Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is going a little wide of the clause stand part debate.

Simon Hughes: I am trying to stay within it, but I shall respect your boundaries, Mr. Hurst.

It is also important that people realise that not all the material relevant to cases may be available at the beginning of the process. All my experience, and that of my advisers, shows that the fundamental flaw in the system is not that adjudicators or immigration appeals tribunals do their jobs badly, but that there are inadequate resources to allow the current system to work well. For example, adjudicators often adjourn a case because the Home Office has not got its act together. Adjournments occur more often because the Home Office and the relevant papers, rather than the applicant, are not ready.

Of course there are people who will abuse the system, but if the Government are to justify taking away the discretion of adjudicators, they should undertake the work that shows the cause of delays in the system. There is always a tendency to believe that delay is caused by the lawyers of applicants or appellants, just as the Government take the view that it is always the fault of the defendant and the lawyers that court cases take so long. That is often not the case. It is often the Crown Prosecution Service, not the defendant, that is not ready. The Home Office has the opportunity to improve the system, and if it needs more money to do so, it must bid for it. It can improve the system by ensuring that its staff have files when they need them, serve the evidence when it should be served and are able to deal with matters raised by the applicant.

I hope that we can recognise that the weaknesses in the system are not simply caused by applicants and their lawyers or representatives spinning things out to their advantage. That happens, of course, and I have dealt with many such cases and have been as robust as anyone in telling people the score. However, the weaknesses often result from lack of resources. Let us recognise and pay tribute to the good job that adjudicators do, but let us not remove their discretion and that of the tribunals and the courts in the interest of a system, which might in theory be more efficient, and could be more efficient if the Home Office had the resources, but which might prejudice a lot of justice on the way.

Angela Eagle: We will deal with many of those points in detail later today. It is important first to establish what we want to achieve with part 5. Others may leap up and disagree with me, but I would sum it up as trying to get a streamlined system in which there is a lot more certainty about appeal rights and to make the one-stop appeal more of a reality than we managed in 1999. Some good advances were made then, and the Bill consolidates and builds on them, particularly on certification. We want simplification, we want

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streamlining and we want to ingrain the one-stop process for appeal into the system.

I agree that there are decisions by caseworkers, there is access to the adjudicators, there is access on appeal and there is further access with statutory review on points of law to higher courts. No one can disagree with that. We also want to get a system where it is less possible for the unscrupulous to string along the system and to keep bringing up new issues to stymie the decision. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) must face up to that.

We all wish to see asylum cases heard through the proper process, in a fair and simple way, as quickly as possible. Currently we are talking about six months. As I said earlier, nearly 50 per cent. of new cases are heard at first level within two months and 45 per cent of appeals are heard within four months. That is the 2 + 4 = 6 timing that we discussed. We wish to speed that up, too, which is why we are talking about accommodation centres and getting that process going in a way that retains fairness. The hon. Member for Woking is even more optimistic and thinks that it can be done in six weeks. In some cases at Oakington we have shown that it is possible, but it will not be possible in all cases.

It is important that we determine where the problems are in the current system and how to iron them out. That is what we are trying to do. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that we had a perverse obsession with judicial review. I do not think that we do. However, we have evidence that judicial review hearings are being used in a way that delays and incurs costs. In 2001–02, the average monthly figure for immigration and asylum cases received for judicial review was 220. From July to December 2001, 1,144 applications were received: only 149 were granted and 884 were refused.

Our new approaches in part 5 aim to deal with the tactic that is increasingly used to delay cases. The hon. Gentleman will see from the figures for applications granted and refused that some 80 per cent. do not have merit and make no progress. However, they achieve their objective of delaying progress on the decision. We must see what we can do to prevent that, while not denying individuals access to a fair review of what is going on.

The hon. Gentleman was most unfair to the Home Office in saying that it caused the majority of adjournments. The figures show that in the first three months of this year, there were 4,472 adjournments, of which 60 per cent. were due to the actions or failure to turn up of the appellants or their legal representatives. Only 15 per cent. were due to the Home Office, and we are working hard to reduce that percentage even further; 25 per cent. were due to the Immigration Appellate Authority, and Judge Hodge is working hard to reduce that figure substantially. Our approach should be to take account of such evidence, which shows that the majority of adjournments are caused by appellants and their legal representatives rather than by the administrative system.

I have said little about remuneration or about the administrative arrangements that the clause will allow

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the Lord Chancellor to make, but I hope that hon. Members will accept the clause's sensible approach to the system.

