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Home Affairs Committee

Oral evidence: Work of the Home Secretary HC 475

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 31 January 2024.

Watch the meeting

Members present: Dame Diana Johnson (Chair); Ms Diane Abbott; James Daly; Simon Fell; Carolyn Harris; Kim Johnson; Tim Loughton; Alison Thewliss.

Questions 1-126

Witnesses

I: The Right hon. James Cleverly MP, Home Secretary; Sir Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, Home Office; and Dan Hobbs, Director General, Migration and Borders Group, Home Office.

Written evidence from witnesses:


Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: The Right hon. James Cleverly MP, Home Secretary, Sir Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, Home Office, and Dan Hobbs, Director General, Migration and Borders Group, Home Office.

Q1                Chair: Good morning, and welcome to the Home Affairs Committee. This is one of our regular accountability sessions with the Home Secretary to look at the work of the Home Office. First, Home Secretary, I welcome you to the Committee and congratulate you on your appointment at the end of last year. We have not seen you since you were appointed, so many congratulations on that. We are also very pleased to have the permanent secretary and Mr Hobbs with us today as well.

We have lots of questions this morning, as you can imagine. I want to start by dealing with a couple of outstanding issues from previous appearances by the permanent secretary and Ministers before Christmas. Before Christmas, we as a Committee asked for information on the Bibby Stockholm and the value for money assessment that had been carried out. I want to thank you, Sir Matthew, for sending through last night the letter about the value for money assessment. It is quite a short letter, and it was promised that we would have something by the end of January, and we are just within time, so we are very pleased about that. Is there anything you want to add to what you put in that letter? It is quite limited and doesn't go into very much detail.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Thank you, Chair. First, as I say in that letter, I keep the judgments under constant review about the value for money for that site and, indeed, other sites. The variables that make up the judgment about value for money do fluctuate, and there are several things that fluctuate. First, there is the cost per person per night of hotels, which is what we are comparing these other sites with, and the number of people in the accommodation, for instance. We will keep it under constant review, and I am very happy to keep this Committee and the Public Accounts Committee updated if there are any changes.

Q2                Chair: We visited the Bibby Stockholm, so we saw that it is obviously not at capacity in terms of the number of people who are living on the barge. Would you be willing to share with the Committee your accounting officer assessment of the value for money of the barge?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: What I shared is based on the value for money assessment and sort of sets out the conclusion of the work, and—

Chair: Could we see the actual assessment though, because what you have sent us is very limited?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: I think the crucial thing is the judgment about whether it is value for money or not, and the workings that that is based on are summarised in the letter.

Chair: So you are saying we cannot see the assessment.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Well, we can take away the request, but we would normally set these things out in the normal way. We would not normally set out the full accounting officer assessment.

Chair: No, but because there is so little information, I am asking to see the actual document that is behind the very short letter that you sent to us. We will formally write and request that. As a Select Committee, we can request documents from the Home Office.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Absolutely.

Q3                Chair: So we will do that. Thank you very much.

The other issue I wanted to check with you was about the letter of 12 January. It came from junior Ministers in the Home Office and was in relation to the 17,000 cases that had been withdrawn as part of clearing the legacy backlog. Mr Hobbs might just be able to help us on this. We are still not clear how many of the 17,000 came from the Home Office withdrawing, or from the actual asylum seeker withdrawing the claim. Are you able to just break that 17,000 down for us?

Dan Hobbs: I think the letter breaks it down. These are withdrawals by the Home Office in response to the process that we go through when we were clearing the legacy backlog. We wrote to people, and if they did not respond, their case was then closed. I would have to go away and verify exactly whether any in that 17,000—I do not have the figure in front of me—were withdrawals by the individual, but what will have happened is where the Home Office withdraws it, that is after us writing to the individuals and seeking to get contact, either with them or their representative. If there was no response—

Chair: I think we were under the impression that there were people who had withdrawn their claims within that 17,000 but it sounds from what you are saying that—

Dan Hobbs: My understanding is that these are ones that we did because of non-response, but I will verify that.

Q4                Chair: That would be helpful. In that letter, there is reference to the 35% of the 17,000 that are now back in the system. Are you able to tell us how many have been reinstated and how many are fresh asylum claims?

Dan Hobbs: Of the 35%—they will be at various different stages. I do not have the full breakdown in front of me.

Chair: Could you provide that?

Dan Hobbs: We will do our best. Some will be actioned for removal and therefore engaged in other parts. Where we have re-engaged with them, some will be with immigration enforcement, some will be further submissions. Obviously, they will all be further to their initial claim that had been withdrawn.

Chair: Yes. We just want to be clear about how many have been resubmitted and how many have been reinstated.

On the final figure, of the 2,643 who remain in the United Kingdom and have re-engaged and been granted some form of lawful immigration status, are you able to tell us how many were granted asylum or humanitarian—

Dan Hobbs: Sorry, I do not have that figure in front of me.

Q5                Chair: Could you let us know that as well? That would be very helpful.

Are you able to tell the final quarter figures for withdrawals? The 17,000 were up until the end of September—30 September, I think—last year. There must have been more withdrawals since. Are you able to give us that figure?

Dan Hobbs: I think the last formal published stats were September, and those are the figures that we have available. We announced in December the full clearance subject to the unworkable cases, but I do not have an update on the withdrawal stats until the published stats come out later.

Chair: When are they due to be published?

Dan Hobbs: I think February is the next instalment of stats normally.

Q6                Chair: Okay. We are particularly interested in the withdrawals that took place in that final period leading up to the end of the year. Thank you very much for that; that is very helpful.

Can I turn back to the Home Secretary? I would like to start by asking you some questions about violence against women and girls. I was struck by your comment in recent weeks that tackling violence against women and girls “is a personal priority for me”—I think I am quoting you directly. I want first to ask you about concern that has arisen about the way our crime statistics are reported. I noted that last week, the Home Office—and you, actually—tweeted out that violent crime is falling. You tweeted, “Since 2010: Violent crime is down 51%.”

The basket of violent crimes that is used by the crime survey of England and Wales does not include things that I think a reasonable person would expect to be in there. Rape, sexual assault and stalking are not included. We know those disproportionately affect women and girls. Are you concerned that the public may not be clear about what is happening with those offences, which we know are actually going up, from what is being tweeted out?

James Cleverly: This is a really important question about the definitions of what falls within or without certain baskets of crime. There is always a challenge about using consistent metrics so that you can compare with previous periods, while being conscious that those metrics might not always capture everything that people might assume. That is a challenge. As you say, I think a lot of people would look at rape, for example, and say, “Well obviously that fits within the violent crime basket.” The decision was made to compare like for like, because if you are comparing over a period of time you have to stick with that, conscious that every definition is imperfect. That is why we did that—so we can compare like for like.

With a lot of the hidden harm-type crimes—domestic violence, child sexual exploitation and rape, for example—where we know there has been very long-standing under-reporting, I am very focused on dealing with that. But in terms of comparing longitudinally, the consistency I think provides more value than constantly trying to amend.

Q7                Chair: Yes, I can understand that. I think, though, that it would be very helpful—because we know that the Government have a commitment to tackling male violence against women and girls—if we could have some attention paid to that group of offences that disproportionately affects women and girls.

              James Cleverly: I can absolutely assure you that we are very focused on those.

Q8                Chair: At the moment they come out as an annual statistic, as I understand it. I think some attention to that would be very helpful from the Home Office in highlighting what is actually happening with those figures.

Can I just move on to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner? Last week, on those same statistics that were published, she raised concerns about the downplaying of the scale of domestic abuse due to the principal crime rule, which is that only one crime—the most serious offence—is counted for every report by a victim, even if multiple crimes are taking place. In the stats last week, there were 23,000 fewer recorded crimes of domestic abuse compared with the same quarter in the previous year. Do you worry about that? Do you take on board what the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is saying?

              James Cleverly: I very much understand your point. Again, it is one of those things about the trade-off between consistency, so that long-term comparisons can be made, and granularity. There is always a trade-off there. The point that has been made is very much a valid one.

Q9                Chair: Will you take it away and have a look at it, because I think it is of genuine concern to the Committee?

              James Cleverly: There is of course a potential risk in terms of redefining things, because—

Q10            Chair: You have redefined it, because of the principal crime rule. That is the problem that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is concerned about.

              James Cleverly: I can absolutely assure you that the message I have conveyed both within the Department right from the get-go and with senior police leaders and PCCs, which I will be reinforcing when I am at the National Policing Board later, is that this is absolutely a priority. It is one of the priorities that I put for the Department, but I am very conscious that measuring it has always been—

Chair: A problem.

              James Cleverly: Really, really difficult.

Q11            Chair: I agree with you. I think the Domestic Abuse Commissioner wants to make sure that we are all fully aware of the level of domestic abuse in this country and that it is not hidden away.

              James Cleverly: Absolutely.

Q12            Chair: Can I ask you about something else that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has called for, which is a firewall between the police and immigration enforcement to protect women with insecure immigration status who come forward to report domestic or sexual abuse or violence generally? This Committee has also called for that firewall. Are you sympathetic to that? Do you think that that is a good thing that should happen?

              James Cleverly: I understand the argument, but I am not yet convinced by it. In my experience, and not just in sexual violence, domestic abuse and other such crime types, typically there has been a lack of data sharing. That has caused more problems than data sharing. I can envisage circumstances in which an abuser games the system in order to hide their abuse towards a victim. I can see how that plays out, but—

Q13            Chair: I think it is more the woman not feeling confident about reporting to the police. That is the issue, because it may result in immigration action being taken against her. We want to encourage women to report, don’t we? That is the key thing.

              James Cleverly: Yes, and as I say I think that there is a credible argument to that end. I think there are also credible counter-arguments. It is a really difficult situation, as is often the case—

Q14            Chair: Okay, so the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the Committee—and, I think, others—have called for this. Perhaps that is something that you could take away and have a look at.

              James Cleverly: Sometimes, just because I or the Department might not agree is not to say that we are not taking those suggestions very seriously. Of course we will always look at the best way of protecting victims, particularly, as I say, women and girls, because I have prioritised that. If I am saying “no” at the moment, please do not read that as me saying that it will definitely always be a no. I am absolutely committed to looking at this and ensuring that whatever decision we make supports women and girls.

Q15            Chair: There are a couple of other things. In our latest report on trafficking, we made a recommendation that the penalty for a man paying for sex with a trafficking victim should be increased from a fine, as it currently is, to a penalty comparable with other sexual and trafficking offences, and that would obviously increase the deterrent value. Do you agree with that?

              James Cleverly: Again, that is a very credible argument. In terms of the sentencing, that is something that we would need to work with the Ministry of Justice on.

Chair: But in principle?

James Cleverly: I think it is a very strong argument. I am not going to make policy in Committee, but it is a strong argument, particularly in terms of an aggravating factor in other crimes or in toughening the sentences. I think that makes a lot of sense. As I say, that is more in the remit of the Ministry of Justice.

Q16            Chair: Okay, but obviously it is trafficking. We know that the Government take trafficking and modern slavery very seriously and would want to do everything that they could to protect particularly the most vulnerable. Women who are sexually exploited seem to be a group that you want to pay some attention to.

