister assure us that he will continue to do all he can to reduce that number further?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is right. We committed to reducing net migration from the unsustainable hundreds of thousands that it was under Labour to tens of thousands, which is much more sustainable. That is supported by the vast majority of British people, whomever they vote for. I am glad my hon. Friend also supports that policy.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I wonder whether the Minister could help me to spot the difference. Currently regulations and Department for Work and Pensions guidance for jobcentres state that EU migrants cannot claim benefits after six months unless they are

“genuinely seeking work, and have a reasonable chance of being engaged”.

The Prime Minister today, in what is supposedly a new announcement, said that migrants can claim after six months only if they

“can prove not just that you are genuinely seeking employment…but also that you have a genuine chance of getting a job.”

Is that not exactly the same? There is no difference at all—it is not a new announcement. How many people exactly does the Minister believe will be affected by this supposed change?

Mr Harper: The Prime Minister set out a number of changes today. The one the hon. Gentleman mentions ensures that there is a statutory presumption in the system, which does not exist today, that, after six months, people have to demonstrate that they are taking all possible steps to seek work and that they have a reasonable prospect of getting it. At the moment, there is no presumption that they must do so. That is a weakness in the system, which is why we will strengthen it.

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UK Visas (Chinese Nationals)

4. Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): What steps she is taking to ensure that the UK’s visa system helps tourists and business people from China to come to the UK without a loss of control over immigration. [R] [149410]

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): Last year, the UK Border Agency processed almost 300,000 visa applications for Chinese nationals, with 97% of visas processed within 15 days. China is a priority market for the UK, and we want to support both tourists and business people coming to our country.

Mr Walker: Following on from the Worcestershire business delegation that I took to southern China late last year, as per my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in June we have a return delegation visiting Worcestershire from Nanning. While ensuring that we have proper immigration controls, may I encourage Ministers to do everything they can to facilitate business visits that can bring bilateral trade and investment?

Mr Harper: First, let me congratulate my hon. Friend on his personal contribution to increasing UK trade with China. He will want to know that there was an increase in visit visas issued to Chinese nationals of 6% last year. In December, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out a range of improvements to the visa process, particularly to support business customers, and they will be implemented this year.

UK Border Agency

5. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What steps she is taking to improve the performance of the UK Border Agency. [149411]

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): We have taken a number of steps to improve the performance of the UK Border Agency. As the Prime Minister said earlier today in his speech, we face a big task of turning around the tanker that is the UK Border Agency, and we will be setting out the next stages of those reforms shortly.

Lorely Burt: My constituent, Pooja Ramchandani, has been waiting for more than a year for a decision on her application for further leave to remain. The UK Border Agency target is for 75% of applications to be resolved within four weeks, and it has attributed the delay to additional work caused by the Olympics. Can the Minister confirm when the Olympics will cease to be another excuse given to people such as my constituent, a single mother whose child has permission for leave to remain?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend raises a specific case, and if she contacts my office afterwards, I will certainly look into it. Generally, on in-country performance, we have acknowledged that the UKBA was not delivering within its service standards in the past year. By the end of this month, however, it will be delivering the required performance standards in those cases, and I hope that that improvement will be sustained.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): May I welcome the helpful comments the Minister made in response to the publication today of the Home Affairs Committee’s report, and his commitment to having a service that has the confidence of the British people? It is important that we discuss immigration in an open and transparent way, whether in the Prime Minister’s speech this lunch time, or in last Friday’s speech on bonds by the Deputy Prime Minister. Does he agree that we cannot implement the proposals unless the UK Border Agency is fit for purpose and we have cleared the backlog of a third of a million cases? Is it not time to take the agency back firmly under the control of Ministers?

Mr Harper: I thank the right hon. Gentleman both for his question and for his work in chairing the Home Affairs Committee. I see the Select Committee as a partner with the Government, challenging us and ensuring that we keep focusing and improving the agency’s performance. Although it is an agency, I had not noticed in the past year any difference in the level of accountability that either he expects from me, as a result of its performance, or from this House, as is evidenced by these questions. However, I will reflect further on what he has to say.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow two excellent questions on the same issue. The Home Affairs Committee report on the UKBA published today has some astonishingly poor figures. In quarter 3 of 2012, 18% of tier 1 visas were processed within four weeks—astonishingly bad. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to try and fix that. Does he agree that we cannot have a coherent, fair and credible immigration system when the agency is performing so atrociously?

Mr Harper: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on the Home Affairs Committee. I agree: the figures for quarter 3 last year were not good, and I acknowledged that in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). I am pleased to be able to say that by the end of this month, the UKBA will be making decisions for tier 1 visas and others within the service standards that it sets out to its customers, and which they have a right to expect.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Successive Ministers have come to the House of Commons and tried to defend the work of the UK Border Agency. Is the Minister aware that time and time again the agency admits, and has to admit, to a backlog of thousands of cases that have not been dealt with and that go back years—sometimes five, 10 or more? That is a shambles, and the sooner that is recognised by the Government, the better it will be.

Mr Harper: I would say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, while the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice was doing this job, and since I have been doing it, we have not gone out of our way to defend the agency. We have acknowledged that it is a troubled organisation, but it has many hard-working and dedicated staff and we should not have broad-brush criticism that neglects the work they do. On his specific question about old cases, particularly legacy cases, I simply say that the Government inherited about 500,000 cases

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from Labour, which we have largely got under control. We are working through a relatively small number of cases and will get that done in the next few months.


6. Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): What steps she is taking to tackle cybercrime. [149412]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): The Government’s approach to tackling online crime is set out in the national cyber-security strategy, which is underpinned by a £650 million programme of new investment over four years. This includes strengthening law enforcement capabilities by establishing the national cybercrime unit, which will lead the national and international response to tackling this issue.

Simon Wright: Many security experts report that small and medium-sized businesses are increasingly targeted by cybercriminals, but are not always well equipped to protect themselves. What progress are the Government making to ensure that small businesses get the support they need to pursue new business opportunities online with confidence?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend raises an important point about awareness and ensuring that we equip the public and business with the best advice and guidance on how to protect themselves from the threat from online criminals, which we do through Get Safe Online. We are focused equally on small businesses, however, which is the point he makes directly, and this spring the Government are looking to update the advice and guidance to business, focusing on those small businesses.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Cybercrime is not just about fraud; it is also about online bullying, which can devastate people’s lives and constitute a criminal offence. How confident is the Minister that local police forces have the expertise and the resources to deal with complaints about such crime?

James Brokenshire: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the expertise within police forces. We are establishing the national cybercrime unit, not simply to deal with the most sophisticated, high-end internet crimes, but to be a centre of expertise and to make that expertise available to police forces up and down the country. That will put in place a more end-to-end approach in dealing with these forms of criminality, which cause so much harm.

Draft Data Communications Bill

7. John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the draft Communications Data Bill. [149413]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): The Government have committed to accepting the substance of all the Joint Committee’s recommendations. We are currently redrafting the Bill and are engaging with interested parties on our proposals. The Bill is vital to help catch criminals, including

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paedophiles, terrorists and members of organised crime, and we welcome the Joint Committee’s and the Intelligence and Security Committee’s conclusion that we need new law.

John Robertson: The Home Secretary obviously agrees with me that the Bill has been widely drawn and does not contain enough safeguards. What safeguards will she put into the Bill to improve it?

Mrs May: I can only repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I just said, which is that we will accept the substance of all the Joint Committee’s recommendations. It considered issues such as how widely the Bill was drawn and that of future-proofing, and we have accepted its recommendations. When it comes before Parliament, the Bill will be much more tightly drawn, in terms of some of the definitions and the issue of future-proofing. We are redrafting the Bill, and if he can be patient for a little while, I think when he reads it he will see that we have indeed responded to the Joint Committee’s recommendations.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that the Joint Committee, on which I sat, confirmed the desperate need for new laws in this area—for one, to catch paedophiles and other types of criminals and terrorists—and so agreed with the Government’s policy of introducing such new laws?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend and all other Members of this House and another place for their work on the Joint Committee ably chaired by my noble Friend Lord Blencathra. Obviously, we have looked at the details of the Joint Committee’s proposals, but it was striking that, on a cross-party basis, every member agreed that we needed new legislation in this area.

Illegal Traveller Sites

8. Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What support her Department is providing to police and crime commissioners and local authorities to tackle illegal Traveller sites. [149414]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): Both police and local authorities have powers to tackle unauthorised encampments. I understand that the police and crime commissioner in my hon. Friend’s constituency, Katy Bourne, is working with the community to understand and respond to its concerns about unauthorised Traveller encampments. This is an example of the value that police and crime commissioners can bring to local policing, getting to the heart of the issues affecting communities on a day-to-day basis.

Henry Smith: I join the Minister in paying tribute to the Sussex police and crime commissioner, Katy Bourne, for getting to grips with the illegal Traveller problem in just four short months. Does my right hon. Friend think that the Human Rights Act is a problem for law-abiding residents in dealing with this issue?

Damian Green: I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Katy Bourne’s work. I am not an unqualified admirer of the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998, but the clue to what he said was when he talked about illegal Traveller incursions. There is no legal right to

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trespass: landowners, local authorities and the police have a range of powers available to remove trespassers and regain possession of land, and I would encourage them all to use them as strongly as possible.

