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Mr. Bercow: The right hon. Gentleman's predictions seem as likely to be fulfilled as was Billy Bunter's postal order to arrive. Given that thousands of asylum seekers habitually disappear when their applications are turned down, can he explain why the Home Office target for the removal of such people in 1999-2000 is only 8,000, even though the applications of many times that number are rejected each year? Is not his policy--pusillanimous as it is--a recipe for a constant, on-going increase in the number of people staying here who should not be staying here?

Mr. Straw: I am not entirely clear to which figures the hon. Gentleman refers. Total removals in the last financial

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year were 35,200, which happens to be up on the total number of removals in the last year of the previous Government, which was 28,000. Let me make it clear that I accept that we need to do much more to expand enforcement and removal activity. That is one thing that we propose to do. However, we start from a very low base because the previous Administration effectively collapsed the staffing of the immigration and nationality directorate by taking the astonishing risk that all the savings that were promised, but never delivered, under the old contract would be available.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was at her most extravagant when it came to criticism of the increase in the backlog of asylum applications. Part of the reason for that increase is the higher than expected volume of applications to which I have already referred. However, it is also significantly the result--if I accept responsibility for what happens under this Administration, the right hon. Lady and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe have to accept responsibility for what happened under theirs--of the contract that she signed with Siemens for the delivery of so-called business change in the immigration and nationality directorate. That contract is binding on the Government. At its signature, Home Office Ministers described it as

It certainly had a transforming effect. As I have already said, the Public Accounts Committee recently described it as

    "over-ambitious from the outset".

The previous Administration even made provisions for a redundancy programme to get rid of people before they had any savings in their pockets. We reversed the redundancy programme, but unfortunately by then the IND had lost valuable caseworking expertise.

I can tell the hon. Member for Hertsmere that since last summer, we have begun a massive recruitment programme to boost staff numbers. We are taking on 850 extra staff. They include 250 asylum decision- makers, who have already been recruited, and more are planned. We are close to achieving 4,000 asylum decisions a month, and we are aiming to make 8,000 a month by the late spring. All that takes time, but even at current intake levels those additional resources should enable us to make major inroads into the backlog.

I pay particular tribute to the staff of the IND. They have made a massive effort to recover its business from the depths of last year. That commitment and the additional resources that we are providing will help to consolidate the recovery.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I echo the Home Secretary's tribute to the staff who deal with that huge amount of work. However, the present system gives rise to serious concern about the work that is being done. Does he accept that some of those who sit on tribunals as adjudicators are not working at all at the moment because they are not being given any cases? That is because some of the files that have been transferred from Lunar house to the Whitgift centre as part of the great reorganisation are sitting in a basement, untouched because they are said to be surrounded by

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asbestos; they are not being processed at all. Is not it still the case that the system is not working, even though many people want to do the work?

Mr. Straw: I accept that the system is certainly not working as well or as fully as it should, and it will be some time before it is working fully. However, it is getting better. There has been a significant improvement in the departments and arrangements for which I am responsible and those for which my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is responsible.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) rose--

Mr. Clappison rose--

Mr. Straw: I have given way a great deal. I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall make progress.

We have set a target that from April 2001 most initial asylum decisions will be made within two months, and most appeals decided within a further four months. We remain committed to those targets. Indeed, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friends that we are already meeting those targets for families with children. Following a debate on the Immigration and Asylum Bill, we have given priority to such applications, and since November most of them have been decided within two months.

The interim asylum support scheme is already in place and there has been much more dispersal as a result, easing pressures on London and the south-east. The full scheme will come into force from April 2000. Support, mainly in kind, will then be provided with minimal cash. Dispersal will be on a no-choice basis as regards location.

Returning to removals, at the end of last year I announced our plans to open a new reception centre for asylum seekers at Oakington, near Cambridge, providing up to 400 additional places. Applicants who are transferred to Oakington will be required to reside there for about seven days while their claim is decided, and their application will fall to be refused on non-compliance grounds if they leave without permission.