My final question: last year Parliament under the Public Order Act—this is around safe access zones. We specifically voted against proposals to allow silent prayer and consensual communication in safe access zones. I notice that the Home Office have produced guidance, which includes those measures being allowed. I just wondered why you would do that when Parliament had been very clear that that was not the will of Parliament.

James Cleverly: The draft guidance that went out is draft guidance for consultation, so that is not the final guidance. When I stepped into this role, when I was being briefed on a range of things, the fact that the consultation to follow up on that parliamentary vote on that decision by Parliament had not yet been actioned, and it had been delayed and delayed quite a long way. I was presented with a choice, which was to revisit the draft guidance, put it through and go through the cross-Whitehall process, which would have added to the delay, or initiate the consultation with the draft guidance that I inherited.

I decided that I wanted to get moving on this because the delay had been far too long already. I would say, and I have said this to people who have lobbied me directly, that the draft guidance is just that—draft guidance. I do not want to speculate on exactly what it will be, but the final guidance will be based on the feedback that we have had from the consultation. The consultation is important. Obviously, we are very conscious to make sure that the expressed will of Parliament is reflected in the ultimate guidance that is put out.

Q17            Chair: That is reassuring to know. There were proposals in that guidance to put up signs around premises where there was a safe access zone. I think there is a great deal of worry that that is not appropriate in dealing with the confidentiality and wellbeing of women who are accessing abortion services. It sounds to me, from what you are saying, that you are rethinking what was in that draft guidance, because it does not sound fit for purpose.

James Cleverly: Again, I do not want to prejudice the process, but we are listening very carefully to the voices that are coming back through the consultation that have contacted the Department directly, and also, of course, the conversations that were had through the passage in Parliament. All those will be listened to very carefully before we finalise anything.

Chair: Thank you; that is great. James Daly is next.

Q18            James Daly: Home Secretary, I will quote from the Rape Crisis England & Wales website, which states: “68,109 rapes were recorded by police between July 2022 and June 2023. By the end of that 12-month period, charges had been brought in just 2.2%...of cases.” That is 1,498. Why do you think charges have been brought in so few cases? We cannot talk about individual cases, but it is a very small amount, isn’t it?

James Cleverly: It is, and that worries me enormously. The first visit that I conducted as Home Secretary was to Holborn police station. I spoke to the investigatory team that were looking specifically at violence against women—sexual violence cases. I spoke with them about best practice. I have spoken with the College of Policing about making sure that investigators follow best practice. There is quite a range of performance across police forces, and I want to make sure that we get them all to the upper end of the spectrum.

The Committee will know that prosecuting sexual offences is very, very difficult. Often, the victims are traumatised to the extent that they do not come forward promptly. There is a whole load of reasons, but there is best practice. We want to pursue that best practice, and that is a conversation that, again, I will be having with police leaders throughout.

Q19            James Daly: One of the grave concerns for me, which I put to your predecessors, is that the real problem with the system—well, there are lots of problems with the system, but one of the major ones is the fact that the police do not refer cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. Something is happening at that initial investigation stage, where legal advice is not even being sought. I wonder whether you have had the chance to speak to senior police officers about that, to ask why it is the case and why such a large number of cases are not being referred even for consideration by the CPS.

James Cleverly: I have not asked that question; I have made an assertion—no, not made an assertion. I have given an instruction, which I think reflects the point that underpins your question, and the instruction that I have given is that we have got to do better. There are examples of—I won’t say “best practice”. There are examples where good process—better processing, better training of officers, better administration of cases—increases the likelihood of success. If we could get all forces to absorb and implement that learning, I think we would see a step in the right direction. That is a conversation that, as I say, I have had from literally the first day in the job, and I will be reinforcing that both through the internal priorities that I have published for the Home Office and will be circulated around the Home Office and through the conversations that I have with police and crime commissioners, police leaders and the College of Policing.

Q20            James Daly: I want to ask two further questions regarding charge-out rates. We don’t have time to go into figures, but charge-out rates for many offences are extremely low. One of the things that I suggest may be at the heart of that is the relationship between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. I don’t know whether either of those organisations has spoken to you about this particular situation, but I know there is real concern from the police that the Crown Prosecution Service is requiring slam-dunk cases and that unless you have 100% of the evidence and there is a 100% chance of conviction—I am exaggerating the point, but I don’t think it is completely out of order—a charge is not going to be forthcoming, for all range of offences. I wonder whether that has been brought to your attention and whether you have any thoughts on it.

James Cleverly: I think case preparation is key, and increasing the likelihood of the CPS progressing a case with a strong evidence pack is absolutely key. Operation Soteria, which is the mechanism by which improvements in this have been driven through a number of police forces, has helped case preparation, which has the positive knock-on effect of increasing the likelihood of the CPS taking that up.

I have not had the chance to speak either directly with the CPS or via the Ministry of Justice with regard to the CPS. Of course, the CPS guard their independence in terms of prosecuting decisions very strongly. I totally respect and understand that. I want to make sure that the bit of the system that the Home Office has most influence over is really maximised, and that is making sure that rape and sexual crime investigations are as professional as possible and the case preparation is as consistent and professional as possible. That is something that, as I say, we are driving through with Soteria and the College of Policing, and it has demonstrated improvement, so I want to maximise that. I think there is a conversation well worth having with the CPS as well.

Q21            James Daly: This is the last question from me. Ignoring first-time offenders, if somebody is arrested for shoplifting, should they be charged and put before a court—not first-time offenders but everyone else?

James Cleverly: We have made the point that all reasonable lines of inquiry should be pursued. I am uncomfortable giving a blanket “I think this should be happening”, but everybody deserves the right to work in a safe environment. Shoplifting is a crime. When shop workers try to intervene or protect themselves, they put themselves at risk, so it is something that the police and prosecutors should take seriously. Again, I have had conversations with senior leaders across UK policing to say that it is a highly visible crime and it is corrosive when it comes to public confidence. We have explicit instructions that every reasonable line of inquiry should be pursued, and that very much includes retail crime.

Q22            Chair: As someone newly in post, were you surprised that not all police forces have a specialist unit to deal with rape and sexual offences? As a Committee, we were struck that not all 43 police forces have that in place, when we know that that is what works.

James Cleverly: Surprised? A bit. I can understand the arguments. I am not necessarily saying that I agree with the arguments. One of the challenges is about the practicalities of having specialist teams, particularly in some of the smaller and more geographically dispersed police forces. I get the challenge. I am not saying that I agree, but I get the challenge.

The point with Soteria is that it takes a lot of the guesswork out of how to improve this: there are established and proven ways of working, and specialist teams seem to be an important part of that. As the Home Secretary, I am not in a position where I can mandate police forces with regard to their structures. I have seen evidence, even in the short time that I have been in this role, that those kinds of specialist teams make a positive difference.

Chair: We agree with you. We are just surprised that not all police forces have adopted that.

Q23            Ms Abbott: I want to ask a few questions about the Bibby Stockholm. We visited it a few weeks ago, and it was a very interesting visit. The first thing that I want to ask about is space. We saw the rooms where the men are supposed to sleep. Those rooms are intended for one person, but they now hold two people in bunk beds. I spoke to one man who said he found it all so cramped that he was sleeping on a sofa in one of the common areas. Are you absolutely confident that the space available to detainees in their rooms on the Bibby Stockholm meets legal requirements as to space?

James Cleverly: I am totally confident that it meets legal requirements, yes.

Q24            Ms Abbott: The other question I want to ask you relates to the recent suicide on the Bibby Stockholm. I understand that the inquest and so on is still going on, but I was talking to some of the other detainees, and they said that for some days before he committed suicide, he was talking about suicide, banging on the walls and shouting—it has all been very alarming for them. Are you confident that anyone who was suicidal on the Bibby Stockholm would get the mental health support that they need?

James Cleverly: We take both the physical and the mental health of the people who are in the asylum estate very seriously. I am not comfortable discussing the circumstances around that particular case, because, as you say, the coroner is looking into it, and I would not want in any way to prejudice the outcome accidentally, but we take both physical and mental health very seriously. We recognise that that is an important duty that we need to discharge.

Q25            Ms Abbott: I am not asking you to discuss a particular case; I am asking you, are you confident that anyone who was suicidal on the Bibby Stockholm—bearing in mind the confined space that they are in and the issues with medical care—would get the mental health support that they need? I am speaking specifically about that.

James Cleverly: By virtue of the fact that there is this case outstanding, we need to look at this seriously. We recognise that there is suicide risk. There is suicide risk in any number of circumstances in society. That is something we take seriously. Of course, once the findings in this case are made public, we will look very carefully at any findings or recommendations that are made. As I say, we take mental health very seriously. We will always take opportunities to learn, and if there are things that need to change, we will of course listen to that. But the point is that, without seeing the report from the coroner, I do not know whether there are any specific learnings. I do not know whether that was avoidable or not.

Ms Abbott: You have answered quite a specific question in general terms, but maybe I will come back to it. Thank you, Chair.

James Cleverly: Well, I am quite happy to try to clarify further. As you know, I have been a member of the reserve forces; I have been a member of the armed forces. By the nature of the work the Home Office does, we work very closely with the Ministry of Justice. In circumstances all across society, particularly where you have a number of people accommodated in one place, the risk of suicide is something you take very seriously. Sadly, suicides do happen. We always, always take our response to that seriously. We will listen very carefully to any findings that the coroner makes, and if changes need to be made, of course we will look at any recommendations. But I am not going to speak on the specifics of this particular case, so by definition I can speak only in generalities.

Ms Abbott: As you know, we have visited the Bibby Stockholm and you have not. We are going to write, together with our colleagues on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to raise further questions about the conditions.

James Cleverly: Okay. Thank you.

Q26            Tim Loughton: Before I come to the Home Secretary, could I just pick up where the Chair left off with the permanent secretary? Permanent secretary, I am sure you recall your visit with Mr Ridley in November, when he was, I think, the interim second PS—I don’t know whether he is still interim or is now permanent. It ended, rather unsatisfactorily, with him admitting that the Home Office did not know the whereabouts of those 17,316 withdrawn asylum applications.

Since then, you have provided a letter with a little more information, and Mr Hobbs has offered to go away to find out some more, quite basic information about the nature of those withdrawals. I gather that, of those 17,000, 3,144 have left the UK and 2,643 have had some form of immigration status granted. That is less than a third. Do we now know what has happened to the remainder, who have no legal basis on which to still be in the United Kingdom?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Yes, we do, Mr Loughton, and the Minister set that out, I think, in a letter to the Committee. There is one category of people who have re-engaged with us and have been granted some form of immigration status—Mr Hobbs was talking about that category. There are three other categories of people. There is the category of people who have already left the UK, and have therefore sort of definitively left their asylum claim behind—that is 3,144. Then there is a category of people whose cases are being managed by different parts of the Home Office system, including immigration enforcement, appeals, the litigation team and so on. Finally, there is a group of 5,598 who remain in the UK, and the Home Office, through our different mechanisms of tracing people, are continuing to seek to trace them.

