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House of Commons

Monday 11 January 2016

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—

Draft Investigatory Powers Bill

1. Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): If she will ensure that the proposals in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill are limited to the police and security services. [902903]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): A small number of public authorities have the ability to use investigatory powers where it is necessary, proportionate and for limited purposes. All public authorities that have powers to acquire communications data have made a strong operational case to retain those powers. In his review of investigatory powers, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, said that there was no public interest in reducing the number of such bodies.

Stephen McPartland: The United Nations has condemned the Bill, which introduces mass surveillance, as having a chilling effect. Will the Home Secretary be kind enough to clarify how many organisations, including local authorities, and employees would have access to communications data as a result of the draft Bill?

Mrs May: I assure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom does not and has not participated in, or undertaken, mass surveillance. The investigatory powers in the Bill are necessary, and they are used proportionately by the police and other agencies. They are particularly important for the police, including those in his own Hertfordshire force, in dealing with not just terrorists and serious criminals, but the area of child protection, in which he has a particular interest. There is only one new power in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which is access to internet connection records, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that local authorities will not have access to such records.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware of concerns among journalists that these powers, which the security services and the police need to keep us safe, might have a chilling effect on their ability to publish and to report. What steps is she taking to try to guarantee free speech for journalists within the

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Bill while enabling the security services and the police to have access to the information that they require to keep us safe?

Mrs May: I am well aware of the concerns of journalists, specifically about the powers to access information that might lead to the identification of their sources. They feel that that could have a chilling effect. We have already made a change in the code of practice to require a higher level of judicial authority to allow access to something that could relate to journalists’ sources, and we will legislate on that in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The David Anderson report refers to Cambridgeshire county council’s Operation Magpie, which relied on communications data to protect more than 100 elderly and vulnerable persons from attempts to defraud them. Does the Secretary of State agree that such operations may benefit from the powers in the Bill to protect the most vulnerable?

Mrs May: My hon. and learned Friend raises a very important case, and provides a good example of why it is necessary sometimes for local authorities, such as Cambridgeshire county council, to have access to such powers so that they can do that important job of keeping people safe. After the Government were elected in 2010, we increased the requirements on local authorities in terms of gaining access to the most intrusive surveillance powers, but as she makes clear, in trading standards and other such areas, these powers are necessary to keep people safe.

Immigration System

2. Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to prevent abuse of the immigration system. [902904]

3. Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to prevent abuse of the immigration system. [902905]

The Minister for Immigration (James Brokenshire): The Immigration Act 2014 and related changes have expedited the removal of more than 2,000 foreign national offenders from this country and stopped illegal migrants from having access to services such as bank accounts, driving licences and rented accommodation. The Immigration Bill will go further, enabling the seizure of earnings from illegal workers, further penalising rogue employers and extending the deport first, appeal later principle to more cases.

Michael Tomlinson: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but immigration remains one of the top concerns of my constituents. With that in mind, what assessment has the Minister made of the Government’s proposed right-to-rent scheme on those who are here illegally?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issues surrounding right to rent, which we intend to roll out nationally next month. It is a matter of ensuring that property is available only to those with a right to be

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in this country. We undertook an assessment of the first phase of the scheme in the west midlands. That found that the scheme was operating as intended, which is why we are now rolling it out further.

Chris Heaton-Harris: Can the Minister outline the steps the Government are taking to root out the problem of illegal working in economic sectors where skills shortages are pronounced, such as the construction and care industries?

James Brokenshire: We are certainly looking at several employment sectors that may face such risks, such as construction and care, to which my hon. Friend refers. I have had meetings with representatives from those industries and others to see what further steps can be taken to prevent that from happening, and making sure that employers have adequate awareness of the steps that they can take. We have doubled the maximum penalty for employing an illegal worker to £20,000, and through the new Immigration Bill we intend to tighten those restrictions even further and make it easier to prosecute rogue employers.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): May I draw the Minister’s attention to an abuse of our immigration system by the Indian authorities in the case of my constituent, Paramjeet Singh, to whom we have granted refugee status from India and indefinite leave to remain in the UK? But while he was on holiday in Portugal last month with his wife and four British children, he was detained with a request for deportation by India. Does the Minister agree that if the Indian authorities have a case, they should take it up with the UK Government? Will the Minister put the case to his counterparts in Portugal and the European Commission to secure Paramjeet Singh’s early return to his family in Smethwick?

James Brokenshire: I will look carefully at the case that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, specifically at the facts and circumstances which he has drawn to the attention of the House, and I will write to him.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Despite measures having been taken by the Government, the number of sham marriages appears to be on the increase. In 2014, the last year for which we have figures, a total of 2,486 weddings were visited by enforcement officers. Will the Minister look at the possibility of giving registrars the power to cancel ceremonies, thus relieving the pressure on Home Office officials to crash weddings in this way?

James Brokenshire: The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee and I have debated these issues in the past. Since April last year 12, 253 notices to marry have been referred to the Home Office through the new arrangements. Of these, 160 proposed marriages were considered a sham, and a further 99 marriages were prevented because couples did not follow the necessary requirements and co-operate with the investigation. This is a serious matter on which we have already taken action. Between April and September last year we arrested 528 individuals and removed more than 279 people involved in sham marriages, underlining our focus on that issue.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Would my right hon. Friend reconsider the question of ID cards, not only in respect of immigration and the introduction of many digital services for all our individuals and

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citizens, but particularly in regard to national security and the protection of all our citizens from terrorism? Does he agree that this is now a matter of national security?

James Brokenshire: My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the first steps that the coalition Government took was to respond to the Labour Government’s proposals on that issue, which we continue to judge was the right thing to do. We are taking various measures to enhance the security of this country, but our judgment remains that ID cards are not the right way forward.

Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that other countries with ID cards find it much easier to identify, detain and deport illegal immigrants? Given the support now on both sides of the House, may I suggest that the Government re-open the agenda for the introduction of ID cards, which we understood they dropped under pressure from the coalition?

James Brokenshire: Many of the issues that we face in relation to deportation involve foreign nationals—obviously, by the nature of the work. We have introduced biometric residence permits, and in her speech last October to the Conservative party conference the Home Secretary referred to the further measures that we are taking so that we can remove those people who do not have authority to be in this country. We are using biometric residence permits and other means to achieve that.

Online Crime

5. Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): What estimate she has made of the number of crimes committed online in 2014-15; and how many of those crimes were (a) recorded, (b) investigated and (c) resulted in a conviction. [902907]

The Minister for Security (Mr John Hayes): Crime is falling and crime is changing. Different types of crime may have an online element and an accurate national picture is critical to informing our ongoing response to cybercrime. That is why the Office for National Statistics recently published, for the very first time, initial estimates of the numbers of frauds and cybercrimes committed per year.

Liz Saville Roberts: None the less, the organisation Kick it Out, which campaigns to kick racism out of football, recorded more than 130,000 instances of racist abuse of footballers and their teams via social media in 2014-15, and the chief constable leading on digital crime fears that the police are on the verge of being overwhelmed. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that all police officers have the capacity to make risk-based assessments and to prioritise this ever-increasing crime appropriately?

Mr Hayes: The hon. Lady makes a good point. She has focused her parliamentary career so far on the issue of online harassment, although she did not mention that in detail today. She knows that it is something that she and I both take very seriously. We welcome the preliminary trial by the Office for National Statistics to better reflect fraud and cybercrime in statistics. Having a more accurate picture will allow us to take the kinds of steps that she has advertised to the House today, because we will then be able to get a better idea of the

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scale and character of cybercrime and to do the preparatory work that she has requested. I take this seriously, as she clearly does, and I know that the whole House will join us in that.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): It is not just harassment that is done over the internet; it is also phishing and fraud. Does my right hon. Friend not think that the Home Office might have a role to play in educating internet users in how best to protect themselves against such cybercrime?

Mr Hayes: As I said, when we get to understand the figures more accurately—the measures we have taken to look at these matters in greater detail will allow us to do that—my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we will need to be precautionary in our approach. He is also right that fraud is a significant element of the problem. In dealing with online fraud, we need to measure what is happening, look at what can be done about it and take appropriate action, and that is exactly what we will do.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP): The media today reports that as more people use social networking apps such as Tinder and Grindr, reports of burglary and rape are rising. Can the Minister outline what assessment the Home Office has made of the problem and how it plans to attack it across these islands, in co-ordination with the devolved Governments?

Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have a national cyber-security programme. We have invested more than £90 million in this Parliament and the previous Parliament to bolster the law enforcement response, and we will continue to make that investment. Indeed, the Government have committed to spending £1.9 billion on cyber-security over the next five years, including tackling cybercrime. It is about resources, earlier identification and preparation, but it is also worth saying that we have established the national cybercrime unit, so the Government are doing more, taking the steps necessary, tackling this seriously, listening and learning—unafraid of taking action.

Contraband: Entry into UK

6. Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to stop firearms, illegal drugs and other contraband entering the UK. [902908]

The Minister for Immigration (James Brokenshire): The United Kingdom’s border controls are among the toughest in the world. Border Force works closely with other law enforcement agencies, including the National Crime Agency and the police, to target and disrupt freight, international post, vehicles and vessels attempting to smuggle prohibited and restricted goods, such as firearms and illegal drugs, into the UK.

Jeremy Lefroy: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he expand on how the National Crime Agency is co-operating with authorities overseas to protect Britain from serious organised crime?

James Brokenshire: The National Crime Agency does vital work, both here in the UK and overseas, to track down the source of plots and conspiracies, as well as to

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disrupt the activity of organised crime groups. It has been crucial in recent operations, for example in arresting those suspected of drug smuggling offences in Greece, intercepting shipments of cocaine passing through the English channel and cracking down on Europe-wide people smuggling operations. The NCA is increasingly showing the importance of that international work, and equally it is working through organisations such as Europol to show that we have the best intelligence and good co-ordination to combat organised criminality.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Given that at least 67,500 small planes or boats landed at British ports or airports unchecked by Border Force, does the Minister have any concerns that that might be a route for illegal drugs or firearms?