Net Migration

9. Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): What progress her Department is making in reducing net migration to the UK. [149415]

12. Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): What steps her Department is taking better to manage immigration. [149418]

17. Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): What progress her Department is making in reducing net migration to the UK. [149424]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): As has already been referred to this afternoon, the latest statistics show another significant fall in net migration—down almost a third since June 2010. This shows that we are bringing immigration back under control. Our tough policies continue to have an effect, and this marks a further step towards bringing net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament.

Nigel Mills: I welcome the fall in net migration. Can the Home Secretary confirm to the House that it was caused by fewer people coming to the UK and not more people leaving, as some have suggested?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figure for net migration is reached by looking at the numbers leaving and the numbers coming in. The Office for National Statistics has been absolutely clear about the statistically significant fall in immigration and net migration, and it is the fall in immigration that has led to the fall in net migration.

Alun Cairns: The new “Life in the UK” test comes into force this week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should focus on encouraging immigrants to play a full part in British life, rather than teaching them how best to claim benefits?

Mrs May: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and that is exactly what the new “Life in the UK” test does. We have revamped the requirements for people taking the test. It is no longer about water meters and how to claim benefits, but enables people to participate fully in our society. It has sections on British history. The test enables people to understand what being resident in the United Kingdom is about and how to participate in our society, and I think that is absolutely right.

Mr Baron: The nation has always been tolerant of persecuted minorities—quite rightly—and, indeed, seen the benefits of immigration, but controls under the last Government collapsed into an absolute shambles. What more can the Government do to control immigration for the benefit of public services and how confident are they that the Prime Minister’s proposals, announced today, will be implemented in time for the EU transitional controls, ending at the end of the year?

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Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that, despite the significant falls we have seen in net migration, it is necessary for us to continue to look at the routes for migration into this country and the so-called pull factors and to ensure that we are enforcing our rules. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s speech today is important because it sets out the importance of embedding immigration across Government as an issue that is not just for the Home Office, but for other Departments. That includes the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, and, indeed, local government. We are clear that we will do all we can to deliver those parts of my right hon. Friend’s speech that can be delivered before the end of this year. For anything that requires legislation that goes beyond that, we will maintain our commitment to it, despite the transitional controls coming off at the end of this year.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Can the Home Secretary confirm that net migration of British citizens has fallen by 47,000 under this Government because fewer British citizens are returning home and more are leaving? Does she regard it as a successful immigration policy if two thirds of the reduction in net migration under this Government is down to fewer British citizens in this country?

Mrs May: I have to tell the hon. Lady that her question is based on a false premise. It is not the case that two thirds of the fall in net migration is due to the number of British people leaving. The Office for National Statistics is absolutely clear that the significant fall in net migration is due to a fall in immigration.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): We need a firm, fair and sensible immigration policy, but that is confused by the inclusion of international students in the net migration figures. Those students contribute about £5 billion to the economy. America does not do that, Australia does not do it and Canada does not do it. Why do we continue to do it?

Mrs May: We continue to keep students who are staying for more than a year in the calculation of those who are immigrants into the UK because it is an international definition. It is the definition used around the world. It is very simple: those who are staying here for more than a year have an impact on public services and on the UK more generally. I am pleased to say to my hon. Friend that our policy of differentiation means that we have been cutting out abuse in the student visa system, while at the same time the number of overseas students applying to our universities has gone up. We are welcoming the brightest and the best.

Refusals of Leave to Remain

10. Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): How many requests for a reconsideration of a decision to refuse leave to remain are outstanding; and what the oldest such cases currently being reconsidered are. [149416]

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): The UK Border Agency has approximately 14,000 requests for reconsiderations outstanding. The oldest request

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dates back to 3 March 2010. It is worth reminding the House that these are all people who have had a decision on their application and have either exhausted their appeal rights or chosen not to appeal, so they have no right to be in the United Kingdom and they should leave.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister’s answer. Now that the Home Office has agreed to reconsider all the cases in this category as soon as possible, will the Minister and his colleagues look at whether there could be a system for prioritising those cases that are clearly in urgent need rather than simply working through a date system, which I have to say has been pretty random in the past?

Mr Harper: The point I made at the beginning still stands. These are all people who have had a decision and have been refused the right to remain in the UK after going through the full appeal process. For those who submitted a reconsideration request prior to our policy change last November, we will work through all their cases in order. If the right hon. Gentleman has a clear case of where there is a particularly compassionate reason for looking at it earlier, I would welcome him getting in touch with me; otherwise, we will work through the cases in date order.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Given those answers, will my hon. Friend confirm that the greatest single reason for the backlog in the UK Border Agency is the tendency of courts to go on allowing more and more appeals, thereby lengthening the process?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is right that when the UKBA makes decisions, people in settlement cases frequently have a right of appeal. Some of those processes can often be very lengthy, so we will keep on considering whether there are ways of making the system smoother and more streamlined.


11. Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): What steps she is taking to increase the use of CCTV in communities where it is wanted. [149417]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): The Government support the effective use of CCTV to cut crime and protect the public. It is for local agencies to determine how best to deploy and use CCTV systems to meet local needs. Our surveillance camera code of practice will help them to do so.

Barbara Keeley: The context in Greater Manchester is that we have lost 825 police officers from the front line since 2010. In fact, Salford is now losing 27 police officers and nine police and community support officers to other parts of Greater Manchester. Given that context of losing such a lot of the visible police presence that reassures the public, why does this Minister and other Ministers also want to make it harder, which it will be, for the police and local authorities to get CCTV?

James Brokenshire: One point on which the hon. Lady might like to reflect is the fact that crime in Greater Manchester is down by 11%. We are not seeking

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to make it harder to get CCTV. The hon. Lady may shake her head, but we are not. We are supporting local communities in their approach. The fact is that, yes, CCTV can help to make a difference, but it also needs to command the support of the public. That is precisely what the code of practice seeks to assure.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): Since the last election, one in five councils has cut the number of CCTV cameras on the streets. Why is that?

James Brokenshire: The hon. Lady has clearly not reflected on the answer that I have just given. Ultimately, it is for local communities to decide what works best in their area. She quotes a figure, but no evidence of widespread reductions in town centre CCTV systems has been brought to our attention. Our code of practice is simply about supporting local communities. We believe in the use of CCTV. The problem under the last Government was that they spent hundreds of millions of pounds without working out whether the CCTV systems actually made any difference to cutting crime. That is our focus; that is what we will support local authorities to do.

Student Visas

13. Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the number of student visitor visas issued in the last year for which figures are available. [149419]

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): In 2012, 68,372 student visitor visas were issued, 11% more than in 2011. Such visitors come to take short courses or to attend university summer schools. Most can stay for up to six months, but in order to support English language schools, we now allow those taking specialist English courses to stay for up to 11 months on extended student visit visas.

Lilian Greenwood: The UK Border Agency’s border inspector has warned that student visitor visas are open to abuse, so why has the number of people entering the UK with them risen by 76% under this Tory-led Government?

Mr Harper: The hon. Lady ought to check what the chief inspector actually said. All he said was that the UKBA should monitor the route to ensure that it was not being exploited, and that is exactly what it is doing. If the hon. Lady looks at the nationalities in relation to which we have reduced the number of tier 4 visas, she will see that there is no sign of any increase in student visitor visas. In fact, nearly 50% of the people using the student visitor route are non-visa nationals, and a large proportion of those coming here with six-month student visitor visas are from the United States of America. There is no risk of abuse, but we remain alert to it and will ensure that we catch it out.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that the number of university visas has increased by 3% while at the same time the number of student visas is actually falling

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shows that it is possible to strip abuse from the system while also ensuring that the UK is open to the brightest and the best?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been a big drop in the number of students coming here, but that is because we have stripped abuse from the system. Five hundred fewer colleges are able to bring in foreign nationals, but, as my hon. Friend says, there has been an increase in the number entering our excellent universities sector.

20. [149429] Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): The Government have been caught napping by allowing the number of student visitor visas to rise by 30,000 since June 2010. Moreover, does the Minister accept that, in the words of Universities Scotland, he is damaging the brand of higher education by ensuring that genuine overseas students are included in the Government’s net migration target?

Mr Harper: That is a very good example of a Member reading out a question without having listened to my previous answer. The hon. Gentleman clearly did not listen at all to what I said in response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). The number of students entering our excellent universities sector has risen, both in the United Kingdom and in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman should also know that the student visitor visa is credibility-based. Entry clearance officers have full powers to say no to students if they believe that they are not genuine student visitors to the United Kingdom.

Domestic Violence

14. Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): What progress her Department has made on improving the detection and reporting of incidents of domestic violence. [149420]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): The Government have introduced new initiatives to improve the reporting of domestic violence. They include the domestic violence disclosure scheme pilot, and domestic violence protection orders to provide better protection for victims. Detections are, of course, a matter for the police, and we will continue to work with them to improve the reporting and resolution of these violent and abhorrent crimes.

Mr Slaughter: Preventing domestic homicides, which are still running at two a week, should be a priority for the Government, but leading victims’ organisations such as Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, in my constituency, are frustrated by the fact that the lessons of domestic homicide reviews are not being fed back to practitioners. Why is this essential work being delayed?