Q27            Tim Loughton: Not that we are asking for an individual list, but if there were a list of 17,316 names, how many of those names could you put a location against, be it out of the country or a location in the country?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: We can tell you exactly, as we did in that letter, how many have left the country: 3,144.

Tim Loughton: We know that.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: The people who are in the country are not detained, so we cannot pinpoint a precise location, but for the vast majority we have contact details. We use those contact details to seek to re-establish contact with them if they are in that final category of people who we have not yet re-established contact with, but we are seeking to do that. That is the group for which, as Ministers set out in a bit of detail, we have different ways of seeking, but we are not going to go into more detail on that because those methods need to remain private.

Q28            Tim Loughton: Some of them are not subject to reporting requirements.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: I think they were all subject to reporting requirements and breached their reporting requirements, which is what initiated the process that led to the withdrawal of their claim.

Q29            Tim Loughton: So a large chunk of them may still not have reported, and you may still not know where they are, or you may not know that you don’t know where they are, because you’ve not instigated trying to make contact with them again.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: In that category, we have instigated trying to make contact with them again, and that is precisely the definition of that category. We have not yet succeeded in re-establishing active direct contact with them, and there is no automaticity about that because they are not detained, but we are using all of the different methods of tracing them to seek to trace them.

Q30            Tim Loughton: I am trying to define how many of that 17,316 are effectively still unaccounted for.

James Cleverly: 5,598.

Tim Loughton: 5,598. You don’t know where they are, and they have failed to respond to attempts to make contact with them.

James Cleverly: Yes.

Q31            Tim Loughton: What is the status of those people who have come across the channel since the Illegal Migration Act came into force? How many of them are there, and what is their actual status?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Their status is that they are claiming asylum. And they are in different stages of the asylum case load.

Q32            Tim Loughton: Under the terms of the Illegal Migration Act, they are not entitled to apply for asylum, are they?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: They are entitled to apply, but then we have a different process under that Act for dealing with their claims.

Tim Loughton: Well, they’re not entitled to apply under the terms of the Act, so they can apply but that application is not recognised within the normal asylum procedures. Correct?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Correct.

Q33            Tim Loughton: So what is their status?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Their status is that they have sought to claim asylum, and they are in the asylum case load.

Tim Loughton: But they’re not recognised as asylum seekers, so how are they in the asylum case load?

Dan Hobbs: If I may, they are inadmissible, as you say, to our system. As you know, at the moment, we do not have a safe country of return for the vast majority of those individuals, so they are here on bail, pending the conclusion of the Safety of Rwanda Bill and then the movement forward of our relocation agreement with Rwanda. They are inadmissible to the system under the terms of the Illegal Migration Act. If they would otherwise be destitute, we provide support to those individuals, but they will be pending the further stages of the inadmissibility procedure, which are set out in the Illegal Migration Act.

Q34            Tim Loughton: How many people are we talking about now?

Dan Hobbs: My understanding is that, on the last published stats on 28 December, those arriving since the Illegal Migration Act are at 33,085.

Q35            Tim Loughton: So we have 33,085 people in the country, all of whom have been bailed.

Dan Hobbs: Unless there are other mitigating circumstances or risk then, yes, they would be bailed because our ability to take—

Q36            Tim Loughton: What are “other mitigating circumstances”?

Dan Hobbs: For example, if someone were identified as a foreign national offender or a previous immigration offender, there may be a basis on which to detain them. But, as you know, the general principle for immigration detention is that you can only detain where you have a realistic prospect of removal.

Q37            Tim Loughton: Understood. How many are detained?

Dan Hobbs: I don’t know how many of that cohort are detained.

Q38            Tim Loughton: Okay. How many of the 33,085 do you think you could contact?

Dan Hobbs: Again, I cannot give you a direct percentage, but a number of them will be in accommodation. All of them are expected to report, depending on the individual regime, and many will be accommodated by the Home Office in various asylum support accommodation if they would otherwise be destitute.

Q39            Tim Loughton: How frequently do they have to report and to whom?

Dan Hobbs: It will depend on the individual circumstances, and whether that is face-to-face reporting, telephone reporting or e-reporting will depend on the individual case. That is a matter for an operations

Q40            Tim Loughton: Why are there differential requirements for the reporting of somebody under the new Act?

Dan Hobbs: It is not because of the Act. In immigration enforcement, the bail conditions are set depending on the circumstances of the individual case, the persons’ previous, what we may have known about them previously, and whether they are part of a family group. That is an operational decision that is taken depending on the assessment of those cases.

Q41            Tim Loughton: Do you know the number of people who you have tried to contact, or who have been subject to reporting mechanisms that they have breached, out of that 33,085?

Dan Hobbs: I do not have those figures in front of me on non-compliance.

Q42            Tim Loughton: Okay. Home Secretary, welcome. Are you satisfied that we could have that number of people—roughly double the earlier queried cohort of 17,000—and not know where a number of them are?  They have no legal status to be in this country under the terms of the Illegal Migration Act, and, other than those who have criminal records that require them to be detained in a secure facility, they are at large in the UK and could turn out to be missing on a greater scale than the number that Mr Ridley was unable to account for back in November.

James Cleverly: I don’t agree with the word “missing”. I think that that word implies something that doesn’t reflect the circumstances. But the point is, of course, that I am not comfortable with many of the numbers that were discussed, which is why I have just come back from France and from working with our French counterparts to try and end people arriving on small boats and reduce illegal migration coming to the UK in its totality.

I am not comfortable with a lot of the figures that we are discussing, and we are doing something about it. In terms of maintaining contact with individuals, as we have discussed, we don’t routinely detain asylum seekers or people in the cohort that we are discussing. To attempt to do so would be incredibly costly. It would dwarf the cost of our hotel accommodation, for example, which we are reducing.

Of course, we make the point that non-compliance has consequences. We have increased the number of illegal migration raids and we have increased the amount of immigration enforcement work that we do, so, when people disengage—and I think that that is a more accurate word than “missing”—when people do disengage from us, we respond to that.

As Matthew has said, I am not going to go into detail on how exactly we do that, because that will undermine the operational effectiveness of the work that we do, but we do go looking for people. When we find them, if we are able to return them to their country of origin, we do so, and, as you know, through the Safety of Rwanda Bill, we are making plans to be able to remove people who do not have a safe country to return to.

Q43            Tim Loughton: I understand. Home Secretary, what I am concerned about is that there is a growing cohort of people in limbo, effectively, since the new Act came in, who, other than those with a criminal record and set circumstances, are not in secure accommodation. Notwithstanding the authorities trying to keep contact with them, and whatever reporting mechanism they may have, there is, let’s say, a fairly strong possibility that we do not know where a large number of them are—which is, to me, another definition of “missing”. That figure can only grow in the absence of the Rwanda scheme getting under way or us having other deportation agreements with other countries, as we hope we’re going to.

I am a little confused about how that 33,000 figure is made up, because that figure is, since—Mr Hobbs will have the date of whenever the Act came into law—

Dan Hobbs: So, 20 July was Royal Assent for the Illegal Migration Act.

Q44            Tim Loughton: Okay, 20 July. The figure that we had for the whole of 2023 for people coming across the channel was just under 30,000. The cohort will be primarily those people who have come in little boats—not exclusively, but primarily—so how is this figure at 33,085 for less than the second half of the of the year? Where have all of the others come from, those who did not come across in little boats, to constitute that figure, Mr Hobbs?

Dan Hobbs: As you say, the Illegal Migration Act covers all illegal entry. It is not just targeted at small boats, so it will affect other people who have arrived in the UK without lawful status or the ability to demonstrate that they had lawful status in the country. The Illegal Migration Act applies to all of those individuals, not just small-boats arrivals. It may be people who have arrived on a fraudulent visa, have arrived on other fraudulent documents, or have used other modes of arrival into the UK clandestinely and then have come to the attention of our immigration services.

Q45            Tim Loughton: What is the other big form of clandestine arrival? If you try to get on a plane without the requisite visa, you should not be allowed on. Some people come with fraudulent documents; I understand that. There are some people who get on the back of a lorry, although hopefully it is much more difficult, as we have seen, on the other side of the channel. What constitutes most of the non-little-boat people out of that 33,085?

Dan Hobbs: There will be a range of ways in which people enter the UK without compliance with immigration rules and services. It is probably not wise for me to set all those modes out in public to the Committee, but as you say, some will come through various ferry ports, some will arrive at our airports, either with fraudulent documents or without the appropriate visa, or will be believed to have gained that visa fraudulently. That doesn’t mean the visa itself is a fraud, but they may have undertaken fraud in gaining that visa. We also have the common travel area, which we do see movement across, between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, but there are a range of ways in which that can happen.

James Cleverly: With regard to our response to this, you make a good point with regard to the Safety of Rwanda Bill. That is an important part of it, but one of the things I have said over and over again is that that is one response, but not the only response to this.

In terms of negotiating returns agreements with countries, I know from my former role as Foreign Secretary that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was heavily involved with negotiating them, which increases the number of countries to whom we can safely return people, because those countries are safe and we have mechanisms for returns. We can see the impact of that. Albania is not the only country with which we do this, but it is a really good example of how effective it can be.

Q46            Tim Loughton: I think many of us will agree with that.

Can I come on to something different, Home Secretary? David Neal, the chief inspector of borders and immigration—why is his contract not being renewed?

James Cleverly: I am not sure I can answer that at this point. Can I look into that and come back? There may be a reason that I can’t share. I don’t want to speculate on that; I’d rather know for certain.

Q47            Tim Loughton: I think we are concerned because we have had him in front of our Committee on many occasions, and I think we have been very impressed with the work he has done. What we have not been impressed with is the attitude of the Home Office to his report. As it stands, I gather that 10 reports that he has produced have yet to be published by the Home Office, some going back some way, and 11 reports that he has had published are still awaiting a response from the Home Office. Are you concerned about the attitude of the Home Office in not taking those reports sufficiently seriously?

James Cleverly: I have met with David. We had a meeting, last week, the week before, and we discussed the responses to the reports he has put forward, and a number of responses will be forthcoming, so this is something that the Department is addressing. The point I made to him in the meeting is that the work he does is important, and we do take it, and ensuring that we respond in a timely manner, seriously. I know this is something that the Chair of the Committee has raised with me, and something that I do take seriously, not just as a professional courtesy, but—I mean, I can’t remember whether I mentioned to you, but I jokingly said that sessions like this are like a trip to the dentist: we can all pretend that we enjoy it; we really don’t. But we also recognise that it is quite important. This is a conversation I have had with David, and we will be—I will be—ensuring that we respond where necessary and appropriate.

Q48            Tim Loughton: Okay. We are not going to put you through root canal surgery, but certainly, to use a dental analogy, there are many gaps in the Home Office’s response to the report. It is not just David Neal; I could go through a whole list of other reports and reviews that have been commissioned by Home Secretaries going back several years, to the beginning of this Government, that have not seen the light of day and just not been responded to.

It seems an extraordinary waste of time and resources to commission a review that never gets published. We had complaints from Sara Khan when she was here. Some of the very important points she made in her report that were relevant to inquiries we have had have just not been published.