James Brokenshire: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, through his experience of being a Home Office Minister, of the steps that are taken by all our various agencies in looking at each potential way in which people may smuggle into this country. We are improving the systems through which general aviation reports are captured in order to ensure that we are tackling non-compliance. We are also working through air traffic control to track flights that fail to report and, through improvements to legislation, take action against those who fail to comply with the requirements. We remain focused on these issues.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Which port or airport sees the biggest flow of illegal drugs into the United Kingdom?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend seeks to draw me into issues that we do not comment on. We do not comment on specific issues or particular ports, but I can assure him that Border Force, the National Crime Agency and others take an intelligence-led approach to the way in which people and technology are deployed in order to have the most effect in confronting the criminals who are trying to smuggle stuff into this country.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The single largest item smuggled into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland is illicit fuel. Last month, the Republic of Ireland produced a report that showed that in one month alone €316,000 was spent on cleaning up sludge from waste illicit fuel. Will the Government review the markers that are used in our British fuels? The Dow ACCUTRACE marker is a dud because it can be removed.

James Brokenshire: The National Crime Agency, working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, is looking at all threats across the border from the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, we have very good relations with the Government there. I will refer the hon. Gentleman’s comments to other colleagues across Government who take a direct interest in this.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Perhaps the most lethal weapon of mass destruction is the AK-47 and similar small arms weapons rather than any nuclear weapon. The Government have done a huge amount in the arms trade treaty. As of December 2015, 79 countries had ratified the arms trade treaty, while 53 have signed it but not ratified it. What more can the Government do

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to deal with and tackle the illegal supply of weapons across borders and get those countries to ratify the treaty?

James Brokenshire: We are taking this forward at a European level. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in discussions with other European leaders on how best we can co-ordinate with and lobby Governments beyond Europe as well, to share the focus that we as a Government have on confronting the smuggling of weapons and ensuring that this issue is dealt with even more firmly.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I raised concerns about Hull’s port security with the Home Secretary on 16 November and followed that up with information to her office on 18 November. In the light of today’s reports in The Guardian by Vikram Dodd about ferry security, what additional steps might be introduced to increase security at our ports?

James Brokenshire: I cannot comment on the individual case that the hon. Lady mentions, but I can say that we take seriously the issue of our ports, and indeed the juxtaposed ports in northern France. We have maintained 100% screening checks on those coming through. Our introduction of operational and technological improvements has prevented nearly 70,000 illegal entry attempts through those juxtaposed ports.

Police Services: Co-operation

7. Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): What steps she is taking to promote co-operation between police services. [902909]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): The Government are supporting local policing leaders to invest in cross-force capabilities and collaborative initiatives by protecting police funding over the course of this Parliament, using the police innovation fund to incentivise collaboration, and providing new transformation funding to drive further investment and innovation.

Neil Carmichael: That is a very encouraging answer, but bearing in mind the work of the ministerial taskforce on child protection, what steps is the Home Secretary taking to make sure that the police co-operate well with other agencies in schools, in the healthcare system, and in social work?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend raises a very important point about the police’s interaction with other agencies in dealing with child protection. On Friday, I visited a school and talked to people there about the work they do with the multi-agency safeguarding hub in bringing together police and various parts of the school and the local authority to deal with those issues. We recognise the role that schools have to play, including through personal, social, health and economic education and through sex and relationships education. We also announced in March, when we launched our “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report, that we will be looking at the training of staff, to enable them to be better able to spot the signs of where children may be being exploited in that way.

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Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Home Secretary aware that, although there is a lot of good co-operation across the police services in Yorkshire, many criminals in our part of the world flee to Pakistan and, given that we do not have an extradition treaty, that is becoming a great burden on the police services when dealing with very serious crimes?

Mrs May: I am, of course, aware of a small number of particular cases where concern has been expressed. I would not want to comment on individual ongoing police investigations, but both we and the police recognise the significance of the issues. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman says, some of the cases involve very serious crimes indeed.

Ben Howlett (Bath) (Con): As my right hon. Friend will know, Avon and Somerset police and Wiltshire police are working together strategically to help increase efficiency. The police and crime commissioner elections are coming up in May. Does she agree that PCCs across the south-west should work together to help merge the authorities in order to not only increase the efficiency of the police, but help tackle cross-authority crime?

Mrs May: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Some weeks ago, I visited the new combined firearms training facility that is being used in that way by the Avon and Somerset, Wiltshire and, indeed, Gloucestershire forces. That is a very good example of collaboration. It is absolutely right that police and crime commissioners should also be looking for ways in which they can collaborate, not just in relation to the police, but, increasingly, in relation to fire services.

Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab): Such co-operation is vital for the Disclosure and Barring Service to meet its target of 40 days to deal with applications, but it is taking much longer in many cases, including that of a constituent of mine who has been waiting five months since his initial application, causing serious hardship. Is the Home Secretary aware of such delays, particularly within the Metropolitan Police, and what steps will she take to correct the situation?

Mrs May: I assure the hon. Lady that I am aware of the delays taking place in the Metropolitan Police, which is a matter that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) is taking up and looking into in detail.

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): Northamptonshire has been extremely innovative in developing new policing models, particularly in relation to rural crime, so what steps will the Home Secretary take to share that best practice nationally?

Mrs May: Northamptonshire has indeed taken a number of initiatives and I am very pleased to say that, in collaboration, the police and crime commissioner, Adam Simmonds, has been particularly innovative in his thinking, looking at ways in which collaboration, not only between police forces but with other agencies, can take place. It is part of the role of the College of Policing to ensure that good practice, where it occurs,

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is spread so that other forces are aware of what action can be taken, to help them deal with the same issues, such as rural crime.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Could the Home Secretary update us on the progress she is making on co-operation between emergency services, be they the police, the NHS or the fire services?

Mrs May: Yes, I will refer later to some of the steps the Government are taking in relation to that collaboration. We are encouraging police forces and fire services in particular to look for collaboration where they can find it. In some parts of the country, such as Northamptonshire, the police and crime commissioner is also actively looking to see what action can be taken in relation to ambulance services, too.

Net Migration Figures: International Students

8. Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): What her policy is on the inclusion of international students in net migration figures. [902910]

The Minister for Immigration (James Brokenshire): The independent Office for National Statistics includes international students in its net migration calculations. Like other migrants, international students who stay for longer than 12 months have an impact on communities, infrastructure and services while they are here. We continue to welcome the brightest and best to study at our world-leading institutions. There remains no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to study in the UK.

Mr Sharma: The Minister will be aware that the UK Statistics Authority and others have expressed concern about the robustness of the international passenger survey and that, therefore, the contribution of students to net migration may be significantly lower than thought. How will he ensure that immigration policy is made on the basis of good evidence?

James Brokenshire: It is the Office for National Statistics that provides the figures. It includes international students in its net migration calculations, as does Australia, Canada and the US. We keep such issues under review all the time, but I underline to the hon. Gentleman that changing the way we measure migration would not make any difference to our policy because there is no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come here to study. We certainly remain open to attracting the brightest and the best.

Mrs Flick Drummond (Portsmouth South) (Con): In Portsmouth, there are 4,000 international students from 130 countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that they help the immediate economy, but that the relationship between such foreign students and Britain should last a lifetime and helps the long-term political and economic future of Britain?

James Brokenshire: The Government certainly recognise the benefit that international students bring in enriching so many of our university campuses. We want to continue to attract international students to study at our world-leading universities. It is important to note that, since 2010,

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university visa applications from international students have increased by 17%, and by 39% for Russell Group universities.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Is the Minister not concerned that the word has increasingly gone out to countries such as India and China that Britain is no longer as welcoming a place for international students, and that that is affecting our long-term business relationships quite seriously?

James Brokenshire: No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. When we look at the students coming from China, we can see that the numbers have increased by about 9%. The way in which international markets operate can sometimes be quite complex, particularly in countries such as India, where the use of agents can be important. When I go to India later this year, I will certainly underline the clear message that the UK remains an attractive place for students to come to study.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): We all welcome international students, but what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that international students who overstay are removed?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend highlights the important point: we want to attract students to come to this country to study, but we also want to ensure that they leave at the end of their time. That was a particular problem under the previous Labour Government, but we are using exit check data to work with the university sector to see that students leave when they have completed their studies.

Police Funding Formula

9. Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab): What recent progress she has made on reviewing the police funding formula. [902911]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): I announced in the House before Christmas that I was delaying the implementation of the new funding formula. We are considering the next steps, especially in the light of the excellent spending review settlement on behalf of the police that the Home Secretary has managed to get. I will update the House on the decisions I will make in the near future.

Helen Hayes: In the autumn statement, the Chancellor said:

“I am today announcing that there will be no cuts in the police budget at all. There will be real-terms protection for police funding.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1373.]

We seem to have smoke and mirrors on police funding, because we now know that the draft settlement for the Metropolitan police in fact contains a 10% cut. That is in a context of increasing need, not least the need to investigate allegations of child abuse that occurred in the past. That need will increase as the Goddard inquiry gives victims and survivors the confidence to come forward. Will the Secretary of State commit to resource such investigations separately within the new formula

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so that they can be completed quickly and so that the perpetrators, many of whom are now elderly, can be brought to justice before it is too late?

Mike Penning: I do not recognise the figure of a 10% cut to the Metropolitan police, and neither does the commissioner nor the Mayor. I think the level of spending was a surprise to Labour Members, considering that they wanted a 10% cut across the board. We did not go along with that.

18. [902924] Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): May I press the Minister, when there is a review of the funding formula, to take into consideration the additional costs involved in policing rural areas such as Shropshire?

Mike Penning: When the previous Government announced a review—in 2006, I think—that was one of the reasons why they looked at the funding formula so closely. Yes, we most certainly will look at funding for rural constituencies and rural police forces, just as we will look at why that is so opaque under the present system.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The police were the unsung heroes of the floods crisis, which was the latest example of the growing pressures on a diminishing police service. The Policing Minister was right to apologise for the omnishambles of the chaos over the police funding formula. Will he also admit that it is simply not true that there will be, in the words of the Chancellor,

“no cuts in the police budget at all.”?—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1373.]

