Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 160-178)



  160. Can you give us a feel for the proportion of asylum seekers that fall into that category that do not have children under the age of 18?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I do not think I can give you a percentage, off the cuff, as between families and right across the system. I know that of those still within the responsibility of the local authorities there are about 25,000 singles, as we call them, and about 14,000 family cases. The small number still remaining with the Department of Work and Pensions, and there are only a few thousand of them, are mainly singles. I do not have to hand a number for the breakdown within the NASS category but we can supply that easily for you.[5]

  161. I want to talk about the average time taken to process asylum seekers into the support system. Can you give us a feel now as to how long it takes to go through that process and how do you expect to meet your target of 70 per cent within five days by March 2003?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It is taking a week or so at the moment. A crucial element to the speeding up of that will be the extension of the induction centre system—which I mentioned just a moment ago—which after a fairly difficult start, because there were some quite big issues, is now working successfully thanks very much to the good work of Migrant Help Line that runs that induction centre. I think we will continue to make good progress there. I think it is a target that we will be able to meet and which undoubtedly we ought to be able to meet.

  162. When an asylum seeker is actually turned down and loses his or her support, what remedy do they have for support? Where do they go?
  (Mr Boys Smith) There is a 28 day grace period between the final decision—let us assume, as in most cases, it is an appeal decision—and the actual termination of their support. But after the end of the grace period, if there are no children involved, they have no legitimate access to support funded in any way by the Exchequer whether DWP or local authority. Unless fraud is involved, and again we recognise some people may seek to operate fraudulently, they have no formal means of getting any support.

  163. My last question is in connection with the last year's overspend which Mr Cameron mentioned and it was answered in general by Mr Gieve. In terms of the overspend for asylum support last year we have looked at a whole series of areas which might have caused that where there is over-provision, provision was supplied but not taken up, etc., the length of time. Is there one particular category that you would like to point out? If there is, how are you going to overcome that in the future?
  (Mr Boys Smith) There are a number of factors that lie behind that figure which is, of course, an overspend in the sense that it required us to have access to the reserve but against a base line that had been for some time recognised as probably being deficient. There are a number of factors and I hope we are addressing them. At the heart of it is our ability to identify people at the right time as being cases where we should turn off the support and if they are in accommodation if necessary evict them from the accommodation. There have been a lot of difficulties over the exchange of data with local authorities for the older cases, the ones that predate the establishment of NASS in the spring of 2000. We have been putting a very great deal of effort into auditing all those cases, exchanging data, which may sound easy but it means you have to be absolutely confident that the person on our records really is the person who is on the local authority database, to identify the people and thereby reducing those numbers. That is proving a successful operation. The audit has gone well and we are removing from the list and ceasing support for that kind of person. We are working hard on tightening up on fraud and undoubtedly there are opportunities for fraud, particularly with people who work illegally and therefore are not destitute and not entitled to support. Again, we are working on that. The introduction of the asylum registration card will help us a great deal also. It has been operating for some time for new applicants but as it is rolled out for the existing applicants, and they are all called in in order to have their photographs, fingerprints and so on put together and the card issued, that is the opportunity for an interview which helps us identify if there are still people in the system who should not be there. What we are doing is trying to clear up, and making a lot of progress in clearing up, a system which historically, going back many, many years, was in a good deal of mess. I think we are progressively getting on top of that. That will reduce the overspend that you referred to, of course, subject to the numbers coming in. This is a numbers-driven activity dependent crucially on information. What we must do is hone it down so only those in legitimate receipt of support do actually have it.


  164. Did you hear the programme on Radio 4 the other day about NASS on Sunday evening, I believe?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I heard part of it but I only came in at the tail end, I am afraid.

  165. I do not want to go through it line by line with you now but would you undertake to go away and listen to it and drop me a note on your comments on the main charges they made?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I shall do that. Such as I did hear I thought that it was rather one-sided, I have to say.

  Chairman: I thought you might say that. If you can drop me a note with your considered opinion and any points you would like to make I would be grateful.[6]

Angela Watkinson

  166. My questions are about the pressures on the Prison Service and young offenders' institutions, so I will put my questions to Mr Narey. I am in somewhat of a predicament because the first one is about overcrowding in prisons and some inmates are being housed in police cells for the first time in seven years. Can you estimate how many prisoners will be in police cells over the next year and for what period of time?
  (Mr Narey) It is very difficult to estimate. It is more of a guess than an estimate. I think and hope that we will get out of police cells in the next weeks and we should not have to return to them in any significant numbers I hope until the New Year. The thousand or so new places that I have got coming on stream before October, the fact that the population should stay fairly flat until the autumn and then start to climb again makes me think that it will not start until the New Year. Beyond that it is very, very difficult for me to predict. The population has moved without any particular rhyme nor reason for some time now and certainly if it continues to increase in the way it has in the first half of this year then early next year I will be using many hundreds of police cells.

  167. This must put additional pressures on the police service?
  (Mr Narey) Yes, it does. I have been keeping in very close contact with the chief constables who are helping us out at the moment, principally the Chief Constable at West Midlands. We have agreed maximum numbers that we will put in his area taking account of the other responsibilities that he has got.