On David Neal, to help our work and to respond to an invitation from David Neal, the Committee requested that its members should be able to go out with him on an inspection of one of the premises he is entitled to inspect to see how he goes about his inspections. I think that would help our work. In front of the Committee, the former Home Secretary thought that seemed a good idea and the Immigration Minister did not see any objection to it. Then, the formal request was turned down by the Home Office. Do you know why? Do you think that was the right decision? If not, will you review it?

James Cleverly: That is an interesting point. It is completely within David’s right to invite the Committee to look at his work. I do not think it is—

Q49            Tim Loughton: He had to get the permission of the Home Office so it is not within his right to invite and execute.

James Cleverly: No, I was going to come on to this. He can invite the Committee to see what he does. I am not sure it is necessarily automatically appropriate for him to invite the Committee on to one of our facilities. It is the Home Office’s facility, and there is a difference.

I know the Committee recently visited the Bibby Stockholm. We had discussions about the logistics around that and my views on the best way that I can balance openness to the Committee with my responsibilities to both the service users and the operators of those facilities. While not perfect, the feedback I have had and my understanding is that the Committee had access to the service users and that you were able to have meaningful conversations with them. I think we resolved that in a successful way.

Q50            Tim Loughton: We do not have a complaint about that. It is about actually going out with the inspector to see how he does his work and to see whether we think he is being rigorous enough, for example, thus allowing us to judge the nature of his reports when they are eventually published. The Ministers did not have an objection. We then questioned the permanent secretary as to why this was not allowed and were told it was a ministerial decision. If it was a ministerial decision, why did it change from publicly yes to privately no? Or if it was not a ministerial decision, as your permanent secretary claimed, whose decision was it and why?

James Cleverly: I have no doubt that if one of my officials said it was a decision made by Ministers, it would have been a decision made by Ministers. As I say, the situation with David’s work is that, by definition, it is done in our facilities. Therefore, as I said about the trip to the Bibby Stockholm, there is the point about ensuring the balance. Our desire for visibility for our work is important, but so is making sure that that is in keeping with the other responsibilities that I have as the Secretary of State responsible for these things. I think that balancing act can be navigated as we did with the Bibby Stockholm. What I am not going to do is give a blanket assurance that David can invite you as a Committee on to our facilities. I am sure that we are able to have a pragmatic conversation or negotiation about making it work, as we did with the Bibby Stockholm, which I think worked and was ultimately helpful.

Dan Hobbs: If I may clarify, Mr Loughton, the 30,000 number I gave you is for all asylum claims since the Illegal Migration Act 2023 had Royal Assent. Some of those will potentially fall under the four conditions, but we have not commenced the duty to remove, so I do not have the division between how many of them might fall under the new provisions of the Illegal Migration Act and are therefore subject to the duty to remove. The number I gave you is the total number of asylum claims since 20 July.

Q51            Tim Loughton: Okay. What we need is to know those people who primarily, but not exclusively, came over in little boats. That makes the numbers not reliable.

Dan Hobbs: The numbers from small boats are published separately. Obviously, because we have not commenced the duty to remove yet, we will not have made a conclusive decision about whether those cases fall under the conditions of the Act. We are not in a position to make those decisions until those provisions of the Act are commenced.

Q52            Tim Loughton: But if someone has come across on a little boat since the Act came into force in July, they are automatically excluded from making a processable asylum claim.

Dan Hobbs: We have to demonstrate that they meet the four conditions set out in the Act. That is a requirement under the Act. That provision has not been commenced yet.

Q53            Tim Loughton: In what scenario could somebody coming across the channel today still be able to make a legitimate asylum claim?

Dan Hobbs: The conditions are set out in the Act. We have to demonstrate that they apply to those individuals, including mistaken identity or findings of fact. That is required under the Act. In principle, the Act is aimed at individuals who arrive illegally in the UK, who do not have leave to remain, but, under the Act, we have to demonstrate that people meet the four conditions to fall under the duty to remove.

Q54            Tim Loughton: I understand the four conditions. What could possibly qualify somebody coming across in a small boat so that they do not fall within the four conditions and can therefore have an asylum application considered?

Dan Hobbs: It may not be the asylum application; it may be other things. There are safeguards in the Act passed by Parliament that mean we have to go through that process to determine that people definitely meet those conditions. It could be that somebody does have leave—lots of hypothetical situations may apply—but the number I gave you is for people who have claimed asylum since the Act.

Q55            Tim Loughton: It is not very likely that somebody with leave to remain or a visa to come to the UK is going to pay a people smuggler to come across in a dinghy, is it?

Dan Hobbs: I agree. It is hypothetical.

Tim Loughton: It is ridiculously hypothetical.

James Cleverly: We have to abide by the law.

Dan Hobbs: We need to abide by the law and demonstrate that people meet the conditions that are set out in the Act. That procedure has not begun.

James Cleverly: Unlikelihood does not give us licence to ignore the law.

Q56            Chair: Are the 33,085 part of the flow backlog, or are they a separate backlog?

Dan Hobbs: They are part of the 94,000 asylum caseload.

Q57            Chair: You are keeping them all together in one flow backlog, even though, at the moment, the 33,000 cannot apply for asylum?

Dan Hobbs: They are counted in the total caseload of work in our system.

Q58            Chair: Right, so 94,000 is the current backlog.

James Cleverly: It is the caseload.

Q59            Chair: The caseload is different from the backlog because—?

James Cleverly: They are the cases that we are working through at the moment. The backlog was specific. At the time of the change in legislation, there were a number of outstanding cases. We committed to giving an initial decision on those, and with the exception of the small number that the Committee has commented on—

Q60            Chair: But that is a legacy backlog.

James Cleverly: Yes.

Q61            Chair: So if we put that to one side, because you say that you have completed that—there are some concerns that that is not the case, but you say you have done it—you still have a backlog of claims post-June 2022, which is now at 94,000: is that what you are saying? Is that the backlog of asylum claims that you are working through?

Dan Hobbs: The caseload is 94,062, including claims since the Illegal Migration Act.

Q62            Chair: That is the total number of people in the backlog now.

James Cleverly: Chair, you keep describing it as a backlog, but—

Chair: Is it not a backlog? I’m sorry, but I do not understand why it is not a backlog.

James Cleverly: It is the caseload.

Chair: Why is it not a backlog? You have not dealt with them and people are waiting. Why is that not a backlog?

James Cleverly: It is a queue.

Chair: Oh, it’s a queue!

James Cleverly: Your use of the word “backlog” implies something that I disagree with, which is why I am arguing the point. There are a number of cases that we are working through. At any given time, someone who has arrived will be added to the caseload. By your definition, if someone arrived yesterday, that would be a backlog. I do not agree with that as a definition, so the phrase that we use—obviously the Committee is at liberty to use whatever descriptor it wishes—is “caseload”. We are working through our caseload.

Q63            Chair: When do you think you will get to the point where somebody arriving today will have their claim dealt with within the six months that the Home Office used to do it in? You used to process claims within six months. On this queue—the 94,062 backlog caseload—when will you get to the point where you are dealing with things quickly so that we will not have to talk about backlogs?

              James Cleverly: What we saw last year because of an increase in the number of people—

Q64            Chair: We understand that. I am conscious of the people who have questions. I just want to know whether you have a date in your mind as to when you will look at the backlog.

James Cleverly: It is impossible to give a complete date. The point is that we—

Q65            Chair: You did it for the legacy backlog. The Prime Minister promised that by the end of last year he would clear the legacy backlog. Are you of a similar mind?

James Cleverly: I want to do it as soon as we are able to—as soon as possible. We have an increase in the number of people and we have a faster system, which is why we are able to deal with the backlog. We are working quickly through this caseload.

Chair: We understand that. I am going to come to Carolyn Harris, but before that I have one other question: on the 33,085 that are recognised now within the scope of the Illegal Migration Act, how many do you expect to send to Rwanda?

James Cleverly: That will depend on which other countries we have returns agreements with.

Q66            Chair: You do not have any at the moment. Rwanda is the only safe country that you are processing through—

James Cleverly: Rwanda is not the only safe country. There are other safe countries. We have negotiated and we continue to negotiate returns agreements with other countries. It is entirely feasible that a significant number within that cohort will be returned to their country of origin.

Q67            Chair: Okay. But what do you expect in terms of the numbers to Rwanda? That is your flagship policy. You are pushing this through the Commons and the Lords. How many of that 33,000 do you expect will go to Rwanda?

James Cleverly: It depends on which other countries we send them to. The point with Rwanda is that it is part of our response, but only one part. In parallel with the Safety of Rwanda Bill, the treaty, and the work that we are doing with Rwanda, we are also doing work with other countries.

Chair: Okay, but just setting aside those other countries—

James Cleverly: Why would we set aside those other countries?

Chair: Because you must know, in terms of the 33,000, which countries you can send those people to, potentially, because there is a list. I am asking you about the people who cannot be returned if, say, they are from Afghanistan or Syria or various other countries. They are the ones who are going to go to Rwanda. Out of that 33,000, how many, when you get that first plane, which you have talked about wanting to take off as soon as possible, are you sending to Rwanda?

James Cleverly: First, the Rwanda scheme is an uncapped scheme. There is no inherent upper limit within that cohort of who we could send to Rwanda.

Chair: How many do you think?

James Cleverly: It is not a figure I can give you because we are negotiating returns agreements with other countries. As those returns agreements come onstream, the number of people who cannot be returned to their country of origin will reduce. That will have an impact on the number of people that we might send to Rwanda.

You are asking me to speculate about a figure. No one can give you that figure. If you had asked me this before we came to the arrangement with Albania, the answer would have been very different. We now have a returns agreement with Albania, and we are working on returns agreements with other countries. That can have a very significant impact on the quantum of people that we might consider going to Rwanda. Because the Rwanda scheme is uncapped, these would be entirely speculative figures.

Q68            Chair: Okay, but with the greatest respect, Home Secretary, Parliament is going through the process of putting into place the legislation that you need around the Safety of Rwanda Bill. We are told that the Government and the Prime Minister want to get this done. I assume that in place are various operational procedures and that you are getting people lined up.

You have got perhaps an airline. The last time the Minister was here, we did not have an airline that could remove people. So I am assuming that all of this is being planned, because you are a Department that has lots of people doing lots of planning. I am trying to work out what is the plan to deal with this 33,000. What are you expecting? Is it 100, 1,000, 10,000? What is the plan?

James Cleverly: With respect, you keep asking me the same question. The answer is therefore going to be the same.

Chair: You don’t know.

James Cleverly: That is not what I am saying at all. I am saying—

Chair: We are not getting an answer. That is the problem.

James Cleverly: You are asking for a figure that no one can provide, because it is contingent on other things happening.

Chair: Can you not give me a figure? I think you are repeating yourself. I understand what you are saying—

              James Cleverly: You are repeating the question.

Chair: Because I am not getting the answer. We will move on.

James Cleverly: The answer is that it is entirely dependent on what other work we do. You have asked me to speculate, but the answer is entirely dependent on other work we are doing in parallel. If we are successful with returns agreements, if we are able to stabilise and if circumstances in other countries change, it may well be that the figure could be quite low. It could be nearly at that figure, but the point is that the number of people we might send to Rwanda is entirely contingent on a whole set of other work that we are doing. But there is no cap on the Rwanda scheme.