Damian Green: It is not being delayed. As I have said, these are indeed abhorrent crimes and continuing improvement is needed, but there has already been a great deal of improvement over the past couple of years. The Government have introduced two new specific criminal offences of stalking, have relaunched the teenage rape prevention and relationship abuse campaigns, and have extended the definition of domestic violence to

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include 16 and 17-year-olds and coercive control. All that shows the great seriousness with which we approach the issue.

Deportation of Foreign Criminals

15. Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): What assessment she has made of trends in the number of foreign criminals who have been deported since June 2010. [149421]

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): The UK Border Agency removed over 4,500 foreign national offenders in 2012, and have removed over 11,000 foreign national criminals since June 2010. There has been an increase in the number of appeals being lodged against deportation, which is why we implemented changes in the immigration rules last July to prevent criminals facing deportation from abusing the Human Rights Act.

Graeme Morrice: The fact is that this Government are deporting 900 fewer foreign criminals a year than the previous Labour Government did. Why is this Government’s performance so poor?

Mr Harper: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my previous answer, he would know that there has been a significant increase in the number of appeals lodged by criminals; in 2012, the figure increased by 1,000. That is exactly why we have strengthened the ability to remove criminals by implementing changes in the immigration rules, and to ensure that that is enforced by tribunals. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that we will take powers in primary legislation to do so.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Jamaicans and Nigerians make up a disproportionately large number of the foreign nationals in our jails. What assistance is my hon. Friend providing to the Secretary of State for Justice in negotiating compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with these two countries, and what progress is being made?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Nigerian Parliament has passed the legislation required to implement compulsory prisoner transfer, which means that in due course we will be able compulsorily to move prisoners to Nigeria, which I am sure he will welcome.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Might the trend in this area not be rather better if the Home Secretary had followed the advice of our hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), rather than that of others who have been consistently wrong?

Mr Harper: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The amendment proposed by our hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton would in our judgment have made it more difficult to deport foreign national offenders, rather than easier. That is why the Government will look at introducing amendments to primary legislation, when we have a suitable legislative vehicle, to implement the commitments that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made to the House.

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Late Night Levy (Licensed Premises)

16. Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): How many local authorities have imposed a late levy on licensed premises to date; and how much income has been raised for policing as a result. [149422]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): The late-night levy was introduced in October last year. Since then a number of councils have been actively considering how a levy could benefit their area. The first formal public consultation to introduce a levy began in Newcastle last month.

Lyn Brown: I take that answer as being “absolutely none”. The Home Office told us that 94 of the 100 licensing authorities would impose the late-night levy, which would raise £10 million for police forces in its first year. Six months in, not a single pound has been raised. Is this not another illustration of the Government’s collapsing alcohol policy, and where is the Minister going to get the money from to police our night-time economy?

James Brokenshire: I find it quite interesting that the hon. Lady makes her point in the way she does, given that the last Labour Government promised that we would have a café culture, but instead we had 1 million violent crimes linked to alcohol. A number of councils are taking forward this policy, and we see this as a local issue: it should be for councils, with their police and crime commissioners, to decide if it works for them. That is precisely what we are doing, and I am surprised that the hon. Lady does not support local action to deal with the problems her constituents would like to see addressed.

21. [149430] Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): We hear about tough new licensing laws, yet no action is taken on tackling the problem of cheap booze, often consumed at home before going out. The Government’s alcohol strategy is obviously in disarray. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have finally abandoned their plan to implement a minimum price for alcohol?

James Brokenshire: The Government have already taken a number of important steps to reform the licensing laws and strengthen the powers available to local communities to deal with the problem of alcohol-related crime. The Government have consulted on the important issues of pricing and low-cost alcohol. We are reflecting on the representations that have been received and we will respond to the House in due course.

Serious Sexual Assaults

18. Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the capabilities of the police to record, investigate and detect rapes and serious sexual assaults. [149425]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): Rape and sexual violence are devastating crimes that ruin lives. We expect every report to be taken seriously, every victim to be treated with dignity, and every investigation to be conducted thoroughly and

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professionally. Our updated violence against women and girls action plan sets out our commitment to take a coherent approach to tackling sexual violence.

Mr Howarth: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that people are sometimes being let off with a caution for lower-level sexual offences and that that is unacceptable? If he does agree, what is he going to do about it?

Damian Green: The Government will shortly be announcing a review of the caution regime. I am as determined as the right hon. Gentleman is to ensure that cautions, which provide a useful part of the criminal justice system, are used only in appropriate circumstances. I should say that the number of cautions used in cases of serious sexual abuse is low, with such cautions tending to be used for young offenders, for reasons that are clear in each individual case. However, I rather share his concerns about the use of cautions in this field.

Net Migration

19. Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): What assessment her Department has made of public support for reducing net migration. [149428]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): As my hon. Friend will have heard, I have made a number of references, in answer to earlier questions, to what we have done on net migration. I can confirm that the British public see immigration as the third most important issue facing Britain today—that was the response to an Ipsos MORI poll in February.

Jason McCartney: I commend Conservative Ministers for the progress they have made in cutting net migration by a third, as they head towards their target of tens of thousands. May I give them further encouragement by telling them that a recent YouGov poll showed 63% support for that target among Labour voters, even though the Labour party opposes the target?

Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I was aware that public opinion polling showed that eight in 10 British adults support the Prime Minister’s pledge to reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. I am encouraged by the fact that such a high percentage of Labour voters also support the target—it is just a pity that that message has not got through to Labour Front Benchers.

Topical Questions

T2. [149433] Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): Next month, Sir Jonathan Evans will move on from his role as director general of the Security Service, and I wish to pay tribute to Sir Jonathan for the 33 years he has dedicated to the service. During that time his contributions have varied from investigating counter-espionage, developing and implementing key policies on security, and, most recently, countering the threat of international terrorism. He has experienced the service evolving over the years and as director

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general has led the service through particularly challenging times of change and unrest, including the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. His tireless work helped to ensure the delivery of a safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic games last year. I commend and thank him for his invaluable contribution to public safety and national security.

Lorely Burt: Recent Government legislation seeks to abolish appeals for family visitors, but one third of appeals currently succeed. Would it not be better to get a proper decision in the first place than to go through the whole process all over again?

Mrs May: We looked at this issue closely and what is clear is that in a significant number of cases the initial decision was not wrong on the basis of the information available at the time it was taken; in so many cases further information is put into the system between the initial decision and the appeal, and the appeal is then decided on a different basis. It is slightly cheaper, and it will take less time, for individuals to make a further application rather than going through the appeals process. As this is the only part of the visit visa system that has this appeal, we think it is right that we change the rules for this particular category.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): May I, too, give our thanks for the work that Jonathan Evans has done over many years for the security of this country? The Prime Minister has spoken today about immigration, and it is right to have conditions on benefits and public services, but will the Home Secretary confirm that she has no estimate of how many people, if any, will see any change in their jobseeker’s entitlement as a result? Will she also tell us why the number of employers fined for employing illegal workers has dropped by 42% since the election?

Mrs May: The Prime Minister has made a wide-ranging speech today, in which he has referred to a number of areas where the Government will be taking action to ensure that the United Kingdom is not seen as a soft touch and that people who come here are coming to contribute to our society and to our economy—that will be across the board in relation to benefits and to matters such as access to the health service.

Yvette Cooper: The Home Secretary did not answer my questions about whether the policies will have any impact, how many people will be affected by the new policies or why enforcement has become consistently worse since the election. Unannounced checks have fallen by more than 30%, the number of foreign criminals deported has fallen by 16% and there has been a 50% drop in the number of those refused entry to Britain since the election as well as a 50% increase in the number of long waits for asylum decisions. There is also the point I raised with her initially: the number of employers employing illegal workers being fined has dropped by some 40% since the election. What will the Home Secretary do to improve enforcement and the effectiveness of the system so that people can have confidence that it is working? It has got worse since the election, not better, so what is she doing to improve enforcement?

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Mrs May: The right hon. Lady lists a range of issues, so let me pick one that has already been answered by my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration—that is, the one about foreign national offenders. My hon. Friend correctly said that the number of appeals from foreign national offenders has increased. In 2012, there were about 1,000 more such appeals, which extends the time it takes to deport those individuals. I will not take any lectures on how to deal with immigration from the party that left our immigration system in such chaos. We have spent three years bringing control into the system and we will continue to do that. On the back of the Prime Minister’s speech today, we will enhance enforcement and ensure that people who come to this country do so to contribute to our society and our economy; Labour did not do that over 13 years.

T3. [149434] Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): Intelligent use of new technology is bound to be vital in the fight against crime, whether through online crime maps or better IT procurement, but will the Government deploy it with due regard to liberty and privacy?

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance, and he is right. Online crime maps are useful in giving citizens knowledge about crime activity in their area; they are still hugely successful and two years after the launch of police.uk in January 2011, the site receives more than 200,000 hits a day. However, with street-level crime maps we have taken great care to ensure that the identities of individuals are protected because the balance between civil liberties and effective crime fighting is very important to us.

