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Asylum Statistics

14. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): If he will make a statement about the asylum statistics for 1999. [112586]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): There were 71,000 applications made and 32 decisions taken during 1999. As a result of the Government's investment in the asylum process, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of decisions taken so far this year. The total number of decisions taken during January 2000 was 4,000, and the early indications are that the figure for the past four weeks is likely to be more than 8,000. In the first week of this month alone, more than 2,200 initial decisions were made. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that the numbers of decisions taken are now at record levels. The average time taken for an initial decision in December 1999 was 13 months compared with 20 months in April 1997.

Mr. Gray: Although I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that reply, it sounded a little glib and complacent. In an earlier response, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green(Mrs. Roche), suggested that the number of applications pending was due to the backlog left over from the previous Government. Will the right hon. Gentleman

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admit that about 104,000 applications are outstanding? His complacent reply that the number of decisions has gone up to 4,000 from 32 last year shows that he misunderstands the problem. More importantly, will he also admit that the number of applications has doubled since the Government came to power, that it is rising and that they are doing nothing about it?

Mr. Straw: I am not in the least complacent about the situation: indeed, I am very concerned about it. Had I been complacent, I would not have put any provisions in place to deal with the problems caused by the Siemens contract, which was signed indelibly in 1996 by the previous Administration and has caused such severe problems ever since. It is a mark of our concern about the system that we have significantly invested in the asylum and immigration process. The investment is now showing signs of paying off: as I have said, 8,000 asylum applications were decided in the past four weeks.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): My right hon. Friend has taken welcome action to relieve pressure on communities in Kent and London from those seeking asylum, but will he ensure that local authorities outside London receive information and advice as quickly as possible about the extra assistance that may be available to them, so that they can plan ahead carefully to receive asylum seekers?

Mr. Straw: We are doing everything that we can to ensure that local authorities are fully informed in respect of asylum seekers who are being dispersed to their areas. I have asked that arrangements be made to inform hon. Members so far as is possible when there are significant developments with regard to asylum seekers in their constituencies.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What response is the Home Secretary giving to local authorities such as mine in London, where the cost in the next financial year of accommodating asylum-seeker families will be about £25 on the average council tax? When precisely do the Government intend to assume financial responsibility for a national problem, as they have undertaken to do in principle?

Mr. Straw: On the funding that is directly the responsibility of my Department, I have arranged that we meet additionally an £8 million shortfall for 1999-2000, so that local authorities are compensated in full for their costs, as I believe they should be. There has been a particular problem in respect of unaccompanied minors who claim asylum, which is, at the moment, the responsibility of the Department of Health. I am in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and hope for a satisfactory outcome for local authorities. All of us recognise that the arrangements have placed a considerable burden on local authorities. We recognise the strength of their case to be compensated properly for that.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): What target did the Home Secretary set the national asylum support service on the units of accommodation to be secured by 1 April this year and on the introduction of the new support system? How many units of accommodation has it been

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able to secure for that date? What is the shortfall in the Government's figures? Will he finally admit to the House that the new asylum seeker support system, about which he has been boasting for so long, is turning out in practice to be a complete and utter shambles?

Mr. Straw: I would be happy to provide the details that the hon. Gentleman sought by letter. We determined that there was adequate accommodation to start phasing in the national asylum support scheme, so that we could end the entitlement to cash social security benefits for all new applicants from 3 April 2000. The availability of cash social security benefits, which was instituted and confirmed by the previous Administration, has been one of the major pull factors in this country being seen as more attractive than others. It is we who are bringing that to an end for new applicants from 3 April. Far from supporting that, the Conservative party--following a pledge by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)--would have maintained the availability of cash benefits not only for existing applicants, but for all new applicants, at a cost of £500 million per annum.

Clandestine Immigrants

15. Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): What recent estimate he has made of the number of clandestine immigrants brought into the United Kingdom in heavy goods vehicles. [112587]

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The Minister of State, Home Office (

Mrs. Barbara Roche): Immigration and nationality directorate records show that 11,500 clandestine entrants to the United Kingdom were identified between July and December 1999.

Mr. Corbett: I thank the Minister for the proper, responsible manner in which she is tackling the issue. Does she find it extraordinary that Conservative Members should line up with those who make vast sums from smuggling people illegally into the United Kingdom, rather than backing the measures that the Government have proposed to extend carrier liability to the owners of lorries, buses and coaches? Will she say what progress is being made with the industry in working out a code of practice to assist in better deterring and detecting clandestine entrants arriving in the backs of lorries?

Mrs. Roche: We have consulted widely with the industry, and we have tabled the draft code of practice. I have also announced that, on 3 April, we shall introduce the civil penalty provisions. We have repeatedly given the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald(Miss Widdecombe) and other Conservative Members opportunities to join and back the Government on the issue, but they have completely refused to do so. Criminal acts are clearly being committed, and it would be nice to have the support of the right hon. Lady and other Conservative Members in trying to do something about them.

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ECHR Judgment (Thompson and Venables)

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Thompson and Venables, who were convicted of the murder of James Bulger. This statement follows my oral statement to the House, on 16 December 1999, which was the day on which the judgment was given. I said then that the Government accepted our obligations under the European convention on human rights to abide by the Court's findings, but that I would need to study the detail and would report back to Parliament as soon as possible.

My statement today relates to England and Wales. Scottish and Northern Ireland Ministers have been considering what action will be necessary there, and announcements will be made in due course.

First, I offer my profound sympathy to the family of James Bulger, whose grief at that terrible murder is compounded by what must appear to them to be a never-ending cycle of court judgments on their son's murderers. Although I know that it will be of no comfort to them, the European convention on human rights has been an international obligation of the United Kingdom for 50 years, and successive Governments have been bound to give effect to the judgments of its Court. That Court, as the House will recall, is an institution of the Council of Europe and not of the European Union. From 2 October 2000, the convention itself will be incorporated into our domestic law, under the Human Rights Act 1998, which was welcomed and supported by all parties in the House.

The Court's judgment in the case of Thompson and Venables concerned both the law on sentencing and court practice and procedures. It therefore has to be dealt with through a mixture of legal and administrative changes. I have consulted the Lord Chief Justice about the conduct of Crown court trials. On 16 February, he issued a practice direction to judges on the trial of children and young persons in the Crown court. A copy of the direction has been placed in the Library. The direction is a key part of the response to the judgment.

The first issue on which the Court found against the United Kingdom was in respect of article 6(1), on the right to a fair trial. The Court said that, although special arrangements had been made in the Crown court, the two youths--then aged 11--were highly unlikely to have felt able to follow the proceedings properly or to pass information to their lawyers.

The European Court did not conclude that young people should not be tried in the Crown court. For our part, the Government believe that serious crimes with serious penalties continue to need a high-level judicial process, before a judge and jury. Rather, it is necessary to ensure that those trials take account of the particular circumstances of young people, although that must never undermine the seriousness of the proceedings or make it more difficult to convict the guilty.

If justice is not open, it cannot be seen to be fair. Therefore, juvenile trials for serious crimes must be held in open court. However, to avoid an unnecessarily

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overbearing atmosphere in the courtroom, the Lord Chief Justice's practice direction makes it clear that, although the proceedings must be in open court, judges should be prepared to restrict attendance of the public at the trial to a relatively small number.

On facilities for the press, courts already have discretion to limit the number of press representatives in court, taking account of the public's right to be informed about trials. The Lord Chief Justice has advised that limits on press numbers should, as necessary, be coupled with arrangements for audio and, if possible, closed-circuit television feed to another room in the courthouse.

As to reporting cases in the media, the practice direction also makes it clear that the courts already have powers to order that nothing should be reported that would lead to the identification of juvenile defendants, but, as now, the detail of the case and the arguments made in court should still be fully reported.

Given the Court's judgment, I have considered whether any legislative changes are needed on media attendance and reporting. I have concluded that they are not, although I know that the House will expect me to keep the implementation of the practice direction under review, in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice.

The practice direction requires courts to take positive steps to ensure that a juvenile defendant understands court procedure and that, where practicable, all the participants in the courtroom should be on the same level. The Government will be inviting Lord Justice Auld, in his review of the working of the criminal courts, to look in more detail at working of juvenile trials in the Crown court.

On the sentencing of juveniles convicted of murder, following a separate European Court of Human Rights decision in February 1996, which was accepted by the previous Administration, a provision in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 ended the Home Secretary's role in determining the final release date of those detained at Her Majesty's pleasure and passed that function to the parole board.

This latest European Court of Human Rights decision covers the other end of the sentencing process--the initial procedure for setting the tariff, which is the minimum period that a juvenile convicted of murder should serve in custody. Until now, that has been set by the Home Secretary of the day. However, in this case, the Court found against the United Kingdom under article 6(1), concluding that Ministers, as members of the Executive, should not set tariffs for juveniles sentenced to detention at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Given that clear Court decision, I am bound to bring forward legislation, which will be in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill this Session, to provide for tariffs to be set by the trial judge in open court, in the same way as they are currently set for adults subject to discretionary life sentences, which apply to any offenders apart from those sentenced for murder. The tariff will be appealable either by the offender or by the Attorney-General if he believes it to be unduly lenient. I also plan to ensure that the views of the victims and their relatives are better taken into account. I shall announce our proposals in due course.

About 250 people, sentenced as juveniles, are currently detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, and fresh cases continue to go through the courts. For new cases, pending the necessary change in the law which I have announced,

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I shall set any tariffs in line with the recommendation that the Lord Chief Justice makes to me in each case. For existing cases, I propose a fresh review of tariffs in line with the principles in the judgment. I shall be inviting representations from those whose tariffs have not yet expired.

Where no representations are received, the tariff will be set in accordance with the original recommendation made by the Lord Chief Justice in that case. Where acceptance of the Lord Chief Justice's original recommendation would mean that the tariff had now expired, I shall refer those cases to the parole board immediately. Where the original recommendation made by the Lord Chief Justice was higher than the tariff set by Ministers, the tariff would not be increased.

Where existing detainees wish to make representations, they can be made to the present Lord Chief Justice, who will then make a recommendation to me. I will then adopt his recommendation on what the tariff should be.

I now come to the question of the tariffs of Thompson and Venables. Part of the history of this is well known, but some of it is not. The trial judge recommended a minimum of eight years--the tariff. The then Lord Chief Justice recommended 10 years. My predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), decided in 1994 to set the tariff at 15 years. However, that tariff was quashed as unlawful by a decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on 12 June 1997. There is, therefore, no tariff for either offender in this case at present.

The decision of the European Court and the requirements of the general law mean that I have to treat the process in this case, as in any other case, in line with the procedures that I have just outlined. Representations have already been received from Thompson and Venables: they will be referred to the Lord Chief Justice for his recommendations to be made--which, as I have explained, I am bound to accept.

I appreciate that this continuing uncertainty will be distressing to James Bulger's parents and relations in particular. I hope that the process can be concluded as quickly as possible but they, and the wider public, may take some reassurance from the fact that the tariff set is a minimum for the requirements of retribution and deterrence. An offender, once his tariff has expired, is released only if the parole board, after a very thorough consideration, is satisfied that there is no unacceptable risk to the public.

The processes that I have outlined in this statement replace the tariff-setting and review arrangements for cases involving detention at Her Majesty's pleasure. Those were set out in the written answer of 10 November 1997, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) about the implementation of the House of Lords judgment in the Thompson and Venables case.

The murder of young James Bulger was horrific. It is seared into the memory not just of his family but of the public as a whole. What I have sought to do is ensure that the binding decisions of the European Court of Human Rights are implemented in a way that secures that young people who commit dreadful crimes are properly brought

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to justice in an environment that is as open as possible, and that the interests of victims and their families are properly taken into account.

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