Chair: We understand that there is no cap; I am just trying to get a sense of how many would go.

Q69            Carolyn Harris: Home Secretary, it would seem that one of your own Back Benchers is not very convinced of the Rwanda plan.

              James Cleverly: At least one.

Q70            Carolyn Harris: There will be many more. Robert Jenrick has said the Government is only planning to get a few symbolic flights off before a general election. How many flights would it take for it not to be symbolic?

              James Cleverly: I respect Rob enormously, but I fundamentally disagree with him on this. What he describes as symbolic”—a word that I would not usereflects the fact that this is meant to be a deterrent. I would not use the words symbolism or symbolic. It needs to have visibility; it needs to be seen. Part of reason why we negotiated the treaty with Rwanda and are getting the Bill through Parliament is to visibly send a signal to people who are putting money in the hands of people smugglers, and who are putting their own lives at risk in order to finish their journey in the UKthat you will not be successful in finishing your journey in the UK.

The visibility is actually an important part of the deterrent, and we want to send a signal that if you come here illegally, you will not stay here. You will either be returned to your own country if it is safethat is why we are negotiating return agreementsor to Rwanda if it is not safe. But the broad point is that we want to send a message. Rob calls it symbolic; I would call it a deterrent.

Q71            Carolyn Harris: I will leave Mr Jenrick to follow up on that one with you. I want to talk about pimping websites. You will probably be prepared for me to ask about pimping websites. I am really concerned that you cannot put an advert in a phone box advertising sex for sale, but you can advertise on a pimping website. We know from the inquiry that we have done that there are some individuals whose telephone numbers are across very many different profiles—not because they are the individual person selling the sex, but because they are a trafficker who sells women.

I did bring this up with one of your Ministers very recently, and she was reluctant to consider doing anything about it. She said that because some people prefer to sell themselves online and may therefore have multiple profiles, we would be denying them the opportunity to sell themselves if we were to take action to prevent this from happening. Surely you would not agree with that thinking, Home Secretary.

              James Cleverly: The law around prostitution and the so-called sex industry is incredibly complicated and delicate—

Carolyn Harris: Just say it is not an industry; it is exploitation.

              James Cleverly: I am trying to be very careful with my words. The legal framework that we operate is a legitimate area for debate and discussion, and Parliament might be minded to change the rules. Even in the short time that I have been Home Secretary, I have heard arguments and counter-arguments. At the moment, we operate within the legal framework that we have. We know that there is a significant risk for women because of the nature of these websites.

We make it very clear to the people who own and operate these websites that they have a duty—not just a moral duty, but a legal duty. That is underpinned by law and will be enforced. Officials in the Department have interacted with the owners and operators of these websites to make absolutely clear their legal duty and our expectation for them to abide by that legal duty.

I am very conscious of the risks that you highlight, and in terms of the law enforcement—both police forces and the NCA, which is very focused on the protection of women, particularly the protection of vulnerable women—they are very conscious of the role that these sites can play in that. A broader debate about the nature of what is and is not legal in this space is completely legit, but at the moment we are working within the framework that we have.

Q72            Carolyn Harris: You talk about communication with the owners of the websites. Are you aware of a case where one person spent £25,000 advertising various women on a website? This gang had actually been found guilty of trafficking 11 young Romanian women from one end of the country to the other, and instead of the website contacting the police to inform them that there were red flags here, they actually gave him his own account manager so that he could spend more money. We are facilitating trafficking here.

              James Cleverly: As I say, this is a risk that our law enforcement colleagues are very aware of. I am not familiar with the details of that case, but my view and very clear expectation and instruction to all the organisations over which I have influence and control—and this is the view that I am communicating in the Department—is that whether it is more generally illegal working where people are being coerced into employment, or sexual exploitation, or modern slavery, particularly when it is directed towards women, they are to prioritise this work.

As I say, there is a broader conversation about the legality around this, but my message is very clear: this is a priority. I will be ensuring that the police, the National Crime Agency and the Department respond to my prioritisation of this.

Q73            Carolyn Harris: Maybe the Chair and I can come and have a meeting with you to discuss the new clause we are tabling to the Criminal Justice Bill at this very moment in time.

I now want to talk about serving police officers who have committed sexual offences. They are permitted to remain in work. Would it not be appropriate for them to be suspended from work pending the outcome of an investigation so we can ensure that they are not in contact with females? There is a campaign, of which I am hugely supportive, run by the charity Refuge. It is gaining momentum, and I think the Home Secretary should give it some serious consideration.

              James Cleverly: Thank you for raising this. When I was first elected to the London Assembly, I served on the Metropolitan Police Authority and on the professional standards cases sub-committee. That sounds like a bit of an innocuous backwater, but basically it was the committee that dealt with breaches of professional standards, sanctioned police officers—in a number of instances ejecting them from the force—and did pension forfeitures. I started my political career basically punishing misconduct in policing, and I have maintained a passion for and interest in that throughout.

Again, in the conversation that I had with police leadership, I made it very clear—and this has been reflected in the Criminal Justice Bill—that police leaders, both political and uniformed, have a duty to get a grip on the professional standards of their forces. We will back them in doing that, but we expect them to do that.

Again, it is important when we come to things such as suspensions that the trigger for those is calibrated properly. There is a strong argument to say that where there are allegations of sexual misconduct, they should be taken very seriously, and I have a lot of sympathy for that. I also think it is important that the system moves quickly. Far too many officers have been suspended for far too long; they should either be cleared and get back to work or the investigation should be completed promptly and the appropriate sanction made. I am uncomfortable with how many officers have been suspended for long periods of time.

I get the argument. I need to look at the detail. Again, I am always uncomfortable making policy at a Committee like this, but I will look very seriously at the proposals that have been put forward. It is absolutely right, particularly in light of circumstances like Sarah Everard and others, that we make it absolutely clear that the police have an enhanced duty to be, and to be seen to be, acting professionally. I want that rippling through UK policing—that right from the top, we are watching and we demand that action be taken.

Q74            Carolyn Harris: For the Home Secretary’s information, we have heard of a case in which a serving police officer has been caught and prosecuted for masturbating on the tube. He is still a serving officer. That is quite horrific, in my opinion.

For what you will be glad to know is my last question, I want to ask about the definition of human trafficking, here and at the UN. Because our definitions differ, there are cases in this country where we are placing women—I say “women”; we have obviously placed men and young boys as well, but it is normally women—in danger and into the hands of abusers merely because the definition says that we have to transport them physically in a vehicle for them to be deemed as having been trafficked. We both know that if we pass a human being from one lap to another, that is effectively trafficking. But because our definition does not accept that, we are actually handing vulnerable people to the traffickers. Can we please look at this legislation, Home Secretary?

              James Cleverly: Again, I am more than happy to look with a genuinely open mind at the practicalities. We touched on this slightly earlier with regard to definitions. It is rare to be able to find a perfect definition. I will look at any discrepancies between the definition that we use and other international definitions. I would be uncomfortable saying that I will definitely be changing it, but I am more than happy, as I say, to look at any discrepancies between the definitions that we use and definitions used by others. If there have been instances in which the difference between definitions is being exploited, I will look into that.

Carolyn Harris: I really appreciate that. Thank you, Home Secretary.

Q75            Chair: I think the Home Office was undertaking a review of the Modern Slavery Act, Home Secretary; some of the work may already have been done on this.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: There is also, Chair, the response to your Committee’s report on human trafficking, which is due on 8 February—next week.

Q76            Chair: We look forward to receiving that on time. It sounds like we are going to get it on time.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Of course.

Chair: Of course? Well, that is very good—excellent.

Q77            Ms Abbott: Before we leave Rwanda, I had a question for Sir Matthew. You came before us in 2022. At that point, the scheme had been announced a few months earlier and you had requested a ministerial direction because you were not prepared to say that the migration economic development partnership with Rwanda had a strong financial evidence base. You came before us and said that you still did not know whether the Rwanda scheme would provide value for money. You said that the success of the scheme and whether it would have financial benefit would be determined by the number of people it deterred from illegally crossing the channel and you said that you had no evidence of a deterrent effect so far.

Do you have any evidence of a deterrent effect so far? Do you still stick by your position of spring 2022, when you were not prepared to sign off the policy as value for money?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: The ministerial direction remains in force and will do unless and until I am able to make an affirmative judgment that there is evidence that the policy represents value for money. As I said before, I keep that judgment under review, and I will come back to the Committee, if and when it changes. So far it hasn’t changed. It would be hard to have positive evidence of the deterrent effect until it is fully operationalised—in other words, until the flights are up and running.

Q78            Ms Abbott: Just so that I am clear, you are saying that you still don’t have evidence that the Rwanda policy is value for money? I just want to be clear; that’s all.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: I am saying that, for any policy, there either needs to be evidence that it is value for money, or the relevant accounting officer needs to have a ministerial direction. It is absolutely clear that there needs to be a deterrent effect to stop people trafficking others across the channel, risking those people’s lives. As the Home Secretary said, the deterrent effect is an important part of the total Government response to the challenge of small boats and, more broadly, of illegal migration.

Once the Rwanda bit of the policy is up and running, we will have evidence as to whether it is providing a deterrent effect. We know that deterrence works because we have the Albania arrangement.

Q79            Chair: But that is different, Sir Matthew.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: It is different, but it is similar in the sense that it deters people from making a crossing from that nationality. That is the basis that we are working on. As my letter requesting the direction back in 2022 made clear, because of the scale of the challenge and the cost to the taxpayer of the status quo, it is reasonable for the Government to seek innovative solutions, including the Rwanda policy.

Q80            Simon Fell: Just to put it on the record, I was appointed anti-fraud champion back in December, so I report to the Home Secretary in that capacity. I will not be asking any questions about fraud, but I wanted to make that clear.

Welcome, gentlemen. I would like to ask some questions about violence against and abuse of retail workers, if I may, especially in the light of the upcoming proposed smoke-free generation legislation and the ban on disposable vapes. Two years ago, this Committee produced a report into violence and abuse towards retail workers. We made a number of recommendations. At the time, there were an estimated 455 incidents of violence a day against retail workers. The BRC now estimates that that is sitting at about 850 incidents of violence against retail workers a day, and that there is a 27% increase in shoplifting. Unfortunately, both the BRC and the Association of Convenience Stores estimate that this ban will increase the trajectory of travel.

Given the plans, what work is the Home Office doing to estimate the impact on retail workers—not just on those who are selling vapes and tobacco products? What is the assessment of the impact that it will have on them?

              James Cleverly: The increase in violence against retail workers is, of course, unacceptable. I have discussed that with the Met Commissioner and other senior police leaders.

I do not have internal projections for the impact of the ban on vapes. Of course, we listen carefully. I would caveat that by saying that listening carefully does not automatically mean that we agree with the estimation, but the work that the BRC has done is underpinned by a reasonable set of assumptions, so we take it seriously.

There are a couple of things that focus specifically on retail. It is an aggravating factor in any criminal charges, which I think is important. Also, I feel that our instructions to the police that they are to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry will have a positive impact.