T4. [149435] Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Following the Secretary of State’s Government’s 20% cuts, Nottinghamshire has lost more police officers than any county in the east midlands and police morale is badly hit. After cutting police numbers and bungling the police and crime commissioner elections, will she apologise to areas such as Clifton in my constituency, where crime and antisocial behaviour are a real problem?

Mrs May: We have published a draft Bill on antisocial behaviour, the aim of which is to make it easier to deal at a local level with the issues of antisocial behaviour that sadly blight too many communities across the country. The hon. Lady talks about reductions in officer numbers, but she might also reflect on the fact that in the past year, recorded crime in Nottinghamshire has gone down by 13%.

T5. [149436] Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): Further to the earlier questions on student visas, and given that Lancaster is home to one of our top universities, is any extra support available when a university needs speedier visas so that overseas academics can come to conferences and seminars that are vital to the university’s international reputation?

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am sure that he will have been encouraged by what I said earlier about student visas. He might be interested to know

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that last April we introduced the visitor route for permitted paid engagements, which is specifically helpful in such cases as it covers experts visiting to give a paid lecture, examine students and participate in or chair selection panels. They can do that for up to one month and receive a fee payment; I hope that is helpful to all those at his excellent local university.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I echo the Home Secretary’s remarks about Sir Jonathan Evans. On a different subject, the UN convention on the rights of the child clearly states that every individual under the age of 18 should be regarded as a child, yet we still treat 17-year-olds who are arrested as adults. Will the Home Secretary agree to undertake a review of that situation, which sometimes has disastrous consequences, to ensure that any 17-year-old who is taken into police custody is treated as a child?

Damian Green: As I think the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am aware of some individual cases where there have been tragic events after the arrests of 17-year-olds. I assure him that we are keeping this under review.

T6. [149437] Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will the Home Secretary look favourably on a holistic approach to rural crime, so that illegal horse grazing and illegal fly tipping can be treated as what they truly are—rural crimes?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend raises an important point. In various parts of the country, there is real concern about the attention given to a number of issues that corporately come together under rural crime. I will certainly look at the specific issues she raised, but a number of police and crime commissioners were clear last year that they wanted to ensure that greater emphasis was put on rural crime, which blights many of our rural communities.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): In just the past few months, there have been seven gang-related shootings in Maghull in my constituency—a town with no previous experience of gun crime. The Home Secretary will understand the very real fears of my constituents that it is only a matter of time before an innocent bystander is hurt or killed. Will she make sure that Merseyside police have all the resources they need to protect residents and to stamp out this worrying trend in gun crime?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Sadly, we have seen problems related to gun crime in a number of parts of the country and, as he says, there has been evidence of completely innocent individuals getting caught in those incidents. We have been looking particularly at offences in relation to guns, and indeed we are introducing a new offence relating to the provision of guns—the intent to supply guns—so that we can catch some of the middlemen who are making guns available. Often they are rented out by middlemen for a variety of crimes. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, I will respond.

T7. [149439] Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): The breach rate for antisocial behaviour orders is running at 57.3%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to change the law on antisocial behaviour

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so that we punish the perpetrators and empower local communities, and through that, cut antisocial behaviour and crime?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): My hon. Friend makes an important point about the effectiveness of measures to deal with the antisocial behaviour that blights so many of our communities. A lot of measures are slow, bureaucratic and quite expensive; therefore the Government have published a draft Bill to reform antisocial behaviour measures, to support communities. We thank the Select Committee on Home Affairs for the pre-legislative scrutiny applied to the draft Bill and we shall respond to the Committee’s recommendations in due course.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Has the Home Secretary found it at all embarrassing to be the centre of so much speculation about going for the top job in politics?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing Member of the House, so he knows that that is not a matter relevant to the remit of the Home Office.

T8. [149441] Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): I will make an effort to ask a better question than the last one. Ministers will be aware that alcohol-fuelled crime and antisocial behaviour have damaging consequences in seaside resorts such as Blackpool. Given that we are not proceeding with minimum unit pricing for alcohol, what additional measures, not in the Government alcohol strategy, will they now consider to tackle this social scourge?

James Brokenshire: The Government have already strengthened powers for local authorities in Blackpool and elsewhere; for example, to introduce early-morning restriction orders to control the hours when licensed outlets are able to trade. Indeed, we have given councils extra flexibility to act. As I have already indicated, the Government are reflecting on the representations made on the pricing of alcohol and we will come back to the House with our confirmed position in due course.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Earlier, the Minister spoke of the Government’s commitment to tackling cybercrime, yet that commitment does not seem to include either defining or measuring what cybercrime is, so could the Minister say whether individuals and small businesses are encouraged to report all cybercrime to the police?

James Brokenshire: I know that the hon. Lady has examined the issue over a number of years and I recognise her direct interest. I underline that the Government have acted on national cyber-security by virtue of additional funding, the creation of the national cybercrime unit and the establishment of Action Fraud as the direct means for reporting online cybercrime. I absolutely encourage the public and small businesses to ensure that those crimes are properly reported so that we can provide the most effective advice to prevent crime and bring those responsible to justice.

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Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Home Secretary will be aware of the legal case between Leeds United and West Yorkshire police, which was won by Leeds United, leaving West Yorkshire police to pay £1 million back to the football club, leaving us in a situation in which my constituents will be robbed of police officers to police yobs at football matches at weekends. May I urge the Home Secretary to intervene in this case to reverse that intolerable position?

Damian Green: My hon. Friend will be aware that it is not for Ministers to tell judges and courts what decisions to come to. Clearly, it is an operational matter for individual police forces to determine how to police football matches. I part company with him in his description of football fans as yobs, as football is a much safer game to attend for spectators than it was 20 or 30 years ago, largely as a result of better policing and widespread revulsion by respectable football fans at the yobs who used to deface the game.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): My young constituent, James Harrold, aged 19, from Middlewich, lost both his legs after being hit by a police car travelling at speed. In 2011-12, police vehicles were the cause of 18 deaths and many serious injuries such as those sustained by James. What are the Government doing to ensure that the number of such tragic incidents is reduced?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and certainly the case to which she referred is very distressing. While speed limits do not apply to vehicles used for emergency service purposes if observance of the limit is likely to hinder that purpose, I can assure her that emergency services drivers remain subject at all times to the law on careless and dangerous driving, of which exceeding the speed limit may be a component. The Department for Transport has recently consulted on the issue of extending the exemption to other emergency services, but it has also looked at amending road safety legislation so that emergency drivers will be required to complete high speed driving training before they

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are allowed to exceed the limit, and it proposes to base that training on the code drawn up by the emergency services.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will have to wait a moment, because the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has been jumping up and down more persistently.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. My question follows on from the excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). I hosted a meeting of health academics from Turkey, who experienced difficulties in visiting the UK because of delays in securing a visa for the visit. Given the economic opportunities flowing from Turkey, will he join my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and me in seeking an expedited service for this economic priority nation?

Mr Harper: Our overseas visa and entry clearance services have delivered a very good performance, with over 90% of visas issued within 15 days. If my hon. Friend wishes to raise a specific example—and it sounds as if he does—in which there was a longer delay, I would be grateful if he gave me the details and I can investigate matters with the UK Border Agency.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary agree that police and stewards can effectively control football matches, as they did yesterday at Wembley stadium, when they were able to witness Wrexham football club’s glorious victory over Grimsby Town in the FA trophy final?

Damian Green: I feel I should take the opportunity to congratulate Wrexham on its glorious victory yesterday, and agree with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, the way to control football violence comes largely from the fans themselves. The vast majority of football fans are respectable and want to enjoy the game peacefully, and if they do so, the job of the police is made much easier.

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Immigrants (NHS Treatment)

3.33 pm

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health what moves the Government intend to take to prevent the national health service becoming an international health service.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr Jeremy Hunt): The current system of policing and enforcing the entitlement of foreign nationals to free NHS care is chaotic and often out of control. At a time when we are having to face the challenges of an ageing society, it places a significant and unjustified burden on our GP surgeries and hospitals and may well impact on the standard of care received by British citizens.

As the Prime Minister said earlier today, the Government are determined to ensure that anyone not entitled to receive free NHS services should be properly identified and charged for the use of those services. Currently, we identify less than half of those who should be paying and collect payment from less than half those we identify.

We also have some of the most generous rules in the world on access to free health care. Our rules allow free access to primary care for any visitor to the UK, including tourists, and free access to all NHS care for foreign students and temporary visitors. But ours is a national, not an international, health service, so last year, under my predecessor, we began a wholesale review of the rules and procedures on charging visitors for NHS care, with a view to making the regime simpler, fairer and easier to implement. In particular, we focused on who should be charged and how the rules can be applied and enforced more effectively. We have examined the qualifying residency criteria for free treatment; the full range of other current criteria that exempt particular services or visitors from charges for their treatment; whether visitors should be charged for GP services and other NHS services outside hospitals; establishing a more effective and efficient process across the NHS to screen for eligibility and to make and recover charges; and whether to introduce a requirement for health insurance tied to visas.