Mike Penning: I visited Lancashire last Thursday on my first visit as the fire Minister as well as the Policing Minister. Although I absolutely praise the work of the police force, which went way beyond what we would expect any of our officers to do, all the other emergency services did so as well. The chief constable thanked me for making sure that there were no cuts.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that when the precept is taken into account, it could mean extra funding for the police of up to £900 million across the country by 2019-20?

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If police and crime commissioners take the opportunity of the precept increase, it will amount to an increase of just under £1 billion or just over £900 million, rather than the cut of 10% that the Labour party wanted.

Immigration of Children

10. Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East) (Ind): Under what circumstances her Department permits the immigration of children to join relatives living in the UK. [902912]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Karen Bradley): The circumstances in which a child can come to the UK to join relatives living here are set out in the immigration rules. We keep

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the rules under review, but believe that they protect the rights of individuals, while ensuring that there is confidence in an immigration system that is fair.

Natalie McGarry: Save the Children estimates that up to 2,000 unaccompanied children are living in refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk, many of whom have family in the UK. However, the family reunification process between the French Government and the UK Government can take up to 11 months, which results in many children making the dangerous decision to cross the channel. Will the Minister tell the House why the process takes so long and what steps the Government have taken to speed it up?

Karen Bradley: I do not recognise the length of time the hon. Lady suggests the process takes. We work very closely with the French authorities, but let us bear it in mind that those children are in camps in France, which is part of the European Union. It is important that they are processed properly in that sovereign state.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Some 15 years ago, Victoria Climbié came into this country from west Africa and was placed with a so-called aunt in a private fostering arrangement. The Government no longer collect figures about private fostering, so what measures are they taking to ensure that children who come to this country do not have their welfare compromised in the way that she did?

Karen Bradley: My hon. Friend has great expertise in this area, particularly given his time as a Minister. He knows that I take the welfare of children extremely seriously, as does the Home Secretary. We make sure that we have the information we need to protect those children.

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): I spent Friday in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk. I have seen some pretty appalling conditions in my time, including in prisons in Africa and the Caribbean, but nothing could prepare anyone for the squalor of those camps, particularly in Dunkirk. What was obvious, among other things, was that there is simply no process in place on the ground for anyone—particularly children—who is entitled to join their family in the UK. What steps are the Government taking to address that issue and to ensure that children in Calais and Dunkirk who have the right to join their families are able to do so?

Karen Bradley: The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that we work very closely with the French authorities. We are working with them to make sure that their processing is done as swiftly and efficiently as possible. I must repeat that these are camps in France. It is a sovereign country and we cannot interfere in French matters.

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): Just after Christmas, 15-year-old Masud, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, died in the back of a lorry trying to make it from Calais to be reunited with his sister here in the United Kingdom. The Home Office was seeking to defend his exclusion in protracted legal proceedings relating to the Dublin convention. Will the UK Government please reconsider

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their approach to the Dublin rules and, indeed, to their own family reunion rules to avoid similar desperate journeys ending in tragedy?

Karen Bradley: Refugees can seek asylum in the first country in which they arrive in the European Union. I cannot comment on an individual case, but it is important to make the point that people should not try to make that journey illegally. We have a relocation programme to bring 20,000 Syrian refugees to this country. I must restate that France is a sovereign country and we must not interfere in its affairs.

Stuart C. McDonald: Will the Government reconsider the stress and anxiety caused by their policies to children who have one British parent and one non-EU parent? Last week we learned about Andrew McLaughlin, who served this country in Afghanistan and now has to choose between leaving Britain or leaving his wife and child, thanks to the grossly excessive financial requirements in the immigration rules. Why do the Government continue to defend the indefensible?

Karen Bradley: Our current family reunion policy is already more generous than our international obligations require, and we have no plans to widen the criteria under immigration law. We consider each individual on a case-by-case basis, but we have no plans to change the rules.

20. [902926] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The Minister will be aware that 3,500 people died last year trying to reach safety in Europe. Twenty-seven non-governmental organisations and charities wrote to the Prime Minister at the beginning of the year, asking him what the Government would do about extending safe and legal routes to the United Kingdom, and about family reunion. When does the Minister expect a response to be forthcoming, and is it likely to be positive?

Karen Bradley: I am proud of the support that this Government are giving to people in the camps and in the region, where we can support far more people for the same amount of money than if they arrived in Europe. We have a relocation policy for 20,000 Syrian refugees, but it is important that we help as many people as possible, and we can do that best in the region. We must not encourage people to get on those boats, because nearly a quarter of people do not get off at the other end and die in the process.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): Has the Minister had a chance to look at the report by the International Development Committee, which praises the work being done in the region, and urges the Government to reach a rapid decision on the proposal by Save the Children that we should take 3,000 children from Europe?

Karen Bradley: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who I know has considerable expertise in this area. As the Prime Minister said last week, we are looking at those proposals and will come back on that.

Overseas Student Visas

11. Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): How many visas were issued to overseas students to study in the UK in the last year for which figures are available. [902913]

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The Minister for Immigration (James Brokenshire): Some 196,000 study visas were issued, excluding dependants, in the year ending September 2015, and we continue to welcome the brightest and best to study at our world leading institutions.

Mr Robertson: Given that students who come to this country for more than a year are officially classed as immigration, and given the concern about levels of immigration into this country, would it be sensible to give a separate classification to students who come here to study? As we have already heard, those students bring a lot of money to the country, and they extend British influence abroad.

James Brokenshire: As I have already indicated, the Office for National Statistics includes international students in its net migration calculations, and like other migrants, international students who stay for longer than 12 months have an impact on communities, infrastructure and services while they are here. I underline that having those numbers there does not bear on our policy.

Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP): Many businesses in Scotland, higher education institutions, wider civic society and all political parties, including the Scottish Conservatives, support the reintroduction of the post-study work visa as a means to attract foreign students to our universities and boost the economy. Will the Minister join that happy consensus in Scotland, reconsider the Government’s position, and reinstate the post-study work visa?

James Brokenshire: I gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee before Christmas, and underlined the fact that in our judgment, there are already adequate opportunities for students who graduate in Scotland to move into employment that is commensurate with their qualification. I will look carefully at the recommendations of that Committee.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton South West) (Lab): How does the UK’s proportion of the world market in international students last year compare with equivalent proportions in previous years?

James Brokenshire: Numbers of university applications continue to rise, and that underlines the effect of our crackdown on the abuses that we saw under the previous Labour Government, where people were coming to the country who could not speak English and who were going to bogus colleges.

Policing: Administrative Costs

12. Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): What steps she is taking to reduce the administrative costs of policing. [902914]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): The Government have made it easier for the police to do their job by cutting red tape, scrapping bureaucracy, ending targets and giving officers the discretion of their professional judgment. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the number of front-line officers has increased from 87% to 90% in the past 10 years.

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Dr Murrison: The TaxPayers Alliance and HMRC have made clear that they consider Wiltshire to be both efficient and effective administratively in delivering first-class services, so good governance does not have to be taxing. Is the Minister confident that the existing legislative framework allows sufficient latitude for reforming police and crime commissioners, such as Wiltshire’s Angus Macpherson, to flatten and de-layer management structures and rationalise working practices in the interests of front-line policing?

Mike Penning: The Home Secretary has already announced that we will be bringing forward legislation in this Parliament to give police and crime commissioners the powers they need. Around the country, many PCCs are already collaborating. We are going to head that up here in government.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): There has been a lot of smoke and mirrors from this Government around police funding. Given the specific proposal, which I support, to increase the number of armed units in places such as Cardiff, will the Minister assure us that that will not be at the expense of crucial back-room offices and other front-line policing, such as stopping firearms getting into the country in the first place?

Mike Penning: I can categorically give that assurance, but savings can be made in the back room. We have seen savings made across the country through collaboration with other agencies, in particular the fire service.

Police Grant Settlement

13. Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the police on the police grant settlement. [902916]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): The Home Secretary and I have regular meetings with our police partners on issues including police funding. The Government have already published, on 17 December, the police funding settlement for 2016-17. The consultation will finish at 5 pm on 25 January.

Gerald Jones: The House may be aware of the comments last week by the Conservative police and crime commissioner for Staffordshire that police forces are once again having their budgets cut, despite promises in the spending review. Will the Minister confirm that the message has got back to the Chancellor that his claim that police funding is being protected is incorrect?

Mike Penning: The Chancellor announced a settlement of zero cuts. The Labour party wanted 10% cuts. We did not think that was right and that is why we did not do it.

14. [902917] Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) (Con): Yeovil police station in my constituency is threatened with closure under a local decision. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with funding now safe, proposed closures in areas that can suffer from antisocial behaviour should be paused to allow further consideration?

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The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): Whether police stations are open or not, and where they should be open, is an operational matter for the police force. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s local force commander and the police and crime commissioner have heard exactly what he says, but this is a matter for local policing and not something for the Minister to get involved in.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On the police funding settlement, would it help the Minister if, when the country votes to come out of the European Union, part of the £350 million a week the UK people give to Europe was spent on police funding?

Mike Penning: The Home Secretary negotiated brilliantly the funding agreement for the next four years. That was exceptionally good to hear.

Violence against Women and Girls

15. Maggie Throup (Erewash) (Con): What steps the Government have taken to tackle violence against women and girls. [902918]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): Tackling violence against women and girls is a key Government priority. We have introduced a new offence of domestic abuse and are consulting on new measures to protect victims of stalking. We have already committed £40 million between 2016 and 2020 to support victims of domestic abuse. We will publish shortly a refreshed violence against women and girls strategy, setting out how we will do more still to support all victims.

Maggie Throup: Following the meeting with the Derbyshire police and crime commissioner candidate, Richard Bright, I was shocked to learn that on average between July and September last year one rape a week was reported to Derbyshire police, linked to nights out in Long Eaton, Ilkeston and Derby. Will my right hon. Friend outline what is being done to ensure that victims receive a good level of practical and emotional support following a sexual assault? What can be done to help the police bring predators to justice?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend raises a very important point. First, we have generally seen an increase in the number of reports of rape and other sexual violence. It is good that people have more confidence to come forward, precisely because of the support they now feel they will get from the police and other services. It is, of course, important to ensure that support is available to individuals, for example at Rape Crisis centres. I am pleased to say that over the past five years the Government have made money available to ensure that new Rape Crisis centres have opened, unlike under the previous Labour Government when they were closing.