Subject to relevant permissions being granted, new detention facilities are also already planned for Aldington in Kent, Heathrow airport and Lindholme, near Doncaster. Those alone will create an additional 400 places and will reduce the immigration service's dependence on places in Prison Service establishments. A further expansion in the immigration service's detention estate, to cope with the increasing number of removals that we are expecting to achieve, is under active consideration, along with the establishment of reporting centres, which will ensure that contact is maintained with applicants throughout the process.

Mr. Malins: I am very concerned about the question of removals. I ask the Home Secretary carefully to check his figures for 1998-99 and for how many are expected in future. Official figures that I have obtained show that in 1998, only 350 failed asylum seekers left as a result of deportation. That figure was in a written answer, which I can show him now.

Mr. Straw: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the figure cannot be as low as 350. As soon

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as I have finished my speech, I will get the information to which he is referring and ensure that the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), deals the matter when she replies to the debate. I can tell him that, in the current financial year, 35,200 people have been removed from this country.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I have dealt with the matter.

Mr. Lilley: The right hon. Gentleman has not dealt with the matter; I have the figures here.

Mr. Straw: I have dealt with the matter. I am always concerned to ensure that there is agreement on figures, but that cannot be reached across the Floor of the House. There is a huge difference between 350 and 35,200, which needs to be sorted out--the figure is certainly not 350--in more detailed discussion. Perhaps I should invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to establish a numeracy hour for Conservative Members.

I come to the issue of charges for clandestines. In 1987, the previous Government introduced civil penalties, at £2,000 a passenger, on airlines that carried passengers who had inadequate documentation and no permission to enter the UK. That system has worked, but there is a gaping loophole in its scope because it does not extend to buses, coaches or trucks. Partly as a result of that, there has been a huge increase in the number of clandestine asylum seekers coming through sea ports, particularly Dover--something else that has added to the pressure on that port.

Under our new Act, we are extending the civil penalty to bus and coach carriers, and creating a new civil penalty for all clandestines found in the back of freight trucks. The system will work fairly for those who take the necessary precautions. I fail to understand how, on one hand, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald can use the emotive language of calling us a soft touch, while on the other opposing such a common-sense policy, which builds on the controls that the Conservatives initiated.

Mr. Clappison: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

Not least because of a large immigration case load as a constituency member, I am well aware that the service that the IND has been providing to hon. Members has fallen short of the standard that they have a right to expect. We are determined to correct that. In order to provide a much better system through which hon. Members and their staff are able to contact the IND, a new dedicated telephone service has been established. Staff will be available between 9 o'clock in the morning and 6 o'clock in the evening to answer the inquiries of hon. Members and their staff and to check the progress of any case. Where a case is found to be straightforward and can be easily resolved, that will be done, and quickly.

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To return to the question raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I am pleased to say that the position in the integrated casework directorate, which deals with non-asylum matters, is improving. More than 60 per cent. of applications are resolved within a few days of arrival, all public callers in Croydon are seen on the same day, and about 800 Home Office travel documents are delivered each week, compared with 100 a week in August.

We recognise the scale of the task to restore the integrity of the asylum and immigration system. There can be no quick fix, and we have never promised one. We are putting in place the foundations to ensure that the system is fairer, faster and firmer. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 should, over time, deliver real changes. We are devoting the resources needed to deliver substantially higher output. Against the degradation of the system under the previous Government, we are investing an additional £120 million in the immigration and nationality directorate over this and the next two years.

If the changes introduced by the Conservatives--their two flawed Acts, their computerisation that went wrong and their staff cuts--had worked, the major reforms on which we are embarked would not have been necessary. However, they are necessary, and it is a mark of the continued policy failure of the Conservatives that their contribution to our legislation was not to strengthen it, but to weaken it by opposing penalties on hauliers with clandestine entrants hidden on their lorries and by calling for a £500 million extension of cash payments to asylum seekers.

We are getting on with restoring the asylum and immigration system to proper integrity, so as to ensure that it deals firmly, fairly and swiftly with asylum and immigration applications. We are repairing the damage that the previous Government did to that system with their cuts in staff, their computerisation and their failure to provide proper financing. Having listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, I can tell her that the British people will need far more than the nonsense that she served up this afternoon if the Conservatives are ever again to be elected to govern.

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