The initial phase of the review has concluded and we will shortly start a consultation on a range of options, including plans to extend charging to some visitors and temporary residents who were previously exempt so that the default qualification for free NHS care would be permanent, not temporary, residence; ending free access to primary care for all visitors and tourists; introducing a prepayment or insurance requirement for temporary visitors to pay for NHS health care; and improving how the NHS can identify, charge and recover charges where they should apply. We will retain exemptions for emergency treatment and public health issues.

We will work closely with medical professionals, NHS staff and partner NHS organisations during the consultation and then seek to introduce agreed changes as quickly as possible. We will need to take a staged approach, because some changes are likely to require primary legislation before they can be introduced, which will take longer to put in place. However, some changes can be made immediately, and we should proceed with those as quickly as possible.

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Mr Field: I thank the Health Secretary for his reply. If he wants us to take him seriously, will he today give a commitment in respect of the directive his Department issued just as the House was rising for the summer recess, compelling doctors, if they have vacancies, to admit all those who have been in the country for 24 hours or more, including illegal immigrants? Will he ensure that someone in the NHS—not doctors—works out whether or not a person is entitled to claim, and will he implement such proposals forthwith?

Mr Hunt: The directive to which the right hon. Gentleman refers was issued by an independent NHS body, not my Department. The sorry truth is that it is consistent with the current rules on access to primary health care, which is what we believe is wrong. I think that one of the big problems in the current system is that we have free access to primary care for anyone visiting the UK, however short their visit is. Through that access to primary care, they get an NHS number, which should not entitle them to free care but is often treated by hospitals as such. That is what we have to put right. He is absolutely right that we need a system that properly identifies whether people should have care that is free at the point of access without impinging on the ease of access for British citizens, which is one of the things they treasure most about the NHS.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is through access to primary care that the initial control must take place, but that all hospitals should have an overseas visitors manager who should be designated and required to collect overseas visitors’ moneys on a more regular basis and using a more joined-up and coherent way of working with the other agencies involved?

Mr Hunt: What my right hon. Friend says bears very careful consideration. He is absolutely right that primary care is a critical access point, and we need to look at that. We also need to look at the burdens we place on GPs. I think that ultimately the easy way we will do that is through proper digital patient records, which will allow NHS professionals to find out about the medical history of people accessing the NHS at any point, including whether they are likely to be eligible for free treatment.

With regard to hospitals, my right hon. Friend makes a very interesting point about an overseas visitors manager. One of the problems we have is that the incentives in the system positively disincentivise hospitals from declaring foreign users of the NHS. If they declare someone not to be entitled to free NHS care, they have to collect the money from that person themselves, whereas if they do not declare the person not to be entitled to free NHS care, they get paid automatically by their primary care trust or clinical commissioning group. The incentives in the system have acted to suggest that this is a much smaller problem than I believe it is.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): The NHS must not be open to abuse. Where people do not have entitlement to free treatment, steps should always be taken to recover the costs from individuals and Governments. That clear principle is shared by Members across this House.

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For some time, hospitals have rightly had a legal duty to recover any charges owed from overseas patients. The previous Government proposed a number of further steps, including amending immigration rules so that anyone with substantial medical debts is not allowed back into the country. We welcome efforts to build on that, while always guarding against overblown rhetoric, which does not help the immigration debate. We therefore need more precision and clarity from the Secretary of State. First, on the scale of the problem, as ever with this Government’s announcements, there is already confusion to clear up. Earlier today, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson put the cost to the NHS of health tourism at £10 million to £20 million. On “World at One” this lunchtime, the Secretary of State said that he thinks it is more like £200 million. So which is it? Will the Secretary of State publish the evidence he has to support his claim?

Secondly, we need more detail on what the Government are proposing. Has the Secretary of State consulted those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on any proposed changes? There are practical questions on which health professionals will need reassurance. We have heard in the news today about the problems in the UK Border Agency. What assurances can the Secretary of State give to health professionals that they will not be used to plug the gaps that have been created by the Government’s severe cuts to the front line of the UK Border Force? Will they be given a simple way of checking eligibility and not be burdened by extra bureaucracy? Will these changes apply equally to planned and emergency care? If so, that could put health professionals in a difficult ethical position. Does the Secretary of State agree that care should always be provided in life-threatening situations, and will he take this opportunity to reassure health professionals on that important point?

Finally, the Secretary of State told “World at One” that one of the main reasons he was doing this was to relieve pressure on accident and emergency departments, particularly in London. While we commend moves to prevent abuse of the system, could he not better achieve his aim if he was not planning to close so many A and Es in London?

The Government have made a lot of assertions, but there is a real lack of policy clarity and evidence. Unless the Secretary of State can provide convincing answers to my questions, the House will be left with the distinct whiff of a cooked-up a story to suit the Government’s political purposes rather than a real drive to protect the NHS from abuse.

Mr Hunt: The Government are not going to take any lessons in overblown rhetoric when Labour Members talked about this problem for 13 years and did absolutely nothing about it. What was missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks was a proper apology for Labour’s total failure to control our borders during a period in office that saw a quadrupling of net migration. We do not know how many people are residing in this country illegally, but in January the London School of Economics published a report stating that it could be nearly 900,000 people, in which case the cost will not be a few millions but many, many times that. In 13 years, Labour did not change eligibility for access to free NHS services and did nothing to improve the collection of proper dues from people coming from outside the European Union.

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The £20 million figure that the Prime Minister’s spokesman used this morning is the amount of uncollected debt that is owed to the NHS by foreign nationals. If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to my response, he would know that we believe—of course it is impossible to get exact figures on this because of the total mess that the previous Government created—that we identify less than half the people who should be paying for NHS care and collect less than half the money that should be collected.

Of course we will work with very closely with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure a co-ordinated approach. If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would have heard that the exemption for emergency care and for public health issues will remain in place, which is extremely important.

Let me finish by talking about A and E issues. The reality is that the LSE estimates that about 70% of those living illegally in the UK live in London, where A and Es happen to face some of the biggest pressures. University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust opened a new A and E only in the past few years and it was built for a capacity of 65,000 people a year, but it is now seeing 120,000 a year. If the right hon. Gentleman’s Government had done something about this rather than talk about it, A and Es across London would not be facing the pressure they are now facing.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Will the Secretary of State publish the names of those trusts that are abjectly failing to identify and recover charges from those who are not entitled to free care?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. Part of the problem is that when we should be identifying someone as a foreign national who should pay for their NHS care, that does not happen a lot of the time because of the incentives in the system. Under the NHS improvement initiative, which is taking place in London at present—it is worth looking at that closely, because it has a lot of promise—there is a centralised collection of debt from foreign nationals who owe the NHS so that that does not become the responsibility of individual hospitals, which is something that is putting them off registering people as eligible for their NHS care.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): May I invite the Secretary of State to comment on the view that one of the reasons why these proposals are being made at this stage is the conclusion of transitional arrangements for Romanians and Bulgarians at the end of this year? The Minister for Immigration is sitting on his right. Is it possible for the Health Department and the Home Office jointly to commission research so that we can have some actual figures on how many people might be coming at the end of this year?

Mr Hunt: The right hon. Gentleman will have to raise the matter of the actual number of people coming to the UK with the Home Secretary or, indeed, the Minister for Immigration.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the issues that we are dealing with are not just about foreign nationals from outside the EU or the European economic area. The rules for EEA members are complex. If people come here to work, we have an obligation under

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EU law to allow them access to free treatment, but if they are economically inactive or if they are temporary visitors, we should be able to reclaim the cost of that treatment from their home country in the EEA. The fact is that we do that very poorly indeed at the moment and that is one of the things we need to change.

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): I particularly welcome the linking of visas to health insurance, but will my right hon. Friend explain what will happen if someone who is already in the UK is asked to pay but simply cannot? Will they be refused treatment?

Mr Hunt: No one will be refused treatment in a life or death situation. It is important that we state that up front. However, we also want to remove any expectation that people who are not entitled to NHS care are able to come to the UK and get it, and to ask whether we should be giving free NHS care to people such as foreign students who come to the UK and get it. If they went to Australia or America—our two main competitor countries—they would have to take out health insurance or pay a levy to access the local health care system. If those countries do that, I think we should do the same.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Health Secretary aware that when I was in a London hospital some years ago I counted more than 40 staff from different nations? I am proud of my United Nations heart bypass. The message from this Government and many others, including the UK Independence party, is that those of a similar colour, of different colours and of different nationalities can change the bed sheets and operate, but woe betide them if they want to put their head on a pillow when they are ill. What hypocrisy.

Mr Hunt: The hon. Gentleman should do a lot better than that. He should think of his elderly constituents—people with multiple long-term conditions—who are having to wait much longer than they need to because A and Es not just in London, but in many parts of the country, are clogged up with people who may not be entitled to free NHS care because we have a system that culturally and operationally is not able to track these measures. It is in their interests that we must ensure that the NHS is available to people who are entitled to free care. When people are not entitled to free care, the point is not that the NHS is not available to them, but that they should pay for it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: I have a choice on the Lib Dem Benches between two doctors. Let us hear from the good Dr Julian Huppert.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): The former public health Minister, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), revealed in a written answer on 17 March 2011 that the sums not collected from overseas patients totalled less than £7 million a year. If we double that and double it again, as the Health Secretary suggests, that is £28 million. Private finance initiative schemes

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cost the NHS that much every two weeks. Which issue is more important in ensuring that we have a properly funded NHS?