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): It is believed that 170,000 women and girls in the UK have endured female genital mutilation. It is right that the Government have introduced legislation and are funding projects in Africa and training NHS and education staff, but without significant UK grassroots intervention to change cultural norms, we will never prevent this horrific child abuse.

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When will the Secretary of State change her approach and invest in helping communities to prevent FGM, rather than failing to prosecute once the crime has been committed?

Mrs May: As the hon. Lady knows, we have taken the question of forced genital mutilation extremely seriously, which is why we have significantly strengthened the law on FGM and have issued a range of materials to support professionals in being able to understand these issues and spot signs of somebody being taken out of the country. I commend the work of the all-party parliamentary group on female genital mutilation and, in particular, of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has ensured that information is made available to communities and community groups about what can be done to prevent forced genital mutilation and to ensure that people can spot the signs and stop it taking place.

Topical Questions

T1. [902928] Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): Colleagues across the House will recognise the dedication and commitment of the emergency services in response to the current widespread flooding. It has been a demonstration of public service at its best and a testament to the ability of our police and fire and rescue services to work together to keep the public safe from harm. We believe we must build on this foundation and encourage greater collaboration between local police and fire services—an issue raised in questions previously. On 5 January, the Prime Minister informed the House that responsibility for fire and rescue policy in England had transferred to the Home Office with immediate effect, and I am delighted that the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, himself a former firefighter, is the new fire Minister, in addition to his policing, victims and criminal justice responsibilities.

This machinery of government change is a natural progression of the Government’s work on emergency services collaboration. Police and fire services are sharing control rooms and back-office services, and we will shortly publish legislative proposals to enable police and crime commissioners to take on the governance of local fire and rescue services where a local case is made. I am keen to go further still and apply the lessons of police reform in the last Parliament to the fire and rescue service and ensure that policing learns from the tremendous success of fire prevention in recent years.

Mr Speaker: That was extremely informative but far too long. We need to be briefer from now on.

Mr Burrowes: The Home Secretary has confirmed that the Government’s relocation programme applies to vulnerable Syrian refugees who are also outside camps, but is the programme sufficient, given their number and vulnerability, and, not least, their risk of exploitation by people smugglers?

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Mrs May: Yes, we have extended the list of criteria on vulnerability according to which we take people from the camps, but we have also provided specific expertise—for example, by working with the French Government to identify those who have been trafficked.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): I shall take the Home Secretary back to a question she was asked several times last week but refused to answer. In late 2014, a terror suspect from east London well known to the UK security services skipped police bail and walked freely out of the UK to Syria via Dover. Let me try again: when was she first informed that this individual had absconded and were any checks made on his passport before he left?

Mrs May: I said to the right hon. Gentleman and other of his colleagues last week, and I will say it again today: I will not comment on individual cases because of issues relating to police investigations and proceedings. I would say, however, that this Government have taken significant steps to enhance our border security, including by establishing the UK Border Force, thereby taking it out of the failed UK Border Agency, which was set up by the last Labour Government.

Andy Burnham: That is not good enough. The public are concerned about this and deserve answers. A UK terror suspect broke police bail and walked out of this country unchecked, but it gets worse: yesterday, it was reported that the mastermind behind the Paris attacks last year freely entered this country, through Dover again, despite being known to the authorities in Europe. Is this true, and were any checks made on this individual on his arrival in the UK?

Mrs May: I make it absolutely clear to the right hon. Gentleman that this Government have taken steps to enhance our border security, taken the UK into the second-generation Schengen information system, introduced exist checks, and decided to do what the last Labour Government failed to do: put the UK into the Prüm system.

Andy Burnham: Two straight questions; no answers. On matters as serious as this, that is simply not good enough. Terror suspects are freely walking in and out of the United Kingdom on this Home Secretary’s watch. Terror suspects know the sea border is a weak link, partly because she delayed UK involvement in the Schengen Information System, which would have given the UK access to EU security checks. The British public need answers, not Ministers hiding behind excuses. Will she today order an urgent review of our border security at our ferry terminals and of the police bail regime for terror suspects?

Mrs May: As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration indicated earlier, we take a number of steps in relation to our border security, and indeed always look to see whether more can be done in relation to our border security, but I repeat what I said earlier—indeed, I said it to the right hon. Gentleman last week. The Labour Government had opportunities in relation to SIS II and Prüm. The Labour Government failed to get this country into Prüm; it is this Conservative Government that have taken the action necessary.

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T3. [902930] Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con): What are the Government planning to do to combat knife crime, given that in the last 13 months two young people have been tragically and callously killed by the illegal use of knives in Chelmsford? Also, there has been a rise in the number of crimes committed involving knives, partly due to drug-related incidents and gangs coming out from London.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Karen Bradley): Tackling knife crime is a priority for this Government. Knife crime is 17% lower today than it was in June 2010, but I know that is little comfort to anybody affected in the way that my right hon. Friend’s constituents have been. May I suggest that I meet him to discuss specific measures that could be taken in Chelmsford related to the work we have been doing across the country on gangs and other antisocial behaviour?

T2. [902929] Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): People across the country are rightly very anxious that the Government do everything they can to keep our borders safe at this moment in time. On that basis, for the Secretary of State to stand there and blame a Government that have not been in power for five and a half years is an absolute dereliction of her duty. What can she say to constituents across the country who want to know what she is doing and what responsibilities she is taking to keep our borders safe, in the light of the incidents raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), which people are justly concerned about?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman mentions people’s concerns about border security. It is precisely because this Government recognise the importance of border security that we have taken the steps to enhance our border security that I outlined in response to the shadow Home Security, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). It is this Government that have ensured that the UK is now a member of SIS II and can join Prüm. It is this Government that have introduced exit checks. All these are measures that enhance our border security.

T7. [902934] Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): Following the horrendous attacks in Paris, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that young people’s minds in the UK are not poisoned and that they are not radicalised by the poisonous ideology put forward by Daesh?

The Minister for Security (Mr John Hayes): My hon. Friend will know that much of this is done online, where there are those who are seeking to corrupt people to inspire them to murder and maim their neighbours. Since February 2010, more than 120,000 pieces of unlawful terrorist material have been taken down from the internet, and our Prevent programme works with communities, schools, colleges and local authorities across the country. Mr Speaker, I am intolerant—intolerant of that wickedness which seeks to do so much harm.

Mr Speaker: We are better informed.

T4. [902931] Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Figures released recently from the Met police show that serious youth violence is continuing to rise across the

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capital. Since being elected last year, I have lost three of my constituents to serious youth violence. Young people need to be safe on our streets. It is an issue for all of society. Can the Minister not see the link between rising numbers of knife crimes and falling numbers of police officers? London’s Mayor has been letting people down. Is it not time for a Labour Mayor of London?

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): I did not realise there was going to be a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour candidate for Mayor of London on such a serious subject. It was this Government that brought in the legislation, with the help of Nick de Bois, to ensure that those caught with a knife twice will now get six months. That is the sort of legislation we need, but we need to work harder. The Met police do a fantastic job and we should not run them down.

Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con): Despite the UK’s strong commitment to allowing 20,000 legal refugees into the UK, the fact remains that there are still thousands trying to enter illegally through the channel tunnel. What does the Minister think can be done to protect freight companies such as Broughton Transport in my constituency, which is threatening job losses and the end of the company?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees (Richard Harrington): We fully accept the vital role that hauliers play in the economy, and it is never acceptable for drivers to be attacked or threatened while doing their job. The Government’s funding, improved security measures, port infrastructure at Calais and the surrounding area and the new secure zone will provide a secure waiting area for 230 vehicles. It is expected to be completed by late spring this year. There is an enhanced French police response team comprising more than 1,100 officers. The Minister for Immigration regularly meets the haulage sector, and officials would be happy to meet Broughton as part of this consultation.

T5. [902932] Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): The police are coming under increasing strain, picking up the pieces as other public services are slashed. Last summer, however, a National Audit Office report stated that the Government have little understanding of the crucial job that the police do. Will the Home Secretary advise us of the effort she has put into understanding the increasing demands put on the police?

Mike Penning: I think we all understand what a fantastic job the police do in the 43 forces in England and Wales. For many years, they have done jobs that are not part of their front-line job, particularly around mental health. That is why the triage of mental health and mental health professionals in custody suites and elsewhere is a really important step forward. I fully accept what the hon. Lady says and that we need to do more.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Further to earlier questions on the important issue of illegal immigration, will my right hon. Friend tell us what assessment has been made of the effectiveness of the Immigration Act 2014 in tackling this critical issue?

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The Minister for Immigration (James Brokenshire): Measures introduced in the Immigration Act 2014 included a number of issues confronting the accessing of services by migrants to which they are not entitled. I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that we have revoked more than 13,000 driving licences and deported more than 2,000 foreign national offenders, as well as exercise new powers to block bail when someone is scheduled to be removed within 14 days.

T6. [902933] Paula Sherriff (Dewsbury) (Lab): The Home Secretary will know of the vital work undertaken by the British Transport police to keep the public safe and support policing in her Department. In written answers today, however, Ministers have refused to rule out reducing the number of front-line officers, following the spending review. Does she agree that no police cuts should mean no cuts to policing levels, and will she urge her colleagues in the Department for Transport to rule out such cuts?

Mike Penning: As Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice in the Home Office, I work closely with the Secretary of State for Transport who is responsible for the British Transport police. I am sure he will have heard the hon. Lady’s comments, and I will talk to him about them, but this is not a matter for the Home Office.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Last week, an officer in Crawley suffered an appalling hammer attack. I am pleased to say that he has now recovered. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the professionalism of Sussex police, which now has the prime suspect in custody?

Mike Penning: Let me say what a fantastic job that officer does, along with other officers. I hope that a full recovery happens soon. Body-worn cameras are going to transform policing, particularly assaults on officers, as can be seen from the roll-out of the pilots. Evidence like that is putting away the sort of criminal people who assault our officers.

