Yesterday the Commons hosted questions to the Home Office. The new Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling (right), had a chance to shine.
Shadow Justice Minister David Burrowes asked about drug prevention:
"Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Last month, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse published figures that reveal that nearly 25,000 young people aged under 18 are in treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Is that not an indictment of the fact that the Government did not do more earlier on drug prevention, and the fact that just 12 per cent. of the drugs budget was spent on prevention? There is no evaluation at all of many of the activities.
Jacqui Smith: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the progress made by those working in the drugs field over the past 10 or 11 years. Overall drug use and class A drug use among young people are now at their lowest levels ever, as measured by the British crime survey. Among school pupils, overall drug use has fallen. The rate of frequent drug use among pupils has also fallen. The people involved in that work should be congratulated, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s party, which proposes cuts to the Home Office budget; that would certainly impact on our ability to counter the harms caused by drugs. I hope that he will back up his words with words advising his Front-Bench team to put back that money."
Maria Miller, Shadow Minister for the Family, received a similar answer to her question, which answer again poured scorn on the Conservatives’ spending plans:
"The Basingstoke rape and sexual abuse centre, along with many other rape crisis centres, does an excellent job to support victims. Why do the Government not do one thing that would really help those centres and adopt a three-year funding cycle, as suggested by colleagues on the Opposition Benches, to try and put an end to the financial uncertainty that so many of those crisis centres still face?
Mr. Campbell: The Government provided £1 million extra this year to rape crisis centres, and I am informed that no rape crisis centre has closed since that period. We value the work of rape crisis centres and are working with local partners to see how best they can be funded, but coming from a party that will cut investment, suggesting a commitment to a three-year period is asking a lot."
Let us take a deep breath and patiently say this once again: when a budget is large and complex it is possible to make overall savings whilst increasing or maintaining spending on specific areas!
I must confess that when I worked at (what was then) Conservative Central Office I didn’t pick the new Shadow Home Secretary as a high flier. But Chris Grayling made a superb fist of his last job, and has had a flying start to this one. Yesterday he asked an excellent couple of questions:
"In November 2007, the Government admitted that thousands of people cleared by officials to work in the security industry were working in Britain illegally; one of them was even guarding the Prime Minister’s car. How many of those thousands of people have now been deported?
Mr. Woolas: I am more than happy to engage in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on the specific figures. However, I note from The Sunday Times that the hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome to his post, is now against our border controls that involve counting people in and counting them out. He has described that as being evidence of a “Big Brother” state. I ask him whether he is still in favour— [Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, he cannot have border controls and make statements such as those that he made on Sunday.
Chris Grayling: It is hardly surprising that the hon. Gentleman does not want to answer the question. Last week, Ministers were forced to come clean and admit that only 35 of those more than 3,000 people working illegally in the UK had been deported. That is despite the fact that, at the time, the Home Secretary said:
“There was no fiasco or blunder; there was strengthened and improved action.”—[ Official Report, 13 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 538.]
Mr. Woolas: The Government are removing illegal migrant workers—one every eight minutes. The hon. Gentleman can play politics with this issue, but does he mean that he will rewrite the Geneva convention? Does he mean that he will ignore the independent decisions of judges? Does he mean that, as he said in The Sunday Times yesterday, he opposes the e-border controls that allow this country to protect its borders? Which is it?"
One of Mr Grayling’s Home Affairs team, Reigate MP Crispin Blunt, asked another question with funding implications, and in fairness got a more sensible answer than his colleagues received:
“We try to ensure that the police are involved in determining where money goes”.—[ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 92WH.]
Mr. Coaker: We work hard with the DCLG on the Prevent strategy. We also work hard with the police to ensure that the groups we fund in local areas are the ones which can help us to tackle radical extremism. The Prevent strategy is an important part of our anti-terrorist strategy.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is an extremely important area. It involves taking of difficult decisions about who to fund in a particular local area, but if we want to make a difference, rather than just make ourselves feel better, we do have to take such difficult decisions. We sometimes have to get involved with groups that we might not wish to, but the Prevent strategy, as part of the broader Contest strategy, is successful and it is making a real difference in many communities throughout the country by preventing the radicalisation of vulnerable young people."
Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green asked about ID cards:
"Minister has just said that airport workers in Manchester will be one of the first groups to have compulsory ID cards. Labour Members may wish to know that those airport workers themselves proposed a motion that was passed overwhelmingly at the TUC conference last year, to oppose ID cards
“with all the means at their disposal”.
Does that not tell the Minister that when real people are told that they must have an ID card, they recognise the scheme as expensive, intrusive, pointless and a dangerous threat to our freedom? Why does she not save time and scrap it right now?
Meg Hillier: Both my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have met trade unions a number of times. Most recently, my right hon. Friend met the trade unions from the airport on 29 January, on her visit to Manchester, and they were very supportive of the scheme. We are working closely with all the partners in the airports to ensure that the scheme delivers real benefits to airport workers, including on such matters as the portability of passes, to prevent very high costs and challenging circumstances for staff who often have to wait a long time for their security clearance before they are paid. Identity cards will speed that up, and we look forward very much to working with airports to ensure that the scheme works and that we learn lessons for the further roll-outs."
I was not an outright opponent of ID cards, but the Government’s grotesque mishandling of data has struck fear into my heart.
Congleton MP Ann Winterton asked an important question about the amount of time police officers spend on the beat. In my view this is the central issue in the fight against crime.
"What steps she is taking to maximise the amount of time that police officers spend on front-line policing. 
The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Since April 2008 there has been a neighbourhood policing team in every area. The Green Paper confirmed our commitment to reducing bureaucracy and developing technology to free up officer time. It is vital that the police are able to do their jobs efficiently, without being constrained by unnecessary bureaucracy. The policing pledge includes a commitment for neighbourhood policing teams to spend at least 80 per cent. of their time visibly working on their patch.
Ann Winterton: What reassurance can the Minister give that the Policing and Crime Bill will effectively tackle the bureaucracy and targets placed on the shoulders of police officers, which have been described by Sir Ronnie Flanagan as straitjacketing them and prevent them from doing the job that local people expect them to do?
Mr. Coaker: The hon. Lady makes an important point, but we do not need the Policing and Crime Bill to achieve several of the things that she would like to happen. We have already announced a large number of measures, about which I think she and officers in her constituency in Cheshire and others will be pleased.
They include the removal of all top-down targets except one. For example, the “offences brought to justice” target has gone. The only target in which the Government are interested is the confidence target, whereby we ask local people whether they have confidence in the policing in their areas.
The hon. Lady knows that Jan Berry is working on the other points that she made about bureaucracy. She also knows that Sir David Normington is compiling a report. There will be an announcement in the next couple of weeks, which will help to tackle some of her concerns and those of the officers in her area, about the way in which we intend to reduce the bureaucratic burden on our police officers."
Finally, former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis asked about torture:
"Can the Home Secretary give the House an unequivocal answer to the question “Has any arm or agency of the British Government been complicit in any way in torture?” Yes or no?
Jacqui Smith: I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made the Government’s position in respect of torture absolutely clear in his statement last Thursday. When there was a suggestion of any form of complicity, I did what I thought was the right thing to do, and referred it to the Attorney-General for investigation."
I’m not sure that answer inspires confidence.