Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions (60-79)



  60. I like the image of waiting for Godot. I wanted to ask you about Dublin II. If and when it should come along, do you think it is going to make any difference?
  (Mr Blunkett) In association with a non-suspensive appeals programme on unfounded cases, which is within the Bill, together with a much more robust border control it would, but the honest truth is that it is stopping people getting in here illegitimately, but in having a system of allowing people who should and want to be here legitimately, rather than seeking a way of dealing with this by sending people back, albeit on an agreed basis, is crucial, not least because the view that is taken by the judiciary in our country prolongs their stay through the appeals and judicial review process in a way that is not the case in other European countries.

  61. Is the idea that we should move more towards the system elsewhere rather than they take on our system?
  (Mr Blunkett) I have set out in the Bill a very considerable and robust picture. Since we published the Bill, I have continued to look at what else needs to be done in the climate that has been created and with the changes in migration policy, not least in relation to the ten accession countries that intend to join the European Union in 18 months' time. The idea that people are at risk in these particular countries is, in my view, untenable and we still need to look at what more we can do.

  Bridget Prentice: Thank you.


  62. May I press you on this issue of work. We have all got large numbers of young men hanging about in our constituencies, some of whom have been here for years. Their greatest frustration—and they are all dynamic and some of them are well-qualified—is that they are not able to work. Since our ambition is to get decisions down to less than six months, what is the problem in saying, "If you are here longer than six months, you should be allowed to apply for work"?
  (Mr Blunkett) The problem with that is that the signal and the message would be very clear: "if you get here and you remain here, you will be able to work here". As a consequence, any managed economic migration routes would become irrelevant. If these people are dynamic and they are well-qualified—and I do not dispute your description—they should get back home and re-create their countries which we freed from tyranny, whether it is in Kosovo and related countries from which we still have a very large number of people awaiting removal, or in Afghanistan. We are freeing countries of different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and we are making it possible for them to get back home and re-build their country. I have no sympathy whatsoever for young men in their twenties who do not go back and re-build their country and their families.

Mr Prosser

  63. Home Secretary, staying with the theme of co-operation with our European partners, we have recently had the rather bizarre story of hundreds of would-be asylum seekers coming close to the end of their claim and anticipating being rejected, who have been passing back from the UK to France on false passports seeking asylum in other European countries—asylum shopping. Some of them have been apprehended. We are told that 200 have been apprehended and sent back to our overcrowded prisons in this country. Presumably after six or nine months in custody, they will then be removed to a third country. Is there some better way of dealing with these matters?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes and I am doing it. I mentioned the Eurodac system of finger-printing and in future of more robust identification which would enable us to share automatically with our European countries, and they share with us, where someone has already claimed asylum. You are aware, and myself and Bev Hughes are painfully aware how difficult it is, of course, even within the parameters of Dublin I, to stop hysteria about removing people back to the country where they first claimed asylum. We have had it up to here with the Ahmadi case and the way in which our system of judicial review works, but let me be clear, as far as I am concerned, anyone who leaves the country who is claiming or has claimed asylum and seeks to re-enter it should automatically be presumed to be unfounded and should be refused a further asylum claim. I have ruled to that measure and I expect it to be carried out.

  64. So in your discussions with your French counterparts would you encourage them to continue sending back this group of people?
  (Mr Blunkett) There is no point in them sending them back because if they have claimed asylum or their asylum claim is being processed and they re-present themselves at our borders, I consider, unless there has been a change in circumstance of a substantial nature in the intervening time, that they have already exercised their right to claim, they have forfeited it by leaving the country and they are no longer entitled to an asylum claim.

  65. I am referring to a case where a person has not actually claimed asylum in France or Belgium but who is apprehended by the French authorities.
  (Mr Blunkett) If they have claimed asylum here, as far as I am concerned, if they leave they have forfeited that right. If they have not claimed asylum here and they have been picked up in France, then we have to deal with it in terms of whether they have broken a particular national law.

Bob Russell

  66. Home Secretary, if the Czech Republic does become a member of the European Union its people will be able to travel backwards and forwards. Bearing in mind that the Fascists in the Czech Republic have driven out the Czech Romanies to this country, would it not be sensible to allow them to remain here pro tem?
  (Mr Blunkett) No, it would not. They do not have a Fascist government in the Czech Republic, they have a Social Democratic government.