  168. When do you expect the review of operations and the cost-effectiveness of the Prison Service to be concluded? Who is conducting that?
  (Mr Narey) This is the review which is mentioned in the White Paper?

  169. That is right, yes.
  (Mr Narey) I do not know yet. I do not think the Home Secretary has made any decision yet on who will lead the review or the timescale for it.

  170. A question about the Prison and Probation Service Ombudsman. I understand from the latest report which covers the year 2001-02 that the number of eligible complaints has risen by 40 per cent and that comes on top of the rise of 53 per cent in the preceding year. The vast majority of those related to the Prison Service and of those one-third were upheld. Why do you think that the level of complaints has risen so significantly? Is this a signal that the Prison Service has deteriorated?
  (Mr Narey) No, I think it is quite the reverse. I am delighted at the increase. Stephen Shaw and I have worked very hard to publicise the Ombudsman. You will find posters outlining the Ombudsman's duties in nearly every prison, on lots of landings. I think the main reason is that two years or so ago it took about six months for a prisoner's complaint to be processed through the various internal procedures and that is now approaching six weeks rather than six months and at the end of this calender year it should be six weeks everywhere. Because the rules were that no-one could go to the Ombudsman until his or her complaint has been through every one of the internal channels it meant that many prisoners were released before they could complain. I take it as a sign of a much healthier Prison Service that people know about the Ombudsman and use him willingly. Stephen Shaw and I work very closely together on trying to crank up its use and I would like to see it further increased. I think it would be healthier if more young offenders used the Ombudsman and at the moment very few do.

  171. It is raising awareness and has greater speed in dealing with complaints?
  (Mr Narey) Yes. Our internal complaints system takes one-tenth of the time that it used to.

  172. A question about the Probation Service. To what extent does the service have the capacity and flexibility to take on a rise in those serving community sentences?
  (Mr Narey) It is not necessarily for me but I will have a go at it. I think the Probation Service does have some spare capacity. One of the consequences of the much greater than anticipated use of custody is that there has been some reduction in probation, managed orders. For example, the use of Punishment and Rehabilitation Orders has dropped by about 15 per cent and Community Rehabilitation Orders have dropped by about two per cent. So if there was a shift back to community punishments—and we only need a very, very gentle shift back to make a radical difference to my population—then I think the Probation Service is well prepared to take that on.

  173. How likely is it that the Government will have to step in to provide cover for privately run prisons struggling currently to purchase insurance cover?
  (Mr Narey) I am glad to say it has become clear in the last few days that there is virtually no need for that at the moment. UKDS, with whom I am about to sign a contract to build two new prisons at Peterborough and Ashford, have just informed me that they have been successful in obtaining insurance.

  174. Persistent young offenders. I understand that comparable data for adult offenders is not collected centrally, so it is possible that the pressure to reduce the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders has led to longer waits for other groups? Where in the system was the time saved for young offenders?
  (Mr Narey) I think that the process times for all offenders going through the courts has improved in recent years. Changes to the processing in magistrates' courts, particularly dealing with guilty pleas very early, has reduced remand times by about 20 per cent for all defendants but there has been a particular concentration on persistent young offenders and, as you know, their times have increased markedly. It is not the case that there has been a particular bulge elsewhere as a result of that.

  175. A final question about prisoners with mental health problems. Given the very high levels of mental health problems amongst prisoners, are you satisfied that the provision of psychiatric staff is sufficient within prisons to deal with the level of demand?
  (Mr Narey) No, not yet. It is beginning. Mental illness is one of my greatest worries, as evidenced by the very, very worrying upturn in the number of suicides after us getting them down for two consecutive years. I am sure you know the statistics. About 90 per cent of my population exhibit signs of one form of mental disorder or another, 20 per cent of men have previously tried to kill themselves and 40 per cent of women. What I have described as the cavalry is coming over the hill in that this year the first of 300 psychiatric nurses from the NHS are coming in to extend community care into prisons and I hope there will be more on the way. At the moment, particularly in the care of the mentally ill, I think the Prison Service still lags a long way behind care in the community.


  176. A final question for Mr Gieve. We have asked a couple of times about what plans the Home Office has to deal with freemasonry in the police. We were told two years ago that the Home Secretary would reach a decision about the best way forward as soon as possible—this was about disclosure—and last year the Home Secretary said he would review the situation. What is the situation this year?
  (Mr Gieve) I think the Home Secretary wrote to you last November about this and we are still reviewing it.

  Chairman: Do you think there is a freemason in the system somewhere?

  David Winnick: The police are not very keen to register, is that not so?


  177. It is about disclosure, open government, is it not?
  (Mr Gieve) It is. As you know, we have had a voluntary scheme in parts of the criminal justice system and only 36 per cent of the police replied, so the question is what do you do next, do you try and go compulsory or not? It raises some very fundamental issues.

  178. Instead of trying to make it retrospective on the police, you could insert disclosure in the contracts of all new recruits, could you not?
  (Mr Gieve) That is something we should consider.

  Chairman: Have a think about it. I will leave you with that thought. Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, it has been extremely helpful. I recognise that sessions like this inevitably concentrate on the negative but do not think that we do not appreciate the important and complex work that you do because we do appreciate it. Thank you very much.

5   See Ev 40. Back

6   See Ev 40. Back

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