One of the problems that we have seen is the perception that shoplifting and retail crime will not be responded to by the police. I think that that perception has emboldened certain criminals. The perception by some that you can just do shoplifting and get away with it has meant that retail workers feel that they have to personally take action, and then we have this nasty escalation spiral.

Making it clear to retail workers that the police will take shoplifting seriously and will respond should give them confidence that they don’t have to take action, and therefore they can keep themselves safe. It will also show criminals and potential criminals that they will be pursued by the police, and that should have a suppressive effect. I will look at the BRC’s work on the changes to the age limits for tobacco, and we will feed that into the conversations we have with policing.

Q81            Simon Fell: Thank you. To be clear, are you planning to issue a directive that retail crime should be attended? The feedback I got when I went on store visits in my patch—I have heard this through reports from the BRC and others—was that a lot of shopkeepers feel that when they report to the police, the police are just not attending. Clearly, you have done this with burglaries. You have made it very clear that we expect police officers to attend where a burglary occurs. Are you expecting to do the same in the retail space?

James Cleverly: As I say, I have had direct conversations about this. The example I have given is that it is a bit like the broken windows principle. A significant part of our policing model is response, but deterrence is also really important. If you lose the deterrent element, policing is infinitely harder. The message we need to get across is that retail crime is a crime and will be taken seriously and responded to by the police. As I say, that both reassures the retail workers and has a deterrent effect. I have had that conversation directly.

With burglary, we are demonstrating that it has a positive effect. We will keep pushing hard on this “all reasonable lines of inquiry” instruction. We have taken action with regard to police funding to support and prioritise things like town centre policing and hotspot policing so there is an increased presence in those retail areas and the police are able to respond promptly to retail crime. That will reverse what I fear has been an escalatory cycle.

Q82            Simon Fell: Thank you. One of the recommendations we made in 2022 was for a stand-alone statutory offence to capture violence against retail workers. At the time, when the Home Office responded to our report, they rejected that proposal. In the light of the clear escalation in violence that we have seen and the estimated escalation following these proposals, are you going to look at that again?

James Cleverly: I have had discussions about the practicalities of this. It is understandable that, as legislators, we tend to turn to legislation. A lot of what we are trying to achieve through that is being played out through the aggravating factor, in terms of sentencing. Ultimately, whether it is a stand-alone crime or an aggravating factor, if the police aren’t attending and investigating, it becomes a bit of a moot point. My instinct is that we should fix the thing that needs fixing first. Whether it is an aggravating factor or a stand-alone crime, the police have to be there taking action. If they are not doing that, anything behind that falls away.

Let’s get the police on the streets—we are providing funding for that. We should make very clear Parliament’s and the Government’s expectations of the policing of retail. Let’s get that, because I think that will go a long way to addressing the issue. If it is subsequently clear that we still need to give it more heft, we have that legislative response still available to us.

Q83            Simon Fell: It is obviously not just about a legislative response; there are other levers that the Home Office can pull. Again, that report made recommendations on strengthening business crime partnerships with more direct Home Office funding and on directing safer streets funding to, especially, smaller independent retailers, who might not have the resilience and resources themselves to respond properly to the scale of the challenge. I am wondering what your thinking is in that space.

James Cleverly: I owned and ran a small business for a while. It was not a retail business, but I am conscious that small privately owned businesses are less resilient to shocks and that the cost of retail crime has a disproportionate impact on smaller retailers. I am reminded that we published the retail crime action plan last October. That contains an explicit commitment by the police to prioritise urgent attendance at retail crime. But you are absolutely right: the smaller retailers do not always have the money to put in some of the physical defences that larger retailers have. It is incredibly important that we respond to that. Also, as part of the retail action plan, in particular with regard to violence, where someone has been apprehended, even by the retail workers or security guards, there is a commitment by the police to respond promptly, to send the signal that action will be taken. No is not always a no, but I want to get this end of the system right first.

Q84            Simon Fell: Another challenge is dealing with supply, especially illicit supply. A couple of days ago—literally—a policy paper was published, “Stubbing out the problem”, which was a joint Border Force and HMRC paper looking at the illicit supply of tobacco, not vapes. That is estimated to be worth about £2.8 billion a year. I wonder whether you can talk us through what measures Border Force is putting in place to identify better where some of those products are coming into the country, how it is capturing the criminal gangs responsible, and how to stop them entering the market in the first place.

James Cleverly: You will understand that I will not go into certain operational things—it is important to keep them discreet and secure. I visited the National Crime Agency to look at our domestic and international work to break smuggling gangs. We talked about illegal migration earlier, and the sad truth is that for smuggling gangs, people are often just a product to be smuggled. People who have historically smuggled drugs, narcotics, tobacco or alcohol have drifted into the business of smuggling people. We are trying to break all those different smuggling operations, including the smuggling of people.

I reassure the Committee that both the inter-agency working—Border Force, HMRC, the National Crime Agency—and our partners internationally are closely co-ordinated. Smuggling illicit drugs is often thought of when people think of smuggling, but actually, smuggling things such as counterfeit tobacco brands or alcohol is a significant part of the smuggling operation. When I visited Luton airport just before Christmas, not only did I look at our returns flights, the repatriation flights, but I looked at I think one week’s seizures of illicit narcotics. They filled a room from floor to ceiling. It is a very real challenge, which we are very alive to. Again, I will not go into detail, but I reassure the Committee of the close co-ordination between the agencies domestically, and between UK agencies and their international counterparts.

Q85            Simon Fell: Yours is nothing if not a glamorous job. Obviously, the ink is barely dry on this report, but what it doesn’t do is cover vapes, so I am wondering whether there is going to be a duplicate or matching strategy to cover illicit flows of those as well. The Independent British Vape Trade Association says that about a third of the vapes in the country at the moment are illicit products. One would expect that to grow again with the ban, so I am assuming that there will be some thinking on this.

James Cleverly: Yes. I don’t have any details for you at the moment, but as you say, this is, although not new, fast growing. I think that, not just with vapes but with other non-combustible tobacco and nicotine products, this is something that we are going to have to continue to work on. One of the advantages we have is that lots of the work that we are doing on other forms of smuggling and tobacco smuggling will probably be relatively easy to port across to non-igniting products.

Q86            Simon Fell: I will pivot if I may, Chair—I think this question is probably for you, Mr Hobbs. Could you talk us through the asylum accommodation and support contracts and what the review process for those is? I am looking at, in particular, the induction paperwork provided to asylum seekers. The reason why I raise this is that a number of asylum seekers in my constituency have been handed pieces of paper that are essentially blank—missing from them are details of support workers and of how to contact the local council. Asylum seekers are given pieces of paper saying, “Google your local food bank.” Clearly, this is not meeting the standard that you would expect and, I am sure, the standard that the Home Office sets, so what is the process for reviewing this and calling in the contractors who are responsible?

Dan Hobbs: As with any contract, there is ongoing dialogue with the contractors, and there are certain standards that they are expected to meet, both in terms of the quality of the accommodation and repairs and, as you say, in terms of migrant help and support directly. If you write to us, we will definitely take up those considerations and I will pass that to the relevant team who deal with the contractor, because, as you say, it really is important that those requirements on providing clear information to those who we are accommodating are clear and supporting. As I say, it is standard contract management in terms of the requirements that are set for them. There is a regular dialogue through both the Home Office commercial team and the team who manage the asylum accommodation process, b

ut we are very keen to take up those individual cases.

Q87            Simon Fell: Thank you; I will definitely write to you. But on the broad principle, I assume that if a company that is contracted to deliver these contracts fails consistently in its ability to meet what is a relatively low standard—simply filling in a form and handing it to someone—that contract will be under review.

Dan Hobbs: Without our going into the individual details of the contract and the specific requirements, you are correct that we would—obviously—have a discussion with those contractors about their compliance with what is required of them should there be evidence that they are not complying or, again, in terms of our own ongoing evidence and assurance around those contracts.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: May I add two things to what Mr Hobbs has said? First, we have beefed up that part of the Department, so there is more resource dealing with our contract management in this space, because it is such a large contract, even bigger than we thought it would be when we signed it. Secondly, we do have examples of companies—not necessarily in this particular area, but in the Home Office’s area—where we have had to use tougher and tougher measures. As Mr Hobbs says, we start off by engaging with the company and ensuring that they know there is a gap between the level they are providing and what they should be providing. Then, if they are still unable to close that gap, of course there are measures within our contracts to claw back certain funding, and we have had to use that on some occasions.

Q88            Simon Fell: So that can be termination of contract and financial—

Sir Matthew Rycroft: After that, you would get into termination of contract.

Q89            Alison Thewliss: I have a number of slightly different areas of questioning for you, but I want to start with the situation on the Bibby Stockholm, Home Secretary. What is your understanding of the criteria for why people were stuck or why people were placed on the Bibby Stockholm?

James Cleverly: Why certain—

Alison Thewliss: Why particular people were based on the Bibby Stockholm.

James Cleverly: Well, the Bibby Stockholm is for non-detained—the first criterion is split between detained and non-detained. If there were more specific criteria, I might turn to my officials in terms of a tighter definition than that. Obviously, it is part of our desire to reduce the overall cost of asylum accommodation, and that is the overall reason why the Bibby Stockholm was commissioned. I might turn to my officials for any more detail as to why the individuals were placed there, rather than in one of the other forms of alternative.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: To add to what the Home Secretary said, everyone coming into the system has an initial health check and an initial screening. At that point, the caseworkers, who are trained specifically to do this, make assessments about whether there are any particular vulnerabilities. On the basis of that assessment, we decide who goes where.

Q90            Alison Thewliss: I asked this because several of the people I spoke to on the Bibby Stockholm did not understand why, out of an asylum population of over 120,000, this particular 300 were selected to go on this boat. Can you give any explanation for that?

James Cleverly: It is part of our accommodation. Theoretically, you could go to any part of our accommodation and ask the same question, and the service users would not automatically know why they were there, rather than the next-door town, the Bibby Stockholm or Wethersfield. I can understand their point of view, but it is part of our accommodation estate, and people are allocated.

Q91            Alison Thewliss: Are they placed there as a deterrent, to make it sound tougher than a hotel?

James Cleverly: The point is that hotel accommodation was a short-term measure in response to a significant increase in the requirement for accommodation. It was never envisaged to be a long-term solution. It has been shown to be a very expensive way of doing it, and we are broadly moving away from hotel accommodation across the board.

Our accommodation needs absolutely to meet the needs of the service users. It is not designed to be an incentive, and more broadly we are looking to deter people from putting themselves into the hands of people smugglers, from risking their lives. It is important that it meets the needs of the service users, and it does, but we would not want any part of our accommodation estate to be viewed as some kind of incentive.

Q92            Alison Thewliss: The people that I spoke to certainly did not feel that it met their needs, so I would certainly dispute that in the first instance. The people that I spoke to had been in hotels previously, and then had been moved from those hotels, away from their legal representatives and their support, to a place where there are very few lawyers and little legal support. Because they do not have a history of migration in that area, they do not have immigration lawyers in the vicinity.