  67. I acknowledge that. I am talking about parts of the community, as you know full well. The second point, Home Secretary, are you seriously saying that young Chechen men should return to Moscow because they can then go back to Chechnya? Surely you do not believe that the Russian authorities allow young Chechen men back to Chechnya?
  (Mr Blunkett) If I said Chechnya I intended to say Kosovo, my apologies.

  Chairman: You did say Kosovo.

Bob Russell

  68. You did but you said that young men should go back to their countries and Chechen young men are being returned to Russia.
  (Mr Blunkett) I gave the example of countries which we freed, which I gave as Kosovo and Afghanistan. I am not referring to Chechnya and nor have I referred to it. You had me for a minute there. I thought I had dropped one, but I have not. I am very grateful to you, Chairman.


  69. Mr Russell's question is are we returning people to Chechnya?
  (Mr Blunkett) No.

  Bob Russell: I am much obliged, thank you.

  Chairman: You have another question?

  Bob Russell: That was my second question.

Mrs Dean

  70. Home Secretary, turning to the question of initial decision making, are you concerned about the quality of those decisions in asylum cases in as much as a large proportion of those decisions are overturned when it comes to appeal?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, the current rate of successful appeal is just over 20 per cent, is it not?
  (Beverley Hughes) Yes.
  (Mr Blunkett) And we have set in train both a robust retraining programme but also a robust training programme for the larger number of decision takers that we are now putting in place, together with the speeding up of the process. We did reach our target by 31 March of a turnround time within two months of an initial decision. That is now up to 75 per cent on the last month's figures, which is very encouraging. We can do better, but it is so much better than it has ever been before. Given that I am literally demanding a dramatic step change in terms of the administration and efficiency of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, we should accord those who have managed to do that an accolade because I have got to provide motivation and morale where they are succeeding and we need to make sure that the initial decision taking is of such a quality that it reduces the pressure on the adjudication service.

  71. Would better access to legal advice and translation services be helpful in that?
  (Mr Blunkett) They have substantial access from induction onwards now. We have funded it, of course, through a variety of agencies, rather than trying to do it all ourselves, other than in the focused, very expensive provision of Oakington for fast track for the very reasons that the fast track exists. We also provide massive, expensive and extensive support through the Lord Chancellor's Department through legal aid. Frankly, if we do any more—I will leave it at that!

  72. I believe we heard yesterday that there is an initial form that has to be filled in in English and that provides some difficulty for those in completing that form.
  (Mr Blunkett) With the development of coherent induction, it is possible for people to have someone on hand to help them do it. The issue is one of translation of course, not least finding out precisely which dialect people genuinely speak from the region from which they come. I place quite a lot of emphasis on this. You need to be aware if you are producing a detailed report that very many people claim to be from a part of a region, for reasons of claiming asylum, from which they do not come.
  (Beverley Hughes) I have been down to Dover and talked to people there and seen the induction centre and screening centre. There are extensive interpretation facilities available. As the Home Secretary said, it is sometimes difficult to be clear about exactly what languages are being claimed to be spoken and what languages are actually being spoken. I accept there are some problems around that, but generally I think the interpretation services that are provided are good.


  73. Can I press you on this question of the quality of the initial decision making. Over and over again we are hear that if you really want to speed up the process you have got to improve the quality of decision making. One has only got to look at the number of successful appeals and the fact that you concede 68 per cent of cases submitted for judicial review to realise that there is quite a big problem with the quality of decision making.
  (Beverley Hughes) I certainly accept that the quality of decision making is crucially important, not only from the point of view of the applicant but also in terms of the process. No-one wants to put resources into a case going to appeal only to have it overturned because the initial decision may not have been as good as it could be. We have got a fairly robust process in place at the moment to review on a sampling basis initial decisions. Around 2,400 are chosen at random each month and are reviewed by senior caseworkers who review the decision against ten criteria. They are finding at the moment a high level of either satisfactory or excellent decisions—about 85 per cent I think. So I accept that this is something we need to continue to drill down on. I would make one other point and that is that I do not think necessarily that the extent to which initial decisions are currently overturned is only to be explained by the need to improve the quality of initial decisions. We also need to take account of the fact that we have to look at the quality of the adjudicators' decisions. We have quite a lot of new adjudicators who are still in the early stages of getting to grips with their job. There is a great deal of assimilation they have to do in terms of in-country information and so on, and that is another strand in the process that we have to look at.