Mr Hunt: We need to deal with all those issues, and they are all failures of the last Government.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): There is a problem with recruitment in the NHS not only in England, but in Wales. Last year, Welsh NHS trusts tried to recruit 32 A and E consultants from the UK, but failed to do so and had to go abroad. Is there not a danger that the rhetoric in which the Government are indulging will put off the talented doctors that the NHS in this country needs?

Mr Hunt: We owe a great debt to the many talented doctors, nurses and health care assistants who come from overseas and make our NHS what it is. Nothing in our immigration laws will change that.

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the overwhelming majority of our constituents who travel abroad put in place provision to protect themselves if they fall ill. My constituents and his will be appalled to learn that we do not expect the same of foreign visitors to the United Kingdom. May I congratulate him on his initiative, which began before the Prime Minister’s speech today?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is right. We have one of the most generous systems of health provision for overseas visitors of any country in the world. Most other European countries are less generous because they operate a social insurance system, which makes it much easier to collect the money that they are owed by the people who are not entitled to free care. We have to change the system here. The key thing that is wrong with it is free access to primary care, because that is the gateway into the NHS. Although primary care itself is not the most expensive part of the NHS, because of its gateway role, unless we control it, we will not get the overall system under control.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): If the child of an asylum seeker who is yet to have their asylum application determined requires NHS primary care, will they still be eligible for free treatment?

Mr Hunt: Yes, they will.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am finding it rather difficult to ask a question, because I have been rendered speechless by the chutzpah of Labour Members in not saying that what the Secretary of State proposes is sheer common sense and in not agreeing with him. I have a simple question. How will GPs know which foreign nationals are entitled to NHS care and which are not?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend asks a very important question. We have to recognise the pressure on GPs and must be careful not to increase the bureaucratic burden on them. The long-term answer is to have proper digital patient records. If the first thing that people are asked for when they enter any part of the NHS is an NHS number that allows the person they are seeing to look at

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their medical history, which could be a trigger to identify someone who should be paying for their NHS care. We are seeing whether there is a non-bureaucratic way of achieving that in the short term, while we put that technological system in place.

Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): The Secretary of State and the Conservative party should remember that the coalition has been in power for nearly three years and nothing has happened on this issue. There are two things that he could do. He could withdraw the circular today and he could consider introducing an entitlement card that people could carry with them.

Mr Hunt: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his chutzpah in criticising the Government for not doing anything in two and a half years, when his Government did nothing in 13 years.

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): The Secretary of State has made it clear why the figure of £20 million a year is a ridiculous underestimate of the true state of affairs. He will be thanked by every British taxpayer in this country, no matter what the saving, because they are getting increasingly tired of services being accessed by people who do not have a proper entitlement to them.

Mr Hunt: I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. Of course I want to do a good job for taxpayers, but also for the 3 million British citizens who use the NHS every week and who find a service that, although the Government have protected its budget, is under increased pressure. I want to ensure that the system whereby people from other countries access those same services is one thing, and one thing only: fair.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): It would be useful if the Secretary of State provided clarity and accuracy on the numbers we are talking about. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said that unclaimed costs amount to £20 million, but the Secretary of State seems to be saying £200 million. I wonder whether he can account for the difference. Did he just add a zero?

Mr Hunt: I explained where the figure of £20 million came from, and why I believe that it is probably the tip of the iceberg. If the hon. Lady really wants to know the answer, we do not know the full extent of the abuse of NHS services because the previous Government left them in such an appalling mess.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I understand that under the European health insurance card scheme the UK paid out about £1.7 billion for Brits abroad, but claimed only £125 million back. Is that also receiving attention?

Mr Hunt: Yes it is. We are always likely to pay out more than we receive under that scheme because we have a number of pensioners who decide to retire to slightly sunnier climes and there is a cost to the UK under EU treaty law with those decisions. My hon. Friend is right to point out that just as inadequate as our failure to charge people from outside the EU when

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we should is our failure to collect money from inside the EU when we are able to, and we must also look at that.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): The Secretary of State has clarified the Prime Minister’s figure of £20 million, but he used inflammatory language to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) about health tourists clogging up A and Es. He claims that £200 million could be the tip of the iceberg, but if he does not know the figure is that not the worst example of dog-whistle politics?

Mr Hunt: If we do not know the figure, is not the right thing to do to find it out and sort out the problem, unlike what the hon. Gentleman’s party did during 13 years in office?

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who in raising this issue is, as always, streets ahead of those on his own Front Bench.

May I thank my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary for the extra £20 million funding that the NHS in Worcestershire will receive this year, and urge him to take that agenda forward and ensure that as much funding as possible goes to the residents of Worcestershire and to addressing the kinds of pressures that we saw over the last week in A and E?

Mr Hunt: Obviously, I want to ensure that as much money as possible goes to residents throughout the country by tackling abuse, and I would not want to minimise what the issue might be in Worcestershire. I stress, however, that the biggest problem we face is in big urban centres where there are large numbers of illegal immigrants, and we must get a grip of that problem for the sake of the elderly population in those cities.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): If the Secretary of State is concerned to protect NHS budgets, why is he allowing a £2.2 billion raid from the Treasury? Is that not a much more serious cut in the NHS services we can pay for in this country?

Mr Hunt: If the hon. Lady is worried about that, perhaps she might like to complain to her own party leadership, which, during Labour’s last five years in office, had an average underspend in the NHS of £2 billion.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) on his urgent question, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on following my private Member’s Bill, the NHS Audit Requirements (Foreign Nationals) Bill. When will that primary legislation receive Government time to start its passage through this place?

Mr Hunt: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent private Member’s Bill, which looked forward to many of the problems we are trying to address. Our first step is to identify the scale of the problem. We will then identify the right legislative response, but the response will not all be legislative. That is when we will consider including it in the parliamentary timetable.

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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): In answer to the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), the Secretary of State said that when someone does not have the funds, treatment will not be refused if it is a life-and-death situation. For clarity, will he will us what the threshold will be? For example, if someone has a broken leg, or if someone needs another treatment that requires hospital admission, and they do not have the funds, will treatment be refused under his scheme?

Mr Hunt: The hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that that will be a matter for clinicians, not politicians.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Roughly, in percentage terms, how many babies born in maternity wards are born to mothers from the EU?

Mr Hunt: I cannot tell my hon. Friend the answer except for one detail: my two children were not born to a mother from the EU.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): The Secretary of State has explained that the July guidance was from an independent body and in line with the existing rules. Who wrote the existing rules? Will he confirm that he will change them?

Mr Hunt: The rules existed for 13 years under the Labour Government, who did absolutely nothing to change them. We are tackling the problem. If Labour Members had any grace, they would thank us for doing so.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): When I tabled questions last year, I was told that we collect £51 million a year for treatment from EU countries, but that they collect £451 million—nine times more—back from us. Is this an issue not of immigration, but of coding, charging and collecting?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend might be right—we need to look at that—but as I have told my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), one factor is that a number of our pensioners retire to sunnier climates, which leads to that imbalance.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is the Health Secretary aware that general practitioners have been calling for the measures to be taken for some time? The Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire local medical committee wrote to me some time ago expressing its concerns that overseas nationals were coming here for expensive operations. It will be very pleased at what he has done today.

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend speaks wisely. NHS professionals on the front line have been conscious of the problem for a long time, but have been frustrated that nothing has been done. I therefore hope that they very much welcome today’s announcement.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Now that Labour has realised it is legitimate to discuss immigration, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for the Opposition to acknowledge that legitimate charges by the NHS to EU and other residents were not collected

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properly for 13 years; that identifying the £20 million as the tip of the unpaid iceberg is the right thing to do; and that a tightening of procedures on debt collection will be welcomed by my constituents and fair to all our constituents throughout the country?

Mr Hunt: Absolutely. It is astonishing that the Labour party complains in one breath about pressures on A and E, and the next moment tries to make light of the serious attempts the Government are making to get a grip of the problem.

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the vast majority of people in the UK will welcome these long-overdue proposals? Will he explain what he will do to ensure that those who are denied treatment because they are here illegally and not entitled to it cannot simply slip over the border to Wales or Scotland, which, unfortunately, are in the throes of an NHS run by socialist Governments?

Mr Hunt: We will work closely with the devolved authorities to ensure we have a co-ordinated response to the problem, but I agree that today’s announcement will be welcomed by the vast majority of people in the country, who will be astonished that the Labour party, even now, seeks to minimise the problem.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Given that the UK has one of very few genuine free-at-the-point-of-need health care systems, does my right hon. Friend agree that, without his sensible reforms, the UK will continue to be seen as the destination of choice for anyone around the world seeking high-quality, free medical treatment paid for by the UK taxpayer?

Mr Hunt: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is because I support the principle of free-at-the-point-of-use health care that I do not want anything to undermine it, and abuse of the system by people who are not entitled to free NHS care is the single thing that would most shake the public’s trust in an important part of what the NHS has to offer. That is why we must tackle this problem.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): The Secretary of State rightly recognises that accident and emergency is a special case, but when I broke my fingers in Brussels I was asked to pay by credit card at the end of my treatment. A lot of people who present at A and E have non-life threatening conditions. Is that something we could do here?