Mr. Malins: Following what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, Conservative Members support a streamlined, efficient and fast appeal system. In my experience, the case that applicants are trying to play the system tends to be exaggerated. It is often said that defendants try to play the criminal justice system, but only a small proportion do so: many of the adjournments and administrative hiccups in the immigration and criminal justice systems are caused by the Crown, the Home Office or the prosecutor rather than the person concerned. Although I am all for improving efficiency, the powers to enforce efficiency and to be tough and harsh are best left to the judiciary in both systems rather than to an over-mighty state.

Angela Eagle: I have already told the Committee that the ratio of delays caused by the appellants to those caused by the system is 60:40. Judge Hodge is working effectively to bring down the 25 per cent. of delays attributable to the Immigration Appellate Authority. The effectiveness of some of the new administrative arrangements being put in place to reduce the number of adjournments has already been demonstrated. However, the numbers need to be driven down further. We at the Home Office are doing what we can to reduce the 15 per cent. for which we are responsible.

We must also try to reduce the 60 per cent. caused by appellants or their legal representatives, or at least remove the incentive, or lack of a comeback, that may currently be in place if adjournments are constantly asked for, because that is a fairly obvious delaying tactic. By no stretch of the imagination are all applicants there to delay as much as possible—many want their cases heard quickly—but we must limit the potential for delay, which often comes from the more unscrupulous legal representatives who give bad advice to appellants, and the office of the Legal Services Commission is an important piece of the armoury in that respect.

Later, we shall debate matters such as wasted cost orders and the introduction of incentives to discourage legal representatives from indulging in such behaviour, as at present there is no comeback in that respect. We must narrow the opportunities for playing the system, although I do not say that the majority of appellants do so. Some are badly advised, and it is important for the integrity of the system to drive out such behaviour. The new administrative changes reduce the potential for playing the system.

11 am

Simon Hughes: This has been a useful debate on the first part of the system. I am sure that the Minister will pay due heed to the hon. Member for Woking, who has many years' practical experience of the system. His constituency is quite mixed; people assume that Surrey has a homogeneous white community, but Woking

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certainly has not. He will have had the same experience in his constituency as many others of us.

I say publicly that I am happy to sign up to collaborate with the Minister and with Conservative Members to ensure that the systems reduce unwarranted and unjustified delays. When the present Foreign Secretary was Home Secretary he brought in nominees from Opposition parties to help to make Home Office statistics more coherent. Liberal Democrats happily played a part in that process, which is a sensible way of proceeding, and the more we can agree about that the better.

It is important to work on the basis of accurate statistics. I do not dispute the Minister's statistics; the figures showed that one sixth of cases that went to judicial review were successful, which is a significant number of cases that the court said had been handled improperly. That one in six cases would otherwise have resulted in a miscarriage of justice absolutely justifies having the right to take a case to the courts. I hope therefore that we are all signed up to that principle; we will later debate how to do it and whether there should be a judicial review or a different form of review.

My answer to the Minister's point about delay when matters go to judicial review is not to remove the right to judicial review of adjudicators' decisions but to put a time limit on them. I agree absolutely with the hon. Member for Woking that the time limit norms must be much more rigorous. As the Minister implied, that means that the Home Office must get its act together. The tribunal system should have the space, the staff—perhaps there should be more tribunal members—and the adjudicators to be able to do what is required.

There is no policy disagreement between us, although we may disagree about judicial or non-judicial review. However, there must be a method of escape if the administrative system fails, and the judicial system has proved that it is very good at developing administrative law and reviewing administrative decisions. I hope that we do not throw out that healthy baby with the unsatisfactory bathwater.

I agree with the Minister that legal and other representatives need a lot of improvement. I argued before the Bill was introduced that the people giving lousy advice should be rooted out. I spend much time extracting constituents from the hands of people who give bad advice—some of whom have never qualified and others of whom may be technically qualified but are hopeless—and trying to direct them to places where they can get decent advice. I repeat the controversial point that those solicitors' firms and practitioners who claim to be competent on asylum, immigration and nationality law should be certified. The Law Society argument is for self-regulation; I am not in favour of self-regulation for Members of Parliament, for the Law Society, the Bar Council, the General Medical Council or the police. Regulation should be by people who do not have a professional self-interest. I hope that the Government will consider my proposals and persuade the Lord Chancellor and the Parliamentary Secretary that if there is regulation

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of those who do this work in the legal professions the system may be better and more efficient than it is at present.

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