  74. A lot of the success of appeals relates to the fact that forms one way or another have not been filled in within the ten-day limit. Would it not be wiser to be a bit more flexible on that point and provide a free translator, rather than make people go through the whole appeal process?
  (Mr Blunkett) I think it is an interesting point, not least from the point of view of the administrative waste within the Immigration and Nationality Directive of having to reassess when somebody has sent the form but it had not arrived on time within the period, and it could be shown later that for a variety of reasons it had not been possible to do so or they had done so. So I am amenable to looking with Bev Hughes at whether that is the case, whilst still having a tight and robust system that does not allow people to play games with the situation. I think it is a fair point and well worth looking at.

  Chairman: The key point is that their claim be properly considered as quickly as possible, not whether they got the form in on time or whether the solicitor passed them the relevant information or it got lost in the system. One still gets drawn to one's attention cases of people tearing their hair out with the frustration at communicating with the Home Office on asylum cases. I plucked out of my own constituency file a couple of letters that illustrate the problem. This is from a local solicitor—a very reputable one—who is dealing with the case of a Rumanian asylum seeker. "We have now written to the Home Office on no less than 18 occasions to try and obtain a copy of our client's interview record." I got him a reply eventually and they sent him back the one relating to his brother. That was April 12 and even now after 18 tries we are still trying to get the correct documentation.

David Winnick

  75. It will probably be with you by the end of this week, I would imagine.
  (Mr Blunkett) I will make sure! I would like Bev to comment. Since she took over at the beginning of June she has specifically targeted how best to improve this. There is not a single example or anecdote that Members round this table could bring that would not be matched by examples that I have. I am absolutely determined that not only can we do a lot better, but we can have a step change in performance in terms of the basic administrative functioning of that Directorate. We have just appointed a new Director, Bill Jeffrey. He started two weeks ago and he is in no doubt whatsoever what is expected of him.
  (Beverley Hughes) As the Home Secretary says, it is extremely important, for a number of reasons, that we improve our performance on that. I have been focusing on it particularly over the last six weeks or so. Members will appreciate that there is a very high volume of correspondence. I do not say that by way of excuse. Also we are in a situation at the moment where there is an extent to which—and if I can just explain this because it is important—there is a need to locate a file, get that file to the person needing to reply to the letter, and then put it back in the system where it was so it does not interrupt too much the process of assessment (whether it is an asylum or immigration matter) that person is concerned with, is very difficult logistically. Files are all around the country. They are not just in Croydon, they are in ports, Liverpool, Glasgow, all over the place. Having said that, and I do not say that by way of excuse, I would say simply that it is not straightforward. The Home Secretary mentioned and I have cases too whereby the quality and the extent to which people are getting a reply within a reasonable period of time is simply not acceptable. I can say to Members at the moment—and perhaps next time I am here I will be able to report progress—we are instituting some new procedures to deal initially with MPs' official cases, official cases and then public correspondence cases. I am instituting a monthly performance report for every division of IND so that I see the extent to which targets are being reached on replies to correspondence from September and, as I say, I have got a time limit on clearing the backlog, initially of MPs' cases and then other cases, and through those measures I am determined that we will achieve a much higher level of performance than we have at the moment.


  76. We all understand that those dealing with these matters are overwhelmed and, as you say, files are scattered all around the country and so indeed are asylum seekers. What is frustrating is the feeling that many of these letters disappear into a black hole. If somebody wrote a note back thanking you for your letter and saying "we have got this problem and we are working on it", you would know there is somebody out there.
  (Beverley Hughes) I accept that completely and that is exactly the kind of good practice, together with meeting more reasonable timescales, that we are interested in.

  77. Because you have been so helpful with that last answer, I will spare you reading out this one where the solicitor has written eleven times!
  (Mr Blunkett) It makes you feel better when you say it, does it not!
  (Beverley Hughes) If I can just say to you, Chairman, on day two of my time in this post I had to do an adjournment debate to a Member of Parliament that she had secured because she had written to IND four times in the previous six months and I had to get my head round an adjournment debate on her case and also explain why she had not had a reply. So you can take it from me that from day two I have been highly exercised with this issue and I am determined that we will do much much better and reach an acceptable standard of performance.

  78. As a former king of adjournment debates I have every sympathy with you. Before we move to removals just one more point on dispersal. It is going to be with us for many years to come?
  (Beverley Hughes) It will be continuing, yes.

  79. And actually it has worked more or less?
  (Beverley Hughes) It is beginning to work.

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