Mr Hunt: I understand my hon. Friend’s sense of unfairness at being asked to pay for her treatment by credit card, when we do not do that to foreign nationals who are treated in the NHS. I do not, however, want the NHS to become a service where the first question people are asked relates to their credit card or cheque book. If we are going to protect that much-cherished principle of NHS treatment, we need to get a grip on the kind of abuse that has run unchecked for far too long.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the House is divided by two schools: the Opposition, who believe that the NHS

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should not charge anyone, which is why they did nothing for 13 years; and Government Members, who believe that foreign nationals who should pay, must pay.

Mr Hunt: I agree, and nothing we have heard this afternoon will give the British public any comfort at all that the Opposition get this problem.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that the previous Government’s failure to tackle health tourism encouraged overseas visitors to abuse our NHS?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is right. One reason why we are tackling this problem is not just the health agenda we have been discussing this afternoon, but that abuse of NHS services fuels broader immigration problems. That is one of the core reasons the previous Government failed to get a grip of net migration in particular.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust spent £305,341 on interpreter services between 2009 and 2011. Will my right hon. Friend include the costs of translation services when working out the costs of health tourism?

Mr Hunt: I would want to be careful to discriminate between the needs of British citizens and people who are entitled to free NHS care who have not had the education or support they need to learn English but who should still continue to receive free, high quality NHS care, and foreign nationals who are not entitled to free NHS care and who should pay the cost of any translation required.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My constituents are absolutely furious that non-entitled foreign nationals are effectively getting free access to our NHS, and I welcome the steps my right hon. Friend is making to tackle this issue. Will he ensure that Her Majesty’s Government fast-track legislation, with an announcement in the Queen’s Speech, and challenge the Opposition either to bring down or pass that legislation in the next parliamentary year?

Mr Hunt: I have visited Kettering hospital, and I know just how hard its front-line professionals work and the pressures they are under. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that the Leader of the House of Commons is sitting here and has heard what he has said, and I would certainly support the early introduction of legislation on this matter.

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Points of Order

4.8 pm

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your advice on the tragic death of my constituent, Lucy Meadows, a transgender teacher who was vilified by the Daily Mail and other newspapers? The cause of death is not yet clear and we await the coroner’s report, but the police have said that there are no suspicious circumstances. Miss Meadows apparently complained to the press about their harassment—about them being camped outside her house, their attempts to pay parents to obtain photographs of her, and, failing that, downloading photographs from her family’s Facebook pages. To be on the receiving end of such behaviour must have been tortuous for her. An online petition against the actions of the Daily Mail has now received in excess of 110,000 signatures in just two days. The Press Complaints Commission failed her and is widely considered to be discredited. Therefore, can you, Mr Speaker, advise MPs on how complaints can and should be taken forward in such cases?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for notice of his point of order, and I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing our sorrow at his constituent’s tragic death. I hope he will also appreciate that I am not familiar with the details of this case and that it would be wrong for me to comment on it. Suffice it to say that abuse and vilification of the kind he describes are despicable and intolerable in a civilised society. It is not, however, clear to me that there is a point of order here for the Chair to address. Nor is it obvious to me that it is for me to advise him on how he and other right hon. and hon. Members should proceed in these circumstances. Suffice it to say that he has aired the matter today. The facilities of the Table Office and the Order Paper are open to him, and if, as more information emerges or his interest is extended, he wishes to bring these matters to the House’s attention, he can be sure of having the opportunity to do so.

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Succession to Hereditary Peerages and Estates

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

4.10 pm

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove male-preference primogeniture in succession to hereditary peerages and estates.

This motion is about building fairness, modernity and equality in our society. All hon. Members will agree with the simple premise that women play an integral role in society and that we want them all to have the opportunity to achieve their potential. I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far to increase fairness and equality in society since 2010, through initiating the Lord Davies women on boards review; encouraging women to set up businesses through business mentors; setting up the Women’s Business Council; setting the target that 50% of new appointments to boards of public bodies should be women; announcing a new system of shared parental leave; extending free child care; closing the gender pay gap; and extending the right to request flexible working. All these things will give women a better chance to play their full part in society, in the workplace and in public life.

Today’s motion is another step that needs to be taken to promote gender equality in our society. Currently, for most hereditary peerages, there is male-preference cognatic primogeniture, which means that the firstborn son will, in most cases, inherit the entire estate and that, if there are no sons, it will go to another male descendant. Now is a good time to consider this issue, as the Succession to the Crown Bill makes its way through Parliament. Like the majority of hon. Members, I welcome the changes it will bring. Her Majesty the Queen is leading the way and showing us how the monarchy can change and adapt for modern times, without losing the history and tradition that make it so special and fundamental to our culture.

During the debate on the Bill, many of my hon. Friends in this Chamber and the other place, including the noble Lord Lucas and Baroness Symons, asked why male-preference inheritance would continue to apply in hereditary peerages after being removed from the monarchy. I agreed with the Government that the Bill should focus on the monarchy, but we now have an opportunity to get rid of the current discrimination. The recent changes in the monarchy leave the aristocracy two steps behind, because, as it stands today, a woman such as Her Majesty the Queen can inherit the throne in the absence of men.

The 9 million viewers of “Downton Abbey” will no doubt be familiar with the story where the Earl of Grantham is unable to leave his title and estate to his eldest daughter, Lady Mary. We might think of “Downton Abbey” as depicting a quaint historical era, but that remains the situation today, and I believe that the time is right to address this issue. Hon. Members might ask, “Why bother to change something that affects only very few people?” I personally believe that this is about much more than titles and the aristocracy; this is symbolic. It is about the principles of fairness and equality. I urge the Government to consult, because it is another way to

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show how important women are to society and how much we need women to have an equal role in business, in the community and in the nation.

As many have pointed out, the current situation in the aristocracy is complex, with different rules applying in different family situations. Indeed, the noble Lord Strathclyde, the former Leader of the House of Lords, responding to a question on this issue, said:

“The Government believe that it is time to deal with the issue of succession to the Crown, and there is no simple read-across to succession to the hereditary peerage, which is infinitely more complicated and affects many more families.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 October 2011; Vol. 731, c. 380.]

He was absolutely right, but I was brought up to believe that anything is possible, and I believe we can change things, no matter how complex. Frankly, if we can get 16 Commonwealth realms to agree to Crown succession, I am sure we can achieve this, too.

The current situation is complex. Older baronies were created by means of a writ of summons to Parliament. These baronies became heritable over time and tend to descend through the bloodline, with preference for males, but not excluding females. Later peerages were mostly created by patent. These peerages typically descend to the male heir; however, special remainders have sometimes been granted for war leaders such as Nelson, Kitchener and Mountbatten that give the peerages an extra chance of survival. In Scotland, peerages vary according to their limitation, which could be to a male heir, an heir of either sex or a series of named individuals.

According to “Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage 2011”, there are just 13 hereditary peeresses in their own right: six in England and six in Scotland, while one—Countess Mountbatten—is a peeress of the United Kingdom. In the majority of cases these days, a peerage is a dignity only and is not necessarily bound up with real estate. However, in some cases there is a direct link, known as an “entail”. I will not dwell at length on any individual story that brings to life this unfairness, as these are personal, family situations. However, there are many examples that we can consider, such as Baron Braybrooke, whose title will go to his fourth cousin once removed, rather than one of his eight daughters, whom I am sure are more than competent to succeed. The Duke of Rutland’s three daughters will not inherit their family seat, Belvoir castle. Of the 92 hereditary peers taking their seats in the House of Lords, there are only two women: Lady Saltoun and the Countess of Mar. This is clear evidence that there is something not right about the current system.

I am calling for a consultation on the issue today because I believe that in society we should have equality when it comes to gender. Women have proved time and again that they are more than capable of any task in business, politics, the community or public life. The role of women has changed dramatically in the course of history. In this day and age, it is therefore quite wrong that women are so unlikely to inherit peerages. I agreed wholeheartedly with the noble Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, who put it perfectly:

“If you’re asking me if I find it ridiculous that…a perfectly sentient adult woman has no rights of inheritance whatsoever when it comes to a hereditary title, I think it’s outrageous”.

Gone are the days when daughters in the nobility were simply married off, with titles and estates left to their “warrior-like” sons, who alone were considered trustworthy

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enough to protect the future title and estate. Frankly, that sounds rather laughable now, in a world where girls are significantly outperforming boys in education and where the skills of financial management and accountancy are far more important than those of physical warfare. We have come a long way in terms of women’s rights in many areas—the right to vote, to become a Member of Parliament and even to be Prime Minister. As chairman of the all-party group on women in Parliament, I want to increase the numbers of women in the House of Commons and the other place. This Bill may even be a way of achieving that.

Given that this is a complex issue, I believe the first step is to have a consultation, to find the best approach to bring about this change. Different approaches could be considered, including asking the monarch to change the patent for particular titles; sponsoring a private Bill relevant to a particular case; creating a new statutory framework that allowed families to change the rules voluntarily; or passing an Act of Parliament to create a new statutory framework. The UK would not be trail-blazing in taking this issue forward. In 2006, King Juan Carlos I of Spain issued a decree reforming the succession to noble titles. He said:

“Men and women have an equal right of succession in Grandee of Spain and nobility titles, and no person may be given preference in the normal order of succession for reasons of gender”.

