Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: I shall do my best to assist. The hon. Gentleman will know of existing targets: the two plus four process featured prominently in debates on the 1999 Bill. I placed the percentage achievements on the record earlier. Currently, about 50 per cent. of applications had initial decisions served within two months. The target was 60 per cent. and we achieved almost 50 per cent. About 45 per cent. of appeals now get through both tiers of the Immigration Appellate Authority in four months. That is the other element in the two plus four process—hence the six-month period.

One of the key objectives will be to increase the number of appeals that can be dealt with in the six-month period. However, we shall want to assess the trials and consider the potential for increasing speed and effectiveness. We will also have the new induction centres and the reporting requirements for those who are dispersed and not in accommodation centres, and we will pay close attention to whether we can increase the speed and efficiency of the asylum process. Once the trials are complete, we will be in a better position to consider how to tighten the two plus four targets. We will also be open about that.

In the past few years, processing times have significantly improved, despite a huge increase in the number of claims for asylum. In April 1997, the average length of time between application and initial decision was 20 months. In December 2001—the last date for which we have audited figures—that was down to 13 months, which includes the backlog. When a backlog case is resolved, the average time goes up, as the case has been around for some time. I ask hon. Members to consider that. That is an improvement, despite the fact that, between 1996 and 2001, there was a 142 per cent. increase in asylum applications. The number of initial decisions has increased from 38,960 in 1996 to 118,195 by 2001—a 203 per cent. increase in four years. Appeals have increased by 101 per cent. from 22,985 in 1996 to 46,190 in 2000. Removals of asylum seekers have increased by 93 per cent. from 4,820 in 1996 to 9,285 in 2001. Those latest figures are significantly higher, despite the fact that there have been many more asylum claims.

I am the first to recognise that we still have much to achieve in our handling of individual cases. I want the Committee to recognise that many people are working hard under difficult circumstances, and have effected improvements. That does not mean that every case is dealt with as effectively and efficiently as it could be. Members of the Committee see many of the cases that are not dealt with in the most effective and appropriate way. However, some are dealt with effectively and appropriately, and we will continue to try to improve our methods for dealing with cases by legislative change and to slim down the appeal processes.

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Simon Hughes: I accept and am grateful for that. I pay tribute to those who deal with Members' hotline cases, especially staff in the Minister's offices who are always courteous and helpful, as are many others in the immigration and nationality directorate. Will the Minister add one last statistic, so that we can pool all the statistics in one debate? How many caseworkers and those dealing with appeals were employed in 1997, and how many are employed now? I know that the numbers have increased. Do the Government plan to recruit more? It always seems to be a failure of the system that there are insufficient numbers of people to do the work.

Angela Eagle: There have certainly been major increases in the numbers of caseworkers. I do not have the figure to hand, but I think that there has been an increase of 1,000. If that is wrong, I will let the hon. Gentleman know later in the proceedings. We have doubled the resources devoted to initial decisions and appeals.

There is much to do to streamline and strengthen the process. There are also many people in the process who do not co-operate fully, which makes it difficult. Some legal advisers do not give of their best. That is why we asked John Scampion to drive out the cowboys, so that when people get legal advice, it is the most effective, efficient and best for them. I hope that we can look forward to a significant improvement in processing time, which will be fairer for everyone involved—both the asylum seeker and workers in our system. That will enable us to give people their Geneva convention rights appropriately and not put anyone in danger.

I accept the amendment's spirit about the speed. It is easier said than done, but we are working hard to achieve it.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I am very disappointed by the Minister's reply. She says that she hopes that there will be significant improvements over time, but significant improvements were forecast in Ministers' speeches on the 1999 Bill. They have not happened. The Home Office, which appeared to have completely lost control of asylum matters in 1999 and 2000, has improved its performance, but only slightly. The real point is that the more time that one has to do a job, the longer it will take. That affects everyone in life. There is no substitute for speed, because generally with speed comes efficiency. To put it another way, if we put a deadline on the job, it will generally get done.

I reiterate a point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. When people who have watched this Committee ask us why, when we had the chance, we did not legislate for a fast and efficient system, what will we say? Our proposal that people should stay in accommodation centres for a maximum of three months is designed to ensure that the Home Office reacts with speed and efficiency. If anyone argues that it is impossible to conclude a case within three or six months, I can direct them to parallels in the criminal justice system. Every day in this country, thousands of criminal offences take place. Do they take six months or a year to sort out? No, they do not. Following an arrest, offenders are likely to appear before a magistrates court within a

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week. If the plea is not guilty, a trial often happens within a month. If the trial's decision is appealed, that appeal is often heard in the neighbouring Crown court within a month. From day one to its conclusion, the process takes about two or three months. That happens in a whole lot of cases.

Of course, some complex cases take longer, but some time limit should still be set. If one is not set, we will begin to wonder about the point of an accommodation centre. When we hear the Minister say that she is looking for flexibility, we should shudder, because flexibility means no rules or deadlines. When we hear the Minister say that six months is appropriate and other arrangements will have to be made if people stay at an accommodation centre for longer, we should shudder because it is Home Office speak for refusing to have efficiency imposed on the system. It is our duty as a Committee to impose that efficiency.

Ms Buck: I have profound sympathy with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's comments. In my casework, I find it incredibly frustrating when decisions take so long. However, the point that I made during my intervention on the Minister remains. There was an explosion in the number of appeals because of non-compliance and technical failures in the process. The hon. Gentleman equates speed with efficiency, but that is not borne out by the practice of the last few years. It would be worrying if an arbitrary time limit led to another upturn in the number of technical failures.

Mr. Malins: I take the hon. Lady's point, particularly about non-compliance. However, she very generously began her intervention by saying that she had profound sympathy for our view. I believe that her Back-Bench colleagues feel the same. This is one of those rare amendments when I feel duty bound to urge Government Back Benchers to support the Opposition. What is more, knowing the track record of some of them on asylum work, I suspect that, like the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), they not only feel profound sympathy with, but may support the amendment to bring to the Home Office a real sense of the need to act quickly, which has been lacking so often.

Ms Buck: Were the amendment to be pressed to a vote, I would not be able to support it despite sympathising absolutely with the principle. I do not feel that setting an arbitrary time limit will lead to an equation of speed with efficiency. It will result in another backing-up of the appeals process, and will therefore have almost the opposite effect. I am reluctant to say this, but it will have an unintended, undesirable consequence.

Mr. Malins: I disagree. I should not have been so confident of the hon. Lady's support for the amendment, although perhaps my confidence should remain in that I am sure she will abstain and not vote against it because of her sympathy for it. I mentioned the criminal justice system. There are parallels. It is possible to deal with weighty matters quickly given the will and the resources. If it is a question of resources, are there problems with the Treasury?

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Angela Eagle: Can the hon. Gentleman share with the Committee his view of the costs of attempting to get all asylum claims heard within five weeks?

Mr. Malins: I do not suppose that the Minister herself has any idea of that cost, but in general I hope that she will accept that the quicker a job is done, the cheaper it is likely to be, especially given the knock-on expenses if someone waits for longer. If the Minister wants evidence of that, I refer her to the £1,620 a week that it costs to keep someone in Oakington. Does it become cheaper or more expensive the longer that person stays?

Angela Eagle: Oakington cases are special cases. Something like 96 per cent. of them are refused. They are straightforward, which is why they are allocated to Oakington in the first place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will admit that by no means all the cases that we have to deal with are that simple and easy to dispose of quickly.

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