T8. [902935] Jo Cox (Batley and Spen) (Lab): The message from my constituents who make applications to UK Visas and Immigration is that there is a distinct lack of fairness in the current system. They have a strong sense that the deck is stacked against them, their families and their ability to exercise their legal rights. Will the Minister take steps to address that, not least by allowing staff to exercise discretion in their deliberations in the better interest of fairer decisions on visa applications?

James Brokenshire: I am certainly happy to look at any individual cases that the hon. Lady might wish to send to me. Clearly, there are processes in place to ensure that decisions are fairly made and in a speedy manner.

Byron Davies (Gower) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend update us on progress made under the Khartoum process, which aims to tackle the trafficking and smuggling of migrants between the horn of Africa and Europe?

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James Brokenshire: An officials group meeting took place just before Christmas to give effect to the Khartoum process, and, as a consequence, various actions have been agreed to maintain the momentum.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): The Home Secretary said earlier that she had extended the vulnerable persons scheme to help those who were at risk of being trafficked. On that basis, will she ensure that it is extended further to help vulnerable children, who are at more risk of trafficking and exploitation than anyone else and who are alone and abandoned in Europe? Masud, whom she heard about earlier, suffocated to death in the back of a lorry.

Mrs May: I thank the right hon. Lady for her question, which gives me an opportunity to clarify what I said earlier. I apologise if the way in which I put it gave the wrong impression. I said that we had extended the criteria of vulnerability that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was using to determine who should be resettled under our Syrian refugees resettlement scheme. However, we have also, separately, offered extra support to the French authorities in relation to the identification in the camps of those who have been trafficked.

T10. [902937] Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Given that 1.5 million migrants entered the European Union in 2015 and a similar number will do so in 2016, will the Home Secretary confirm that all European leaders are aware of the impact on fellow EU nations and, in particular, on the United Kingdom, which is already experiencing unsustainable levels of migration?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend will be well aware that, in the renegotiation, the Prime Minister is highlighting migration as one of the key elements. There is a sense of the impact that migration has on populations, which is why it remains a key issue.

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, Simon Danczuk.

T9. [902936] Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Ind): The Minister wrote to me saying that 33,000 asylum seekers were spread across 95 local authority areas. If they were spread across 326 local authority areas, there would be 101 in each area. Why does Rochdale now have 1,071 asylum seekers?

James Brokenshire: We have maintained the dispersal arrangements that were agreed by the last Labour Government, and we continue to operate those arrangements with strategic migration partnerships to ensure that people are well settled in this country.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but pressure was very intense today. Demand usually exceeds supply.

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Prisons and Secure Training Centres: Safety

3.37 pm

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on safety in prisons and secure training centres.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Michael Gove): The safety and welfare of all those in custody is vital, so we take seriously all reports of the mistreatment of those in our care.

On 8 January, the BBC and other media outlets reported allegations of verbal and physical abuse directed towards young people detained at Medway secure training centre, an establishment managed by G4S.  The allegations arise from an undercover investigation for a “Panorama” programme which will be broadcast this evening. It must be stressed that investigative reporting is vital to keeping government honest, and I am grateful to the BBC for the work it has undertaken.

We must treat these allegations with the utmost seriousness. Kent police and the Medway child protection team are now investigating matters on the basis of information shared with them by the BBC, and the police will decide in due course whether criminal charges should be brought.

It would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the specific allegations while these investigations are under way, but I can assure the House that my Department and the Youth Justice Board—under the determined leadership of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord McNally —will do everything we can to assist the police and the local council. Our immediate priority has been to make sure that the young people in custody at Medway are safe, which is why Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and Ofsted visited the secure training centre this morning. They are meeting representatives of G4S, Medway council and the Youth Justice Board to ensure that all necessary action is being taken to ensure the wellbeing of young people at the centre. Inspectors will speak directly to the young people detained at Medway to satisfy themselves that everything is being done to ensure that people are safe. I will also be meeting G4S this week to discuss the allegations and to review its response.

I am under no illusions about the fact that our system of youth justice needs reform. Although youth offending is down, recidivism rates are high, and the care and supervision of young offenders in custody is not good enough. That is why I asked Charlie Taylor, the former chief executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, to conduct a review of youth justice. He will report back later this year with recommendations on how to improve the treatment of young people in our care. But it is not just youth justice that needs reform. We need to bring change to our whole prison estate. There is much more to do to ensure that our prisons are places of decency, hope and rehabilitation.

Violence in prisons has increased in recent years. The nature of offenders currently in custody and the widespread availability of new psychoactive substances have both contributed to making prisons less safe. There is no single, simple solution to the problems we face, but we are determined to make progress. We are trialling the use of body-worn cameras and training sniffer dogs to

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detect new psychoactive substances. We have made it an offence to smuggle so-called legal highs into prison, but ultimately the only way to reduce violence in our prisons is to give governors and all those who work in prisons the tools necessary more effectively to reform and rehabilitate offenders. That is the Government’s mission and one I am determined to see through.

3.40 pm

Andy Slaughter: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question on a most serious and troubling topic involving the mistreatment of children in custody. I am sure the Secretary of State and the whole Government take their responsibilities seriously, not least their duty of care under the Children Act 2004. I am grateful for the steps that have already been taken, which the Secretary of State mentioned, but perhaps he could have met G4S sooner, as I am sure the Government have had some notice. Perhaps he will tell us when he first had notice of these allegations.

As the Secretary of State said, these are serious allegations involving seven members of staff at Medway secure training centre. I also put on record my thanks to the BBC “Panorama” programme for bringing these matters to light.

The allegations involve matters such as slapping a teenager several times in the head; using restraint techniques; squeezing a teenager’s windpipe so as to cause problems in breathing; boasting of mistreating young people, including using a fork to stab one in the leg; equally seriously, the concealing of behaviour by deliberately doing it outside the sight of CCTV cameras; and covering up violent incidents to avoid investigation and the possibility of sanctions against G4S.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, has said that in any other setting the treatment “would be child abuse” and that

“this points to a lack of accountability and culture of impunity.”

Adding to the seriousness of this situation, it is clear that these allegations have come to light only following the investigative journalism the Secretary of State mentioned, rather than following any monitoring or oversight from the Youth Justice Board or Ministry of Justice. Perhaps he would say what the Youth Justice Board monitors have been doing, as they are supposed to be an essential protection in these circumstances.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that a full independent investigation of the circumstances of the abuse will take place and that this will not be swept under the carpet or blamed on a few rogue officers? Any culpability or negligence by G4S management must be exposed. We must also be told whether the Ministry of Justice knew about the alleged abuse before the story was broken by journalists. If it didn’t know, why didn’t it know?

Sadly, this is only the latest in a long line of failures and mismanagement from G4S. In addition to inspection reports at Oakwood prison and the removal of the contract for Rainsbrook STC last September, there have been investigations into a number of deaths in custody or detention, including those of Gareth Myatt and Jimmy Mubenga. There was a debate in the House last week on the appalling healthcare at G4S-run Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. The Secretary of

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State may wish to confirm that the Serious Fraud Office is still investigating G4S over fraud in the prisoners tagging contract.

Given the concerns raised over many years and in many areas about G4S, we urge the MOJ to review all its contracts with that company to see whether it is fit and proper to manage major public contracts. In the meantime it is our belief that G4S should not be considered for bidding for other Government contracts. Can the Secretary of State give me those assurances today?

There are serious questions—I think the Secretary of State acknowledged this—that go beyond G4S. We have to see this in the wider context of a rise in violence in prisons. Figures show that 186 prisoners took their own lives over the 23-month period to September 2015, which means that, over the last two years, on average, a prisoner has taken their own life every four days. Last Friday, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons told “Newsnight” that there were more murders and suicides than there had been in 10 years. We need a cultural shift across the entire secure estate.

To begin that process, we ask that today the Government take immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, STCs and detention centres into special measures to assess the safety and competence of their operation. The Secretary of State has powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to intervene in contracted-out STCs. We urge him to do so and to put in management teams alongside existing staff, particularly those with experience of working with vulnerable children. It is clear that the measures currently in place are not working. It remains for the Secretary of State, who has said that he wishes to reform our prisons, to take action now.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these questions in a serious and sombre way. He is absolutely right to say that the allegations involve children and that we have a duty of care towards them. We must ensure that those who are in our care are treated appropriately and responsibly. “Panorama” informed the local authority on 30 December and appropriate steps were taken by the local authority to ensure that an investigation could be initiated. Of course, Kent police were also informed at the same time, and because a police investigation is necessarily taking place, we have to respect due process.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the allegations that he has listed are very serious, but they are allegations, and it is important that we give G4S and those involved the appropriate time and space to respond in a way that is congruent with the seriousness of the allegations. It is because I take the allegations seriously that I do not want to rush to judgment or do anything that could be used to enable those who might be guilty of serious offences to wriggle off the hook.

I had the opportunity to meet the editor of “Panorama”, as well as the programme’s producer and the director who was responsible for this investigation, on the eve of the publication of the allegations in The Times and elsewhere on 8 January. It was as a result of that conversation that I had discussions with members of the Youth Justice Board and that we took the steps that I outlined earlier in my statement. It was also as result of that conversation that the roles of the YJB monitor and of Barnardo’s, which also visits the establishment,

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were enhanced to ensure that the safety of the children at that centre could be guaranteed to the best of our ability.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that G4S has, in a number of other ways, at times in the past, let the Ministry of Justice and those in our care down. It is also important to stress, however, that there are other institutions run by G4S that continue to do a good job, and it would be quite wrong to make a blanket allegation against the organisation of the kind that I know the hon. Gentleman did not make but that others might be tempted to.

The hon. Gentleman was also right to make reference to the remarks of the outgoing chief inspector, Nick Hardwick. I thank Nick Hardwick for the superb work he has done. His candour and honesty in that role serve only to underline the scale of what we have to do to ensure that children and young people in custody and everyone else in prison are in a safe and decent environment, and nothing will stop us making sure that safety and decency are at the forefront of the changes that we bring to our prison and secure training centre estate.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that the Justice Committee is investigating the treatment of young people within the estate, and all those who are looking into this issue will welcome his measured approach. Does he agree that the Taylor review should not only deal with the present issue but have no constraints placed on either the areas it looks at or its opportunity to consider the learning that is now available on the questions of maturity and of the appropriateness of having very young people in the same establishments as hardened and much older people? Will he also tell us when Charlie Taylor is likely to be able to deliver his report?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those questions. I have stressed to Charlie Taylor that he should consider there to be no limits on his review. I know that my hon. Friend’s points will be well taken by Charlie, and I hope that we will see the fruits of his report in two to three months’ time.

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): Like all hon. Members, we on these Benches were alarmed to see the reports emerging over the weekend about the Medway secure training centre, so we congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on raising the issue today and the Secretary of State on his response. Three questions arise. First, will any review of procedures and practices at training centres include not only Medway and not only contracts involving G4S but similar centres including those run by Serco? Secondly, what improvements can be made to the system of inspection to prevent similar incidents from arising in future? Finally, are any procedures—even something as simple as providing a telephone number—available to the children in those centres to allow such behaviour to be drawn to the attention of outside authorities without having to rely on undercover journalists?

Michael Gove: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He is absolutely right: although there is understandable focus and attention on G4S, not least because of some of the mistakes the company has made in the past, what should concern us is the safety of

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children and young people, rather than the reputation of any particular organisation. There should be no limits on our capacity to investigate wrongdoing, wherever we find it. He rightly says we need to consider and reflect on inspection and monitoring to make sure it is fit for purpose. I have absolute confidence and faith in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, but we do need always to keep under review the powers available to our inspections.

There is a telephone line that enables people in STCs to call Barnardo’s. Barnardo’s was visiting the site three days a week, but that has now been doubled and its volunteers and professionals visit six days a week. We will, of course, do everything we can do to reassure young people that if they are victims of abuse, they will be heard.

Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his response this afternoon, which I found very helpful. I was shocked and appalled to hear the allegations of abuse of young people by staff at Medway secure training centre, a borstal in my constituency. I understand that the allegations result from an undercover BBC “Panorama” investigation and I, too, thank the BBC. I am extremely concerned to learn, however, that the BBC revealed these allegations only at the end of December, with the investigation having run from October to December. I question why authorities were not alerted immediately. Last Thursday, I had a long conversation with Paul Cook, the director of children’s services at G4S, so that he could update me on the immediate action that has been taken at Medway STC following these allegations. Will the Secretary of State assure me that following the conclusion of the police investigation, the Youth Justice Board will review the safeguarding processes and measures in place at Medway STC so that I can be sure, as a constituency MP, that young people placed there are being looked after?

Michael Gove: I take seriously the points that my hon. Friend made, and I will talk to Lin Hinnigan, chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, again later this afternoon in order to take them up. As for the nature of the investigation, I had the opportunity to talk to Mr Plomin, the producer-director of this programme, and he explained to me that in investigative journalism of this kind it normally takes between two to three months to establish and marshal the evidence necessary to build a case worthy of investigation. That is obviously a matter for the BBC, but it should be stressed that this “Panorama” producer-director was involved in the investigation into Winterbourne View as well, so he is someone with a track record in uncovering unacceptable practices.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Yvonne Rose Bailey, a constituent of mine and the mother of Joseph Scholes, specifically raised with me over the weekend the issue of Joseph’s death more than 10 years ago in custody at Stoke Heath. She drew to my attention again the request for an inquiry into deaths that have occurred in STCs and in youth custody. Having been a Minister in the Department, I know that this is difficult, but will the Secretary of State look again at the purpose of an inquest into the deaths that have occurred?

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Michael Gove: Knowing the right hon. Gentleman’s experience, I take his request very seriously and I will come back to him on that.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): A number of my constituents are employed at Rainsbrook STC, near Rugby, where the YJB has taken decisive action by transferring the contract from G4S to MTCnovo—that will take effect in May. For the benefit of my constituents, will the Secretary of State confirm that that transfer is proceeding satisfactorily? For the benefit of the House, will he confirm that the change will prevent the kind of distressing allegations that we have heard today?

Michael Gove: The transfer from G4S to MTCnovo should reinforce some of the changes that are already taking place, which ensure that children and young people are better looked after. I had the opportunity to visit Rainsbrook, where I saw that staff were taking very seriously some of the unhappy practices that had been reported in the past and were determined to improve the care of young people.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Despite what the Minister said earlier, why should organisations with such a dubious record, to say the least, be given such responsibility, as we all agree that the safety of children is of the utmost importance? Why should such work be outsourced in the first place?

Michael Gove: There are two related points. First, there are institutions that are run by G4S, which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, that are well run, that have been inspected and that every respectable observer believes are run in the interests of the inmates in a way that ensures that inmates do have a chance to turn their lives around. More broadly, it is fair to say that, within the secure estate overall, there needs to be a balance between the innovation that can be brought by outside organisations, and the rigour that proper inspection and proper monitoring can guarantee. That balance is always a difficult one to strike.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): Today, Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons have published a report into the G4S-managed Oakhill secure training centre in my constituency. They have awarded the centre a “good” rating and found that young people there feel safe and are being helped in their education. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the staff for all their hard work in raising standards?

Michael Gove: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. We should stress that the overwhelming majority of people who work with offenders—young and old—in secure training centres, young offender institutions and prisons are idealistic figures who do an exemplary job. We take very seriously the allegations that were listed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) precisely because the majority of staff, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend, do this work because they want to improve the lives of those with whom they work.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): In the light of what we have found out from the BBC, will the Secretary of State look again at the Harris report into deaths in

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custody, because the original response from the Government was lamentable? Will he look again at the 30 or more recommendations that were rejected, as some of them could be implemented tomorrow and would save an awful lot of the problems that he is now having to confront?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to Lord Harris for his report, and we accepted more than half of his recommendations. I know that he will appear before the Justice Committee tomorrow, and there will be an opportunity for him to reflect on where we might have gone further. I will look with care and attention at the evidence he gives.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Given that offenders have access to a private phone line, weekly meetings with their social workers, and regular visits from Barnardo’s and NHS nurses, and that all the staff are approved by the Youth Justice Board, does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the face of it, it looks as though there is little more that can be done?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for stressing the range of services that exist to help ensure that young people are kept safe. When an allegation or a series of allegations such as those in the “Panorama” report are made we must of course take them seriously. It is also important to stress that the Youth Justice Board, the Ministry of Justice and others have continually striven over the years to try to ensure that young people are kept safe in custody. Of course we can never do enough, but he is quite right that there have already been interventions that have been designed to ensure that young people are safe.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I am sure that we will all watch “Panorama” with great interest, but, whatever we see, we have all known for years that there were problems with these institutions. That is why we have the recidivism rates to which the Justice Secretary referred. We must not be allowed to scapegoat the staff. They do an exceptionally difficult job, very often picking up the failures of other parts of the public services—the education system, the care system and the social work system. When he comes to give the remit to the inquiry that he has announced today, will he make sure that the work of all those different parts of the public services and others interacts with these young people before they end up in detention and is given proper scrutiny as well?

Michael Gove: That was a typically thoughtful intervention from the right hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. Ideally, we should prevent young people from getting into custody in the first place. Obviously, there are some people for whom custody is an appropriate response, but we should seek to intervene much earlier in the lives of these young people—whether that is through ensuring that they have appropriate education, that there is intervention from social workers in their family circumstances or that the criminal justice system is much more thoughtful in the way in which it treats them.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate both the Opposition Front Bench team on raising this urgent question and the Secretary of State on his response

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to it. Following on from that very thoughtful question, does he think that, given the high recidivism rates among young people in institutions—even well-run institutions—the whole system is not fit for purpose? Will he ensure that his review is as thoroughly wide ranging as it can be, and will he give a date to this House on when it will report?

Michael Gove: Again, I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There are a range of aspects of the way in which youth justice operates that need reform and to change. I will write to him and share with the House a date by which we can expect Charlie Taylor’s report, in order to satisfy the desire which I know is felt across the House for as much urgency as possible in dealing with this problem.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab) rose—

Mr Speaker: Ah! I call Mr Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz.

Keith Vaz: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for reminding me of my names.

I welcome all the steps that have been taken by the Minister. He has acted swiftly to deal with a serious set of issues. When he meets the chief executive of G4S this week, can he ensure that a Home Office Minister is also present? G4S has a number of contracts with the Home Office relating to the removal centres. That would help enormously in dealing with this issue.

Michael Gove: That is a helpful suggestion. There is a joint Minister for the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice. We will do everything possible to ensure that there is as much sharing of information and as much agreement as possible about a way forward with our colleagues in the Home Office.

Ben Howlett (Bath) (Con): As my right hon. Friend will be aware, one of the communities that suffers daily persecution in prisons is the trans community. As the Women and Equalities Committee is about to publish its trans inquiry report later this month, will he confirm that young trans people will be included in the review of youth justice?

Michael Gove: Absolutely.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Given that there are currently record numbers of assaults in prisons, that a third of the deaths in prisons are self-inflicted, and that this year has seen a bigger increase than any other year in violence in our prisons, what is the Minister doing to make young people who are in prison because they have been offenders safe while they are there, in our care?

Michael Gove: Neither I, the Youth Justice Board nor the Ministry are in denial about the scale of the problem that we face. One reason why we initiated this review, which started in September, was that we realised that there was much that needed to be done to improve the care and welfare of young people in custody and those who come into contact with the criminal justice system. One reason why I have responded as I have done today

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is that I am determined to ensure that Charlie Taylor has all the support he needs to make radical suggestions, if necessary, to transform the opportunities available to those young people. But as has been pointed out by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), there are so many different parts in the criminal justice system that relate to the fate of young people and for which this Government are responsible, from social work through education to the secure estate, that we need to be clear that when we come forward with proposals, they are coherent and meet the need of the hour.

Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Locking up young offenders has consequences of all kinds. Do events such as the one in question further persuade the Secretary of State that there is merit in monitoring low-level drug and alcohol offenders, rather than in sending them to prison?

Michael Gove: My hon. and learned Friend has a detailed knowledge of the criminal justice system. It is appropriate and important that the option of custody is always available. There will be some young offenders for whom a custodial sentence is appropriate, but it is also right, in particular where we can keep people out of custody and deal with drug, alcohol or substance abuse or mental health problems, that we make sure that there is an appropriate intervention that keeps them out of the sometimes tough and brutal environment of prison, but only if we can be certain that the intervention is getting their life back on track.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Given the severity of the allegations being made and the seriousness with which we should take the safeguarding issues presented to us, can the Secretary of State inform the House whether the officers concerned at the detention centres are being replaced by temporary personnel while the investigations into safeguarding take place?

Michael Gove: Seven individuals have been suspended. It is my understanding that staffing is at an appropriate level, but during my conversation with the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board I will seek to satisfy myself that we have exactly the level of both staffing and monitoring that we need to keep people safe.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I am pleased that my right hon. Friend referred to body-worn cameras, which are proving to be a vital tool in tackling crime on our streets. Does he agree that they have an important role to play not only in our prisons, but in secure training centres?

Michael Gove: Absolutely. I was fortunate to be here when the Policing Minister pointed out the important way in which body-worn cameras can help in crime detection and in keeping officers safe. The same applies in the secure estate.

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): In 2012 G4S failed to provide security for the London Olympics and the Army had to save the day. It has had to repay

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£110 million for overcharging for security tags, and £4.5 million for overcharging for facilities management at UK courts. Surely its luck is up and it cannot be offered any more Government contracts.

Michael Gove: The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to those past failures by G4S, but I would stress that there are prisons and other facilities run by G4S that do meet a high and exacting standard. Although it is understandable that criticism of G4S will be heard again in the light of these allegations, and that it will become more intense if the allegations are sustained, it is nevertheless important that we take a step back and recognise that it is also the nature of our youth justice system that needs to change.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): On Friday I attended the packed and moving funeral of the son of one of my constituents. His death in custody is currently under investigation. Will my right hon. Friend join me and my constituent in campaigning together for our young people, and indeed all people, in prison to be better looked after?

Michael Gove: I know just how closely my hon. Friend has taken this case to heart. Both the conversations he has had with me and the correspondence he has had with the Department are testament to the fact that he has been moved by the case and is determined to see reform as a result. I can only say that I will do everything I can to ensure that families do not have to live with the tragedy with which the family he so ably represents have had to live.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Does the Justice Secretary think that it is time for a review of the vetting and barring scheme that the Government introduced in the previous Parliament, to see whether it is actually providing the most suitable people to work with young people?

Michael Gove: I know that the hon. Lady has a number of concerns about changes to the vetting and barring scheme. If she has specific concerns about how it might have failed in that area, I would be interested to hear them. More broadly, I absolutely take her point, and it will be the subject of the conversations I have with the Youth Justice Board and others.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State will know that I admire his passion for reform in the Prison Service, particularly in youth justice. Having been a shadow Prisons Minister many years ago, and having faced exactly the same challenges in youth offending and how we look after young people, I find the situation today depressing. Does it not often come back to the absolutely essential principle that we need those children to be looked after and supervised by highly qualified, well-paid, well-trained and well-supervised people? Have this Government not become far too dependent on half a dozen companies that do not have the greatest track record when it comes to recruiting and training those sorts of people?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have the greatest respect for his passion on these issues. I think that he hits a number of nails squarely on the

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head. I do not want to pre-empt the results of Charlie Taylor’s review, but I think that it is important that we review the qualifications and professionalism of those who work in youth justice. One thing that I should say, however, is that it is appropriate for me to thank the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Lord McNally, for the work he has been doing. It is on his watch that the number of young people in custody has diminished and youth offending has fallen. Even as we recognise that there is progress to be made, it is important that we also thank those who have worked in this area in the past few years.

Mr Speaker: We can all be assured that the noble Lord has heard that message in real time.

Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s words today, and I think that most of us would agree that it is absolutely essential that we have reform, particularly in youth justice. Will he consider introducing the duty of candour in the prisons estate, particularly in young offender institutions, because young offenders are extremely vulnerable? The duty of candour was introduced in the national health service only last April. I think that it would be worth while looking at that, because of the need to safeguard young people in custody—sadly, there will always be a need for that. It is absolutely essential that we have that duty, so will he please give it consideration?

Michael Gove: I will ask Charlie Taylor to reflect on the hon. Lady’s thoughtful recommendation.

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): I served on the Committee on the Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, where we argued against the inclusion of the use of restraints to preserve good order and discipline for youth offending, and said that instead force should be used only where there is a danger to staff or the child. Unfortunately, the Minister in Committee ignored this, even though the UN Committee Against Torture had said of the UK:

“The Committee is concerned that the State party is still using techniques of restraint that aim to inflict deliberate pain on children in Young Offender Institutions”.

Does the Secretary of State now regret this decision, and will he amend the legislation accordingly?

Michael Gove: The principles behind MMPR—minimising and managing physical restraint—are designed to ensure, exactly as the hon. Lady would hope, that physical restraint is used only when there is a danger to other prisoners or to the individual themselves, but of course there will be occasions when physical restraint is used inappropriately, and in those circumstances disciplinary or other action may need to be taken.

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Syria: Madaya

Mr Speaker: Before we start exchanges on the urgent question to the Secretary of State for International Development, I wish to record my thanks to the Secretary of State, who is here to answer the question. I am sure that the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), would have done a most admirable job in her stead, but it is much appreciated that she has come here. I want also to record my thanks to the Chair of the International Development Committee, which was scheduled to be hearing from the Secretary of State now but has courteously volunteered to postpone its sitting until half-past 5 in order that she, and the Minister, can be here in the Chamber. That is a very good sign of respect for the Chamber and for the importance of the subject, as well as for the questioner, and I am most grateful for it.

4.11 pm

Jo Cox (Batley and Spen) (Lab) (Urgent Question:) To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the current situation in Madaya and other besieged communities in Syria.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): Thank you for your kind words, Mr Speaker, which are appreciated. I am very grateful to you, and to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), for the chance to discuss this important matter here in the House today.

No one who has seen the pictures coming out of Madaya over recent days can say this this atrocious situation is anything other than utterly appalling. The situation is deliberate and man-made. The Assad regime has besieged the town since July, causing horrific suffering and starvation. I should remind the House that the UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to help ensure, from day one, that people suffering inside Syria have been helped over the past four years.

I would like to update the House specifically on what is happening now. The House will be aware that there are reports that a humanitarian convoy is delivering enough food to all those in Madaya for the next month. In fact, the aid on this convoy is UK funded. We have allocated about £560 million to help people inside Syria. That is partly delivered out of Damascus, which is about 40 km from Madaya, with the consent of the regime, as well as across borders from neighbouring countries, without regime consent. This sits alongside all the work that we are doing to help Syrian refugees across the region and outside Syria. Our overall response of just over £1.1 billion for Syria and the region is our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis, and it makes us the second largest donor after the US.

We have lobbied hard for UN Security Council resolutions 2165 and 2191, which has now been superseded by resolution 2258, enabling the UN to deliver aid across borders without the consent of the regime. That is absolutely pivotal for us in order to be able to get to the people we need to get to. We have to remember—this is a very important point for the House—that the people of Madaya are not alone in facing these horrors. In fact, they represent just 10% of those people in besieged areas and just 1% of those living in so-called

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hard-to-reach areas in Syria. About 400,000 people now live in besieged areas like Madaya, and about 4.5 million in total live in hard-to-reach areas across Syria.

Across Syria, Assad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully impeding humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. It is an outrageous, unacceptable and illegal mechanism to use starvation as a weapon of war. The most effective way to get food to people who are starving and to stop these needless and horrific deaths is for Assad and all parties to the conflict to adhere to international humanitarian law, so right now I call on the Assad regime and all parties to the conflict to allow immediate and unfettered access to all areas of Syria, not just Madaya.

We will not stop in our fight, whether it be through hard work on a political solution that will deal with the root cause of the problem or through our humanitarian efforts, which provide immediate, life-saving relief. This shocking situation underlines the vital work of aid agencies and shows how important it is that they can have the assurance of knowing that they have the resources to keep going. It also underlines the importance of next month’s Syria conference in London, which we will co-host. I look forward to further questions from Members.

Jo Cox: I thank the Secretary of State for her response. I am sure she will agree with the following quote:

“In order to break the siege, you need to first break the silence surrounding it.”

Those words were spoken by an individual in Yarmouk—a camp in Syria’s capital, Damascus—which was besieged for two years by the Syrian Government, causing a reported 200 people to die of hunger. It should not have taken an international outcry on this scale to agree what is a nominal agreement on access to just one small community of 40,000 people out of up to a potential 1 million currently living under siege in Syria.

As we know all too well, it is the Assad regime that is primarily responsible for the policy of sustained, systematic starvation of the population of Syria. Of the areas under siege, 52 are under Assad control, two under rebel control and one under ISIS, so let us be clear: he is responsible for 99% of those areas under siege.

I would be honoured if the Secretary of State could reply to a few questions. First, UN Security Resolution 2165 states that

“United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines”.

Does she agree that, to date, the UN has not pushed the envelope and used that clear authorisation to break the siege not just in Madaya, but country-wide?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State demand answers from the UN on why it is still waiting for permission from Assad when resolution after resolution states that that is not necessary? It has the authority and the mandate to go in right now. Thirdly, will the Secretary of State ask the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs why certain besieged areas are not yet classified as such? For example, why is even Madaya not classified as besieged in the latest OCHA report to the Security Council?

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Fourthly, does the Secretary of State agree with me, Médecins sans Frontières and other aid agencies that one-shot distribution to Madaya and other places will not alleviate the problem in the months to come or deal with the wider issue country-wide? Sustained and ongoing access is needed. What measures will the Government take from today to make sure that that pressure is maintained?

Fifthly, does the Secretary of State agree that, as the second largest donor, we have a critical role to play in making sure not just that next month’s donor conference is successful in raising the significant amount of money needed, but that that aid actually reaches Syrian children? We play a welcome role as the second biggest donor to the country, and it is critical to get access.

Finally, does the Secretary of State agree that, if the UN fails to negotiate and agree sustained, ongoing access to those populations under siege, we should start contingency planning for RAF food drops? It has worked before—we have seen it happen. I was an aid worker for more than a decade and I have seen the difference that airdrops can make. Will she investigate whether that is a viable option at this time?

Justine Greening: I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I underline that all parties to the conflict, including Assad, are besieging various parts of the country, so I condemn all of them.

The hon. Lady mentioned OCHA, which is the UN relief organisation that co-ordinates the overall response of UN agencies on the ground in such situations. I spoke to Stephen O’Brien earlier today to go through the latest UN assessment of the situation on the ground. At that stage, the aid convoy had reached the town lines, as it were, but had not passed the border of the town. There are some reports that the aid convoy has now gone into the town.

As much as anything else, the challenge on the ground is to have a viable UN operation that can be carried out safely. In fact, 42 UN aid workers and people delivering aid on its behalf have already lost their lives in the Syria effort, and 40-plus aid workers and UN workers have lost their lives delivering humanitarian aid in Yemen since mid-December. The reality is that we need some sort of agreement on the ground, because if we do not, it will simply be unsafe to deliver aid. Indeed, if there is no agreement with warring parties on the ground—incidentally, such an agreement is part of international guidelines in this area—there is a real danger that the aid will end up in the hands of the very people who are causing the misery in the first place.

I assure the hon. Lady that everyone working on the crisis—I have been involved with it for some time—has no thought in mind other than to get aid to all the people who are desperately in need. That is why we condemn utterly the fact that international humanitarian law is routinely being broken. We often have challenges in reworking aid access when territory switches from one military group to another, and we have to work through such difficulties on the ground every day. It is important to take safety into account, because if we do not, there is a real danger that any system to deliver aid within Syria and similar countries will break down entirely.

I can assure the hon. Lady that there are such discussions. I have regularly and routinely pushed UN agencies on their need to remain impartial, but not to get into

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unnecessary and inappropriate negotiations, if I may call them that, with the regime. They should not have to make choices about where they deliver aid; aid should go to where it is needed. I and the UK Government, through me or through officials, reiterate that point virtually daily. The UN system agrees with that, but we also need to make sure that UN workers are safe.

The issue of how to protect people caught up in this crisis will be at the heart of the forthcoming conference. That will sit alongside two other strands: one is to have a pledging conference to make sure that UN agencies and non-governmental organisations can get the significant resourcing they need to deliver aid on the ground; and the second is about education and the kind of jobs needed for the people caught up in the crisis, so that remaining close to home in the region is a viable option for them.

The hon. Lady highlighted the children caught up in this crisis. If there is a face of this crisis, it is one of a child. If we look at the people who are left in Madaya, we can see that they are predominantly women and children, which is why the situation unfolding there is so dreadful. As she pointed out, that situation is one of many in Syria right now that, all too often, are happening away from the cameras.

The hon. Lady was right to raise the issue of ongoing access. Frankly, the transparency of the media reporting about Madaya and the profile that the town has received have helped to ensure that the regime felt it needed to provide access. I condemn the fact that it takes the BBC, Reuters and other news agencies to have to report what is going on there for the regime to respond. Such an approach is outrageous, unacceptable and illegal.

There are many things in this world—including at the UN Security Council, which I had the privilege of chairing in November—on which we cannot agree. Finding a long-term peaceful resolution to the Syria crisis will obviously be complex and require significant diplomatic effort, but one thing on which we should be able to agree is the need for adherence to international humanitarian law. I assure the House that I will continue to press for that right through this crisis until we find a peaceful resolution in Syria.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): May I say to my right hon. Friend how glad I am that our country is the second biggest donor to Syria and that Britain has sponsored the aid convoy to Madaya? Does she agree that the appalling and unspeakably cruel acts that have been visited on mainly women and children in Madaya and elsewhere amount to a fundamental breach, even in such a barbaric conflict, of all the laws of war, and are thus war crimes? Does she agree that those responsible will be brought to justice, and that the British Government will see to it?

Justine Greening: This is a clear breach of humanitarian law. We cannot see those who perpetrate these sorts of crimes and illegalities go unpunished. The system relies on there being no impunity for people who are involved in perpetrating such atrocities.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Part of the unfolding horror of the Syrian civil war has been the tactic of siege and counter-siege. The Secretary of State will be aware that only 10% of the UN’s requests to deliver aid to people in besieged and

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hard-to-reach areas were granted, yet that is where 4.5 million Syrians live. The Opposition absolutely support her call for Syria and other combatants to offer humanitarian access and to stop flouting international law. Does she agree with me that while in the short term we have to get aid to these communities and we have to get Syria and other combatants to stop flouting international law, in the medium term there has to be a political solution and an end to the horrific civil war in Syria, and that must involve not just the west and the UN, but the key regional players on the ground?

Justine Greening: I do agree with that. If this situation shows us anything, it is that Assad can have no place in Syria’s future. How can people living in besieged areas such as Madaya ever realistically be asked to live under the leadership of a man who is willing literally to starve them to death? The only way in which we will tackle this situation is through tackling the root cause of the conflict. That will require a regionally owned response in the end. Of course, it requires other countries, such as Russia, to be around the table. I want to hear condemnation of these breaches of international humanitarian law from all those people who have stood alongside the Assad regime. They need to play their role in helping us to get aid through to the people who need it.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), my near neighbour in west Yorkshire, on securing the question. The horrors of Syria transcend party politics. I am proud that the United Kingdom is taking the lead in delivering humanitarian relief in Syria. I visited Domiz refugee camp on the Syria-Iraq border. Will the Secretary of State continue to rule absolutely nothing out in helping civilians in Syria, even if it means looking seriously at Royal Air Force aid drops?

Justine Greening: We do not rule anything out. The key thing that we always consider is what is the most effective way to get to the people in need. The challenge when using military assets, particularly in the context of the airdrops that are being discussed, relates, as much as anything else, to the practicalities of dropping food and water from what would need to be very great heights to do it safely, while targeting them at the people who actually need them, as opposed to risking them ending up in the wrong hands. Additionally, there is the need to make sure that there are the logistics on the ground to get that aid from wherever it arrives to the people who are most at risk of death and starvation.

Right now, what will hopefully be happening, not just in Madaya but in two other besieged communities quite close by, is not only that food has got into the town, but that it will be directed to those—particularly children—who are most acutely malnourished. As the House will start to see, this is not just about how we get food and supplies into a community and area; it is about ensuring that we have people on the ground to distribute that aid fairly.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): People in Scotland and across the country have been horrified by the images and stories coming from Madaya, and we condemn the use of starvation as a weapon of war. People are calling for airdrops. We were told about the logistical capabilities of the RAF and the precision with

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which it could hit military targets, so why cannot those logistical skills and precisions be applied to the dropping of food? Does the Government aid that the right hon. Lady mentioned come from the £1 billion of aid announced by the Prime Minister, or is it from previously committed funds? If we are to rely on land convoys, how can we at the London conference—and, indeed, beforehand—ensure preparation so that as soon as access to those sites is assured, land convoys can be mobilised as quickly as possible?

Justine Greening: I mentioned some of the challenges of using different routes, other than those on the ground—as I said, Damascus is literally 40 km from the town of Madaya. The issue is not about whether there is sustenance and humanitarian supplies in the area—it is there—but about ensuring that we get it from the centre of Damascus to those people who are starving. That is why this situation is so utterly atrocious and should be condemned. Food is within the proximity of the people who need it, and it is being prevented from getting there routinely. UN agencies made seven requests last year to get into Madaya, and only one was permitted by the regime.

The money I mentioned is part of how we fund aid convoys such as the one seen today. We fund UN agencies such as the World Food Programme, and the Syrian Arab Red Cross is also part of the convoy that has been organised. We work with the International Committee of the Red Cross on its operations, and the Syria conference in London in February is important because it will give us a chance to discuss some of these important issues and press for better adherence to international humanitarian law. It will also mean that we can replenish the kind of funding that those organisations need to keep going.

Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s condemnation of those who are refusing to let the convoys through. What action is her Department taking to ensure that there is proper documentation, so that the International Criminal Court can step in and send a clear signal that those who breach international law in this way will be prosecuted?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend raises an important point, and one challenge of these besieged areas is that it is hard to find out what is going on inside them. It is therefore hard for us to understand exactly what the humanitarian needs are. As she says, that makes following up these atrocities all the harder. However, whether for this kind of atrocity or for some of the sexual violence that we see in such conflicts, there is increasing recognition across the international community that such crimes should be tracked, monitored and logged. Those are precisely the discussions that we had with the UN and agencies on the ground, so that when we finally get some kind of peaceful resolution in Syria, these atrocities will not simply be swept under the carpet—they will be dealt with.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on securing this urgent question, and I welcome the strength of the Secretary of State’s response and the fact that the UK is once against at the top of

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the queue in providing much-needed aid. I understand that today’s convoys contain food, which is urgent. Will she say what the position will be for medical supplies and medicines for those who are besieged, because that is also of great importance and will make a difference?

Justine Greening: It is not only food but nutritional supplements for children, and I understand that there may be some medical supplies as part of the convoy, too, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) about making sure we have ongoing access to these areas. That is why adherence to international law is so important. In the end, that is the only way we can guarantee reaching people—including the other 360,000 people who are not in Madaya—not just today but in the future.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The House will know—indeed, the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed it out—that the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that only 10% of the requests made for the delivery of aid to the besieged areas were granted by the Assad regime last year. As my right hon. Friend has indicated, the Security Council has passed a resolution to authorise the delivery of aid without permission from the Assad regime. Is she confident that the resolution can be effected? What steps can be taken to ensure the convoys can get through, and that those who are in charge of operating them are sufficiently protected?

Justine Greening: The Security Council resolution and the discussion around it has been specific about which borders can be used as cross-border aid routes. This means there is accountability and that we can check to ensure those border routes remain open. The critical challenge is that even when convoys are able to leave Damascus and get across the border, will they always be able to get to the place they need to? The reality is that we want them to do that safely and reliably. We do not want to send aid not knowing whether it will get to the people who need it. Possibly the worst thing would be to see scarce resources of UN agencies falling into the hands of the very people who are committing atrocities. We have a structure in place. The key is to make sure it is stuck to by all the warring parties concerned. In the end, the only thing that will really solve the Syria crisis is a political resolution. That is what we all must aim for. What we have seen in Madaya tells us why the sooner we reach a solution, the better.