The people I spoke to had not come over in small boats, either. One of the people I spoke to had come from Iran. He had been a student, but the situation in Iran had changed, so he could not go back there. He could not afford his international student fees, so he had claimed asylum. That seems perfectly reasonable. There is no reason why he ought to be feeling that he is being punished, which is how he felt.

James Cleverly: No one is being punished. This is not a punishment. We need to accommodate asylum seekers, and that accommodation needs to be functional. The Bibby Stockholm was designed to accommodate workers. It is not a punishment. None of our accommodation, including our detained accommodation, is a punishment. It is really important that that is the case.

Of course, I completely understand that people might not necessarily like the accommodation that we are providing—I completely get that—but it is designed to be safe and functional. The criteria for who goes where are a by-product of availability, numbers and that kind of stuff. As a general policy, we are moving away from accommodation in hotels because it distorts local economies, it is expensive for the Government and it is not the best use of public resource.

Q93            Alison Thewliss: Do you appreciate why somebody who had been in a hotel, who was moved to the Bibby Stockholm without explanation, without much notice, and does not know how long they will be on the Bibby Stockholm for would be quite frustrated by that? They would not understand why they were there, and that would feel like some kind of punishment.

James Cleverly: I can understand that they might not understand the policy drivers of the decision making at the Home Office; I completely understand that.

Q94            Alison Thewliss: Because they seek a reason for why they are there, and they cannot get that reason, or know even how long they will be there.

James Cleverly: The reason is quite simple. It is because they are applying for asylum and we have a duty to accommodate them during that process.

Q95            Alison Thewliss: But specifically why this 300 out of the 120,000 population? They don’t know why that is.

James Cleverly: But, as I say, if you asked anyone in any part of our estate, they could give you the same answer; they would not know why they were being accommodated in Sheffield rather than Norwich or the Bibby Stockholm rather than Wethersfield or Wethersfield rather than Liverpool. It is not—

Q96            Alison Thewliss: Some of the people on the boat that we spoke to have now been in the UK for well over a year. Why are they not being allowed to work?

James Cleverly: The policy with regards to the ability to work while seeking asylum is explicit. It’s there; it’s a long-standing policy. What we are looking to do is to focus on a system whereby the applications are processed in a speedy and timely way. So, weve had great success on that. We are looking to make sure that, successful or unsuccessful, asylum seekers know where they stand quickly.

Q97            Alison Thewliss: A year and four months is not speedily. That person should be entitled to apply for work after six months; why is that not being permitted for the people in the Bibby Stockholm?

James Cleverly: It is not after six months; it is after 12 months.

Alison Thewliss: In shortage occupation lists, it is after six months.

James Cleverly: Do you know whether they have applied?

Q98            Alison Thewliss: They have not been able to apply for that. They are not getting any answers from the Home Office, and they don’t have a lawyer because they’ve been moved away from their lawyers.

James Cleverly: It is always difficult to talk about individual cases. There may well be reasons. Im not going to try and—Im a bit torn; in order to respond to the detailed concerns that the individual raised with you, I would need to know the details of that individual, and I wouldnt want the Committee, or indeed the service users, to feel that, somehow, an increased focus of attention was brought upon them that they didnt want. So, if that individual wants to get in contact with us to query part of their process or case, then of course we will look at that, but without knowing the details of the individuals, and without validating—again, the simple truth of the matter is that there may be details that werent disclosed to you and there may be other details that have an influence on the case. Without knowing those details, I cannot really comment on individual cases. And extrapolating out from one individual, across the entirety of the people that we are currently accommodating, I just don’t think is a useful exercise.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: And everyone should have access to legal representation, so if there is a particular case where that is not the case, if you would let us know, we will follow that up separately.

Q99            Alison Thewliss: There are no immigration lawyers anywhere in the vicinity. That makes it very difficult to seek immigration advice; and to have 300 people seeking what limited immigration advice that exists locally is almost impossible.

James Cleverly: Well, we have to accommodate people where we are able to accommodate them, and it is not practical for us to seek to accommodate people near where immigration lawyers cluster. That is a logistical challenge, but everyone has the right to legal representation, and certainly we would not do anything to prevent people from having access to legal representation.

Q100       Alison Thewliss: It is a right, but it is difficult to exercise that right in practice.

James Cleverly: I am genuinely not sure what point you are making.

Alison Thewliss: Having the right to do something but not having the availability of a lawyer to exercise that right—

James Cleverly: Lawyers travel. Immigration lawyers travel, and the Bibby Stockholm has around 300 people, so there is clearly a market there for immigration lawyers, and immigration lawyers should be willing to travel, surely. Unless you are suggesting that we only accommodate people where there are clusters of immigration lawyers?

Q101       Alison Thewliss: I think it is a practical consideration that the Government have not taken into account when placing people on a vessel so far away from legal support.

James Cleverly: So is your suggestion that we only accommodate people where there are clusters of immigration lawyers?

Alison Thewliss: I think it is something that you have not taken into account. Would that be fair to say?

James Cleverly: No, it would not be fair to say.

Q102       Alison Thewliss: Well, I would like to see it, if you have any evidence for what you take into account

James Cleverly: No—hang on. You are making the assertion, so the burden of evidence is on you rather than on me.

Chair: Home Secretary, we are getting into a debate. Clearly, there is a shortage of immigration lawyers in this country. That is well known—if you spoke to the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, he would concur with that—so there is a problem with getting legal advice and immigration advice. Alison Thewliss, I am sure you want to move on to something else.

Q103       Alison Thewliss: Have you yet carried out an equality impact assessment on the visa thresholds decision?

James Cleverly: On all Government decisions, of course we look at the equality impact. It is part of the process for all Government decision making.

Alison Thewliss: It has not been published yet.

James Cleverly: We don’t always publish all the things in our decision making.

Q104       Alison Thewliss: It has been pointed out by various organisations that there is an equality impact assessment on this, because women generally may earn less than men—that is a documented fact, unfortunately—and there will therefore be a disproportionate impact on women if you raise the visa threshold.

James Cleverly: As I say, we do take into consideration the equality impact. That is part of our decision making. There are a certain number of tools at our disposal—those are the things that we can adjust in order to adjust the numbers of people coming through. It is not automatically the case that if something has a disproportionate impact it cannot be put in place by the Government; we just need to have due consideration to it. I can assure the Committee that we will always pay due consideration to equality impacts, but the bottom line is that the numbers of people coming to the UK through the routes that we have sought to change, or that we are in the process of changing, have been significantly above the levels that were envisaged. The Government decided—indeed, this has been mirrored by the official Opposition Front Bench—that the overall figures are too high and need to be brought down.

Q105       Alison Thewliss: Is it fair if someone moves abroad for work and gets married that they cannot afford to bring back their spouse to live in the UK under these thresholds?

James Cleverly: We have always had thresholds—

Alison Thewliss: But you are putting them up significantly. Is it fair that someone in that circumstance—

James Cleverly: Yes, but we have not put them up for the best part of 20 years—sorry, we have not put them up for over a decade. There have always been thresholds. While I completely understand that there will be arguments for and against any particular threshold, the point is that we have committed to reduce the overall numbers; we have made it clear that we are going to change the threshold; and we have given a timeline as to when those thresholds will be changed.

Alison Thewliss: Is it fair if someone moves abroad for work, falls in love and gets married that they now cannot afford to bring their spouse back to the UK to live?

James Cleverly: It is no more or less fair than it has ever been. There have always been thresholds—

Alison Thewliss: But they will now be higher, so that is more unfair.

James Cleverly: That is your interpretation. I don’t agree with your interpretation of that.

Q106       Alison Thewliss: Is it fair that a care worker who comes here on that particular visa as a health and social care worker can bring their spouse and family, but a nurse who is living and working here cannot now bring their spouse from overseas to come and live here?

James Cleverly: One of the things that we have done is sought to tighten up the rules around care workers and the health and social care visa, because we have seen a significant number of dependants brought through. I recognise the frustration implicit in your question, that some people have, which is why we are taking action to tighten the numbers of people who are coming through as dependants.

Q107       Alison Thewliss: Is it fair that universities will now struggle to employ postdoctoral researchers, because most of them would earn underneath that threshold? What impact will that have on the university sector?

James Cleverly: I have not yet seen evidence that that prediction is playing out. It seems, from the initial figures—I am conscious that it is very early—that the quantum of applications is still in keeping with the quantum prior to the changes that we are putting in place.

Q108       Alison Thewliss: Salaries for postdocs are roughly 30 k to 36 k. If this goes up to £38,700, they will fall under that threshold, won’t they? What impact will that have on the university sector in the UK, and the quality of research being carried out in the UK?

James Cleverly: What it will mean is that some people who might think of coming here will need to consider the implications. But the UK is still a hugely attractive place for the brightest researchers of the world. The quantum—the potential market of people who will seek to apply is still massive. As I say, the average threshold that you discussed is just a little under the threshold that will ultimately be put in place when we finish the transition from where we are to where we will need to be.

While I do hear the concerns raised by the higher education sector, the impact is speculative. When I was Foreign Secretary, I went to countries like India, for example, which has a very high interest in the UK higher education sector, and the quantum of single people who would fall into the cohort of people that might want to come for postgraduate research or doctoral research, etc. is still massive. The potential pool of people is still many, many, many hundreds of thousands, just from India.

Chair: I am very conscious that it is getting, near to 11.30 am. Alison, I’m sure you have some more questions, but could we have more succinct answers? We still have to hear from Kim Johnson.

James Cleverly: I’m trying to give the best answer—

Chair: It is no criticism at all; I am just conscious of your time, and we have Prime Minister’s questions at 12. I just want to ensure that everyone has a chance to ask questions.

Q109       Alison Thewliss: Moving on, what is the safe and legal route for people to come to the UK from Sudan?

James Cleverly: It depends on their individual circumstances.

Q110       Alison Thewliss: The individual circumstances are that the visa application centre is closed, and I have a dozen constituents who cannot leave Sudan and cannot get here because their paperwork is at the VAC.

James Cleverly: Right. Well, we put in place provisions for emergency travel documents. Again, without individual circumstances, it would be impossible for me to give complete answers.

Q111       Alison Thewliss: I have a gentleman who has been waiting since before the visa application centre was closed in March or April to get his wife over. If the Home Office had been more efficient in its processing, she would be here now, rather than being shot in the leg while waiting. I also have a woman, Kaltouma, who is waiting. Three of her children have been killed and she wants to get her husband and her two remaining children to come over here. When will their visa be processed? She has been waiting for over a year, and my office has been back and forth to the Home Office with it.

James Cleverly: I’m not able to do casework at a Select Committee.

Q112       Alison Thewliss: I appreciate that, and I am not asking you to do that right here. I am asking what the route to get here is for people stuck in Sudan.

James Cleverly: As I said, it depends on their individual circumstances. You raised individual pieces of casework. If they’re with the Department already, I will seek to get a follow-up. If they’re not, please, in your capacity as a constituency MP, raise the issue with the Department.