Personally, I would favour the final option: a new statutory framework that would cover all situations, to ensure clarity and efficiency.

The role of women over the centuries has changed in society. The monarchy is about to change to recognise the important role of women. I believe hereditary peerages need to change, too. This is a matter of fairness and it is right that we as Members of Parliament did our best to get rid of discrimination and ensure fairness in all aspects of society. Today, let us celebrate the modern role of women and look to promote equality in all parts of society, so that every woman in this country can aspire to and achieve her potential. I hope the House will support this Motion and give me leave to introduce it.

Question put and agreed to.

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That Mary Macleod, Oliver Colvile, Penny Mordaunt, Yasmin Qureshi, Jane Ellison and Mrs Eleanor Laing present the Bill.

Mary Macleod accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 May, and to be printed (Bill 153).

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I wondered whether the hon. Lady was hailing a taxi. I am afraid that I am not available for that purpose, but I am happy to respond to her attempted point of order.

Caroline Lucas: I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. I know that colleagues will want to get on with the main business, but I wish to raise a brief point of order.

The Justice and Security Bill goes to the other place for its final stages tomorrow, but this House has still not been informed whether the introduction of secret courts affects habeas corpus. Indeed, the House has had no fewer than four different answers from the Minister without Portfolio, ranging from “yes”, “no” and “not sure” to “I’ll check”. Will you rule, Mr Speaker, on whether the Minister without Portfolio should come back to the House before the Bill gets its Royal Assent to tell us what the right answer is?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. It is not actually a point of order for the Chair, but I would say that the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), has been in this House, if memory serves, for more than 42 and a half years and it will be 43 years in June. I think he takes his responsibilities to the House very seriously. If, as a result of the matters described by the hon. Lady, there is a requirement for clarification, I feel sure that the Minister without Portfolio will provide it at the appropriate time. We will leave it there for today.

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Ways and Means

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

amendment of the law

Debate resumed (Order, 22 March).

Question again proposed,

(1) That it is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance.

(2) This Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide—

(a) for zero-rating or exempting a supply, acquisition or importation;

(b) for refunding an amount of tax;

(c) for any relief, other than a relief that—

(i) so far as it is applicable to goods, applies to goods of every description, and

(ii) so far as it is applicable to services, applies to services of every description.

4.22 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): In common with the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), I too drive a London taxi, and no reasonable offer will be refused.

This is the coalition Government’s fourth Budget—a Budget determined to stay the course and fill the sink-hole of debt left to us by the last Administration. Thanks to our actions, the deficit is down by a third—from 11% of gross domestic product under Labour to a forecast 7% this year. It is set to fall even lower to as little as 2% by 2017-18. All the while, we have kept interest rates at a record low and created 1.25 million new jobs while reducing the number of workless households by 250,000.

Local government, which accounts for a quarter of all public spending, is doing its bit to help to pay off Labour’s deficit—and the result? Since the general election, according to the Local Government Association’s own polling, residents’ satisfaction with their councils has increased. Ipsos MORI has found that two thirds of residents have not noticed any changes in the quality of council services. Well-run councils are making sensible savings, protecting front-line services and keeping council tax down. Of course more savings need to be made to pay off Labour’s debt, but we are on the side of people with gumption who protect and enhance public services, so this Budget is about rewarding aspiration and boosting growth; it is about helping businesses to create jobs, and about giving a leg up to wannabe home owners.

The housing market is critical to Britain’s economic success, yet one of the most tragic effects of Labour’s toxic legacy was its impact on that market. Whereas Margaret Thatcher gave a generation the hope of owning their own homes, Labour crushed their dreams, leaving us with a planning system bogged down by arcane rules and regulations, house building falling to its lowest peacetime rate since the 1920s, rising prices, falling mortgages, and tenants with no hope of buying. A lost generation of people were forced to stay where they were, living their best years in the hope that their lottery numbers might come up or the bank of mum and dad would bail them out. This is truly a toxic legacy.

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Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): As usual, the Secretary of State is making a very good case. If most people do not notice any difference in the service provided by local government despite all the cuts, does that serve as a lesson for central Government as well?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. My own Department in central Government has reduced its running costs by 41% in real terms, so we have led by example.

The Government have set about turning things around. This is a complex area, and the solution requires action on multiple fronts. We have taken three important steps. First, we are radically reforming the planning system to crank up the engine and get things moving. Secondly, we are giving builders certainty so that they can get Britain building. Thirdly, we are intervening dramatically to help people step on to the first rung of the housing ladder. It may be helpful if I set out our approach to each of those issues.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State tell me how under-occupancy relates to the mortgage relief schemes that the Treasury announced last week? If, for example, one individual buys a house with three bedrooms, will that person be subject to the under-occupancy tests that apply to those in social housing?

Mr Pickles: I think that only the Labour party would confuse taxation with entitlement to benefit. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, since coming to office we have made great play of the need to release a number of unoccupied houses, and thus far we have made quite a push towards that. Every household in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is now paying £900 to subsidise housing benefit. If his council wants to pay more, it can do so.

Mr Hanson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: No. The right hon. Gentleman has had his chance to intervene, and his intervention was not very good.

Let me deal first with our reforms of the planning system. Labour’s top-down, centralist approach built nothing but resentment. Its regional strategies added a layer of red tape that paralysed planning. By the time of the general election, six years after Labour’s Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, only one in six councils had adopted a core strategy and only one in four had a five-year land supply.

Nor did Labour’s approach lead to better co-ordination. The regional spatial strategies of the unelected regional assemblies contradicted the regional economic strategies of the unelected regional development agencies. Fortunately, the Localism Act 2011 is now scrapping Labour’s regional planning. The national planning policy framework has streamlined 1,000 pages of confusing Whitehall guidance and placed local plans in pole position—safeguarding the green belt, introducing a new protection for valuable green spaces, amending bureaucratic change-of-use rules to make it easier to get redundant and empty buildings back into productive use, and kick-starting brownfield regeneration.

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Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): One innovation that has been introduced is a simplified planning system for business neighbourhoods, but very little progress seems to have been made in implementing that in Trafford Park, in my constituency. What will happen to speed up that process?

Mr Pickles: I will certainly have a look at the particular circumstances to which the hon. Lady refers. I have been pleased to see the growth in neighbourhood plans, which are analogous to what she is suggesting. Indeed, I visited a village in my constituency that is looking forward to introducing them. They give people and businesses a much bigger say.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: Of course I will give way to my favourite Labour MP.

David Wright: I am grateful. City deals offer real flexibility for local communities, and we would like to work with the Department to secure a city deal for Telford. There is Homes and Communities Agency land on the ledger that could be shifted off, through a profit-sharing agreement with the Department, to make sure we get housing land and business development land. Is the Secretary of State willing to meet to talk about a city deal for Telford?

Mr Pickles: This is the second time the hon. Gentleman has asked whether I am willing to see him. I am; indeed, only this morning I sent out, at my own expense, for some high-quality tea and better biscuits for him. We are looking forward to seeing him.

Seven out of 10 councils have published a local plan, and the figure continues to rise. Nearly nine in 10 planning applications are approved—a 10-year high. Indications are that there are fewer planning appeals, meaning that local decision making is to the fore. The latest data from Glenigan show that planning approvals for new homes are up 62% year on year, and 33% up on the previous quarter.

However, brushing the cobwebs off the planning system is only part of the plan. As a result of Labour’s inaction, this country is crying out for more homes to meet that desperate demand, so this Government are helping to get development off the ground. Locally supported, once-mothballed large-scale sites—such as in Cranbrook, in Milton Keynes, in Eastern Quarry and in Wokingham—are now being kick-started. We should contrast that with Labour’s top-down eco-towns, which delivered not a single home.

Our programme is set to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes, almost 63,000 of which are already completed, by 2015. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors says that home sales have reached their highest level in more than two and a half years, while builders from Barratt to Bovis say that Government schemes are driving increased sales, putting people back on the property path.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): We can give moderate support to the expansion of the Firstbuy scheme, which sounds good. Indeed, I recently

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visited such a scheme on the old Jaguar site in my constituency, which has proved a great help. However, does the Secretary of State not agree that making the mortgage expansion scheme available to second home buyers would be quite obscene, given that we are imposing a bedroom tax on those who can ill afford it?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, and if that were a way in which Mrs Pickles and I could obtain a second home in Frinton, it would indeed be a scandal, but that is certainly not the Government’s intention. However, in our endeavours to ensure that I do not end up with a nice little flat in Frinton, we have to be careful not to rule out people whose marriage has just broken down, or situations in which parents are acting as part-guarantors. By September, we will be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman on this issue.

We know that the demand is there, but it is also clear that for many individuals in very good jobs the housing ladder simply remains out of reach. Under Labour the number of first-time buyers plummeted to a 30-year low. Labour’s 2005 manifesto promised 1 million more home owners, but home ownership fell by a third of a million in the last Parliament. The industry is clear about what lies at the root of the problem. The British Property Federation says: