Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 60-79)



  60. My local force, the Thames Valley force, is now overseen by Barbara Roche, a Member of Parliament in London. Does she report into the Home Office or to Number Ten?
  (Mr Gieve) We have ten areas and as part of trying to ensure that the local arrangements and the local teams within each of those ten areas are working well we drew together a group of ten ministers, some from the Home Office and some, such as Barbara Roche, from other parts of government, each to take a particular interest in one of those areas. They are not running the programme; they are visiting, checking and providing some outside assessment of whether things are working well.

  61. Do they report to you or to the Prime Minister's unit?
  (Mr Gieve) They report into our unit and our unit accompanies them on these visits. They report to the Prime Minister too if he asks them. They will do a note saying, "I have been there and this is what I found", and so on.

  62. You feel the Home Office is still in control of this important street crime initiative?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes.

  63. This is a slightly new method of accountability for police, the CPS and those other agencies involved, to have a new, non-Home Office minister who is suddenly a channel of information and accountability between them and the executive. Did you find it peculiar that this was, to my knowledge, never announced in Parliament?
  (Mr Gieve) I do not think it is a channel of formal accountability in that way. I think it is not right to say it is totally unprecedented because I am sure there have been occasions in which individual ministers have taken particular interest in cross-departmental activities in particular regions and cities.

  64. If, in the Thames Valley, a Member of Parliament wants to find out what is happening in the Probation Service, they ask a Home Office minister in Parliament. If they want to find out what is happening in local prisons, they ask Home Office minister in Parliament. Suddenly, there is this new, London MP who is deputy minister for women, who seems to have a role that is still quite unclear, linking those institutions and the executive and the legislature. Yet, no one has ever told them.
  (Mr Gieve) There is no change in who you ask parliamentary questions to or in the channels of accountability for the police which are not directly to any minister. What these ten ministers are doing is visiting occasionally, meeting the team based round the regional office and the local partnerships, try and gauge a range of services outside the police and criminal justice system, encourage them, spot if things are going wrong and take an interest in what is happening in each area. We have not got ten ministers in the Home Office so we could not do it all from within the Home Office.

Bridget Prentice

  65. Can I go back to robberies and targets? You had a target last year. I presume the target was set last year for a 14 per cent reduction by 2005?
  (Mr Lyon) The base line is from 31 March 2000.

  66. A reduction of 14 per cent is based on March 2000, not on the increased number of robberies that we have seen this year?
  (Mr Lyon) Yes. At that date, the number of offences was 84,300.

  67. You could reach your 14 per cent target by 2005 but still have an increased number of robberies taking place?
  (Mr Lyon) We would have to have fewer robberies than we had on that date of 31 March 2000, 14 per cent fewer, and we have more at the moment.

Mr Malins

  68. The current average time for an asylum application to initial decision is seven months, according to a parliamentary answer last week. Is that a rather long time?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It is a long time and it reflects the fact that we still have in the system a number of older cases, although a decreasing number. We still have about 16,000 that are over 12 months. The efforts to which John Gieve alluded, the changes in process and in staff, have enabled us nevertheless to bring down the time that we take for asylum decisions. If I may update the annual report which said that the figures there were provisional and not for the full financial year, it is now evident that we have achieved our target of 60 per cent of initial decisions—that is to say, of applications received in that period—done within two months.

  69. Do you expect that to go to 75 per cent?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I am confident that we can continue to increase and to meet the target of 75 per cent within that period, yes.

  70. Taking account of your targets, it still leaves 15 per cent of asylum applications for which you do not have a target or six months or less time. That is probably 12,000 applications a year. What is the problem with those 12,000 that is going to take them well over six months?
  (Mr Boys Smith) The problems will be various. One example would be that there was some leading case in the courts and that can have the effect of requiring us to hold up the decision taking process. A number will have intrinsic difficulties—for example, in the nature of the case put forward by the applicant, which might relate to medical factors, alleged torture and so on. I would want to emphasise the fact that there is not a target for that final, relatively small proportion of the total does not mean that we put them in the cupboard and get on with other work. That would not be acceptable. We get them done as quickly as we possibly can.

  71. If it is 15 per cent, it could be 12,000 a year. Is this not something intrinsically wrong with the system, where up to 12,000 asylum applications a year can take much more than six months, even for an initial decision?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Taking asylum decisions is a complicated business. We have made enormous strides in achieving the 60 per cent in two months. In terms of the time that we now take, we are at the front of the field. As far as western Europe is concerned, there is no other country touching us in terms of the speed with which we take these decisions. Within that figure of 60 per cent in two months, we are taking about 10,000 within seven to ten days and that again is very much at the front of the field. I am not ashamed of what we are doing. I think we have a lot of very good practice and very good delivery, but some of these are difficult. Some will take a long time and some are beyond our control.

  72. I was interested to read that we have fewer initial decision makers in post now than we had a year ago. Has there been some leakage and leaving of the service?
  (Mr Boys Smith) No, there has not. There is a relatively small and, I am glad to say in some ways given the state of the economy, a surprisingly small turnover of staff. We have recruited a lot of new staff. They are good quality people and they are staying.

  73. In the last year?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Having cleared a great proportion of the huge backlog that we had at the end of 2000—there was a backlog of over 100,000—we now have between 30,000 and 35,000 in the system against a background where we would expect ordinary work in progress to be between 20,000 and 30,000. We are getting to the point where that term—"backlog"—is misleading so we are nearly down to meeting work in progress. We have made admirable progress in cutting all that down.

  74. 697 initial decision makers in post compared with 761 the previous January. Do you think you should take on a few more?
  (Mr Boys Smith) We take on the number of staff that we think we require and are able to afford. As we have reduced the number of cases in the queue, we have transferred some members of staff to other work, in particular to the highly complex case work to support the removals programme. We have taken fewer decisions in the past 12 months with slightly fewer decision makers, not because we think that is unimportant work but because we need to balance the priorities within the organisation.

  75. A number of people are critical of the quality of initial decision making, given the number of appeals and the success rate. I was surprised to see that there is no educational requirement for someone who is making a decision on asylum and the training period before one starts making decisions is four weeks, three days. Are you front loading enough in terms of expertise?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think we are. As to the educational requirement and the approach that we take, we recruit people to a particular standard for this kind of work or promote them to that kind of work within the organisation. One of the heartening things that has resulted from the expansion of IND is our ability to promote from within people with enormous talent, who are successful in doing this kind of complex work but who may well have come in some years ago without formal qualifications. It is capacity and competence rather than formal qualification that we are looking at.

  76. Are there targets—I may have missed them—for reducing the period between initial decision and hearing of appeal?
  (Mr Boys Smith) There is an overall target. It is rather crudely described as "two plus four", the four being the appeal bit and the two being the decision-taking period. There is a delay in getting some cases through the appeals system because there was a slight, but not enormous mis-match in the capacity of the appeal system to take the bow wave of clearance cases that we dealt with, and that is coming down.

  77. Is that target realistic, and if it is realistic now, why was it not realistic two or three years ago?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think it is realistic, and indeed, to ensure that it is realistic, the Home Secretary announced in October of last year increased resources, which are now coming through and will be effective on the ground by about October/November, to increase the capacity of the appeal system up to about 6,000 a month. Why was it not realistic a couple of years ago? The answer is that we have been changing a lot, the appeal system has been changing and expanding, we have been working more and more closely together in order to smooth the passage of cases from one part of the system to another, and I think we have had great success.

  78. If that is a realistic target, how realistic was the written target to remove 30,000 failed asylum seekers per year?
  (Mr Boys Smith) That was not realistic. As it turned out, we were unable to achieve that. It was a target that was beyond our capacity to deliver.

  79. Whose idea was it?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It was a target agreed in the process of negotiation to which John Gieve referred as regards the future set of targets.

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