Q113       Kim Johnson: Good morning. I have a couple of questions for the permanent secretary and possibly Mr Dobbs. I want to pick up on an earlier question about delayed reports and data. The Children’s Commissioner has been waiting for data on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Do you know how many are currently living in hotels? Can you tell us how data is collected on these children?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Yes.

James Cleverly: With regard to how data is collected, obviously there’s—sorry, I will take your first point first. There are currently no unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being accommodated in hotels. We recognise the concerns that the Committee has previously raised. We’ve gone through a process and, as of my appearance here today, there are now none in that category.

Remind me: the second part of your question was about how we—

Kim Johnson: How you collect data.

James Cleverly: That is a bit more technical.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: We collect data at the point of arrival, and then we work closely with the relevant local authority, which is quite often obviously Kent, and then with whichever local authorities are taking on responsibility for each child. We aggregate that and publish it in the usual way.

Q114       Kim Johnson: Would you say that the process for age assessment undertaken by the Home Office is currently fit for purpose?

              James Cleverly: Yes, as much as any age assessment can be. It is a universal truth that no one has a scientifically accurate means of assessing ages. We have a double-lock process, whereby assessment is made by two caseworkers. If either of them believes the individual to be a child, they are treated as a child. There is no absolutely foolproof system, and it is very difficult. Of course, we have a responsibility to make sure that children are dealt with appropriately as children. We also have a responsibility, in terms of our safeguarding, to make sure that people who are actually adults are not accommodated with children. That is a tension, and we recognise it as a tension, but it is one that we take very, very seriously.

Q115       Kim Johnson: What training are caseworkers given to do this level of assessment? Do they just stick a finger in the air and say whether someone is an adult or a child?

              James Cleverly: Of course not, no.

Kim Johnson: So what training do they get?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: First of all, the Supreme Court has deemed the current process lawful. Secondly, we are seeking to strengthen it by bringing in the National Age Assessment Board, which will allow social worker experts to come into the system and add to it. But the two separate, independent people who have to make each judgment in cases where they are contested are fully trained.

Q116       Kim Johnson: Moving on to Windrush, in 2019 you estimated that 15,000 people would be eligible for the compensation scheme, but to date only 2,076 have received compensation. Can you explain why it has taken so long and explain some of the discrepancies?

              James Cleverly: That initial number was speculative. It was a rough assessment of the order of magnitude of the people that we would need to support. Of the 7,534 claims that have been received, 2,076 have received an award, totalling £75 million. A number of claims are still outstanding, and 1,580 claims are still a work in progress.

Q117       Kim Johnson: How many people are working on that scheme, Home Secretary?

              James Cleverly: I would need to double-check on that.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: From memory, it is about 250. If that is very inaccurate, we will get back to you.

Q118       Kim Johnson: There have been a lot of complaints that the process is very bureaucratic and that the form filling is very difficult. Are you taking anything on board in terms of simplifying the process?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: We are, and thank you to this Committee for your feedback after your visit to the team in Sheffield. We have had other feedback as well, and we have very significantly accelerated the decision making—first, by increasing the number of caseworkers, and secondly by streamlining the requirements. For instance, the initial phase, which was taking 18 months, is now down to four months. We are very conscious, as we have talked about here before, that this is an ageing cohort and that they have been very unjustly treated, and the whole point of the compensation scheme is to help redress that. Of course, there is lots of other activity to make sure that a scandal such as Windrush can never happen again.

Q119       Ms Abbott: Quickly on Windrush, as you said, people are very concerned about the delays, because this is an ageing cohort. First, you will have heard that almost everybody engaged in the Windrush issue has said that it should be moved from the Home Office to an independent organisation, partly because people believe it would be dealt with more efficiently, without delays. Secondly, because of the way they have been treated by the Home Office, it is difficult for that cohort of people to come forward.

              James Cleverly: I really do understand that.

Chair: It was also a recommendation of the Committee that it should move.

              James Cleverly: I am not necessarily convinced that moving the process at this stage of the process would speed it up. I totally get that there is a deficit in terms of confidence in the Home Office, and I get that that may have an influence on how people apply. That cohort of people, by definition, do not start with a great deal of confidence in the Department—I get that. It is a difficult balancing act.

Q120       Kim Johnson: Does the Home Office still have dedicated teams working on the different resettlement schemes? If so, how widely spread are staff in those different teams? We know that Afghan refugees have been having difficulty getting accommodation and support.

Dan Hobbs: We have both policy and caseworking teams who manage all our various resettlement programmes; there are different ones for the Ukraine scheme and the Afghan scheme. All Afghans who are brought into the country should—are given accommodation and support on arrival, and their status under our resettlement schemes. We know that some people have been housed in temporary bridging accommodation because there isn’t availability with local authorities, but the teams are working through that with both local agencies and local authorities to move people though.

There are dedicated teams for caseworking these programmes. As you will know, we are doing a consultation with local authorities on what their capacity is to support safe and legal routes, so that we are able to ensure that our commitments on “safe and legal” can be met by local authority housing and support.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: We are trying to do two things at once with the caseworking teams. First, we are trying to create a single family of caseworkers so that someone could have a career in caseworking within the Home Office in which they can get progression and have a very rewarding career. Having some flexibility between different routes and different types of casework is an important part of that offer to our employees.

Secondly, we recognise that there is benefit in expertise and in having a highly motivated workforce who really know and care about particular cohorts. That is why we have given some teams in some locations particular responsibilities for some cohorts. But I think that they would recognise that the workforce are flexible and that, as demand changes, those teams could move on to other cohorts.

Q121       Kim Johnson: But you will be aware that there has been criticism about the level of support for Ukrainian settlement schemes and Afghan settlement schemes in terms of the Homes for Ukraine scheme and all so on. The schemes have not been equitable, and there has been some criticism about that.

              James Cleverly: I recognise that. One of the challenges in comparing different schemes is that, while they broadly seek to do a similar thing, they are quite discrete and, importantly, different. For example, with the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the accommodation scheme around that, the desire to stabilise the situation in Ukraine—or enough of Ukraine to allow those Ukrainian families to go back home, which is what they keep telling us they ultimately want to do—meant that that accommodation scheme was always going to be temporary in nature; the nature of the accommodation reflects that temporary status. The situation with the Afghan resettlement is that it is a resettlement scheme, rather than a temporary accommodation scheme. So, the need for more permanent accommodation is different.

As Matthew said, there is work that is common to both schemes, and the teams working on this need to be able to flex across various schemes. The next thing we have to do in terms of casework—we don’t know what it is going to be; none of us can know what it will be—might be very different from either the Ukraine situation or the Afghan situation.

Q122       Kim Johnson: This is my final question, Home Secretary. You mentioned being careful with words. It would be true to say that you were not very careful with your words in December, in terms of the offensive joke. How do you expect people to trust you in terms of dealing with the spiking challenge?

              James Cleverly: The point I made in response to that was that I am annoyed with myself. For the record, I was trying to make an ironic joke. I was drawing attention to the point that I had put forward legislation that day to tighten measures around spiking. In the same way that I talked about having been involved in policing professional standards since the beginning of my time in politics, the protection of woman and girls is one of these things I have worked on throughout my career. I took action on spiking as one of the early decisions that I made. Prior to my time as Home Secretary, I drove through the women and girls strategy at the FCDO to make sure that 80% of our international aid had a demonstrably positive effect for women and girls.

So the comments that I made, of course I regret and I apologised, and that apology is heartfelt. I am frustrated if in any way has detracted—well, I know it will have detracted from the work we are doing. I am, however, absolutely undeterred that I will continue pushing to improve the safety of women and girls. I hope I am judged on my record, and I am conscious that I now have an enhanced duty to prove my credentials on this. That is down to me—it is no one else’s fault—but the way I respond to that is making sure that at some point in the future when people look back and they are rightly frustrated with what I said in December, they will balance that against my actual record of delivery, both beforehand and since.

Kim Johnson: Actions speak louder than words.

James Cleverly: Absolutely; that is a fair point.

Chair: Obviously this trip to the dentist has been quite a general check-up on a number of issues.

James Cleverly: With molars, incisors—

Q123       Chair: We haven’t been able to cover everything, so would you be able to write to me on some of the questions we did not have time to go through today? To go back to Kim Johnson’s point about the information that the Children’s Commissioner requested in April 2023, when will that be provided in full? There is still information outstanding.

Perhaps, Sir Matthew, you might be able to write to the Committee about what action will be taken if a civil servant refuses to follow a ministerial direction not to comply with a rule 39 indication. We have had correspondence from the Cabinet Secretary about that and your response to him, but we would welcome your understanding of what would happen to an official in those circumstances.

I have just a few other things to raise. We are very pleased to see the number of caseworkers that the Home Office now has, and that has obviously contributed to the backlog being dealt with. Could we please have the retention rates for those caseworkers? We know that has been a big problem in the past, and we would like to see whether progress has been made on that.

Could you also confirm whether, in preparation for the Rwanda scheme, you do now have an airline that is willing to take people to Rwanda? I know that, in the past, that has not been the case.

Could we also know how many empty hotel rooms you are currently paying for, in terms of asylum accommodation? The last time we heard, about 10,000 empty hotel rooms were being commissioned by the Home Office. Could we have that information in writing? [Interruption.] Or do you want to correct us now?

James Cleverly: I was just checking to make sure, because one of the things that I want to make sure is that in our regular reporting cycles we have completeness of reporting. If there are things that are gappy, I want to see whether we can address those gaps. I will make sure we respond.

Q124       Chair: Thank you. I have been asked to put this to you: why have the Government not produced a hate crime action plan in five years? We are particularly concerned about that because we have been doing an inquiry into the policing of protests, and many issues have arisen around hate crime. Could we have a response on that? Where are the Government on producing a new hate crime action plan? I think it was supposed to be reviewed in 2018.

Sir Matthew Rycroft: There has certainly been a lot of action on how to respond to hate crime, and a lot of work with the police on that. I am absolutely sure we could write with an update on the action plan.

Q125       Chair: We want to know where the plan is, because things have moved on in five years and there hasn’t been one.

The only other thing I want to ask you about, Home Secretary, is Wethersfield. Obviously, that is in your constituency. You have indicated in the past that you take the view that it shouldn’t carry on for very long—it should be closed. Is that correct?

James Cleverly: First, I should make it clear that I have recused myself from operational decisions around Wethersfield. That function is taken up by another Minister in the Department, so that there is no conflict of interest and no perception of one.

The thing I said about its location prior to its opening is a matter of record. What I have said is that ultimately I want to reduce the need for asylum accommodation in general. I have said to my constituents and more broadly that the cost of asylum accommodation is far too high. I want to speed up the processing of asylum claims so that we do not need that quantum of accommodation. Ultimately, I want to make facilities—whether it be the Bibby Stockholm, Wethersfield or hotels—obsolete because we are processing more quickly.

Q126       Chair: We are all agreed that we want you to process more quickly—absolutely.

My final point is about the Brook House public inquiry and the report that is with the Home Office. Will you be responding within six months, as the Chair requested?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: Yes, we will.

Chair: You will? So you will produce the report within six months?

James Cleverly: Yes.

Chair: Okay, thank you very much. Thank you for your time. We have run over slightly, but that has been very helpful.