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Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Before the Home Secretary ends his brief reference to constitutional affairs, I want to ask him something, because I suspect that he had a role in the matter. As major constitutional changes were announced as part of a reshuffle, and were therefore not the subject of consultation with anybody, was he consulted about the shape of the constitutional changes that the abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor and the creation of the supreme court would bring about, and did he express a view at the time?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Oh, dear.

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend sums things up admirably: the past is the past, and the future is the future—[Hon. Members: "Oh."] That goes down as the tritest soundbite of the week; it just happens to be true.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Does that mean no?

Mr. Blunkett : Let me deal with the question asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). As he will remember, the changes had been the subject of considerable speculation and debate. I remember it well, because my Department was apparently going to be dismembered, and there was going to be a wholesale change in the way in which the justice elements of my portfolio were handled—none of which turned out to be true. Of course, the conversations that we had on the day of the reshuffle were about reflecting on how best to achieve the Prime Minister's goals, rather than second-guessing them beforehand. That is the answer to the question.

Engaging with the issues that are in front of us, I can say that all the changes are about ensuring that we can prepare for the future, and that we have a constitution and crime reduction measures that deal with the 21st century rather than the 12th century. We have measures that reflect that, as does the legislation that we pushed through the House just two weeks ago—it seems a long time now since four home affairs Bills went through in the final week of the Session, but it is only a fortnight ago. That goes all the way through to the crime reduction measures that we are building on today.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): In preparing for the future, are the Home Secretary and the

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rest of the Government aware of the disastrous results of the elections in Northern Ireland, which were brought about principally by the lack of faith of many in the majority community in the Prime Minister's reshaping of that local constitution? Does the Home Secretary expect that legislation will have to be introduced to enable people in Northern Ireland to express an opinion on the Good Friday agreement, in order to replace that which was expressed last week?

Mr. Blunkett: That was a disgraceful intervention. Here we are, three and a half weeks away from Christmas day, with people walking freely and shopping in Belfast and Derry—

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Londonderry.

Mr. Blunkett: Londonderry, if the hon. Gentleman wishes.

Patrick Mercer: Yes, we do.

Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Gentleman may wish that, but some of us wish more for the peace and tranquillity that allows people to walk freely in the streets, to shop and to enjoy Christmas in the way that the rest of the United Kingdom takes for granted. That has been brought about by the Good Friday agreement, by removing the causes of the problems and by getting people to work together. Those who wish to stir things up should be aware that, of those who voted, 70 per cent. voted for parties and politicians who are committed to the Good Friday agreement.

If demolishing the agreement is an objective of the official Opposition, I hope that their Leader, who has graced us with his presence this afternoon, will intervene—snarling, scratching and biting, as he did last Wednesday—to tell us what his policy actually is. [Interruption.] It was not me who introduced the topic of the Good Friday agreement—the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) did.

The crime reduction measures that we have taken—a 27 per cent. reduction in crime in the past six and a half years; crime and disorder reduction partnerships; antisocial behaviour orders; and the measures in the Bill that we passed a fortnight ago, which are now being put in place—are transforming the life of the community. Yet there is much more to be done. The legislation that we fought for in Parliament lays the foundations, which are stepping-stones to enabling people in the professional services and in the community to take control, and to exercise the power to make a difference.

The steps that we took through our balanced approach to nationality and asylum brought about a 50 per cent. reduction in the number of asylum seekers in the first half of this year. Given that the Leader of the Opposition is present, that reduction should be contrasted with the 45 per cent. increase that occurred during his time as Home Secretary. We have also introduced new legal migration routes, and new channels, through the United Nations, for people to reach our soil. All those measures have to be built on and enhanced if we are to ensure future trust and confidence in the system.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Nobody doubts the Home Secretary's commitment and willingness to

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ensure that the asylum system is robust, but the fact remains that there is a major problem with the way in which the immigration and nationality directorate operates. It is too slow, the backlog is too big and it takes too long to deal with cases. What effective steps is the Home Secretary going to take, other than introducing another Act of Parliament, to make that system much better?

Mr. Blunkett: I acknowledged those sentiments two years ago, and substantial steps have been taken to achieve precisely what my hon. Friend seeks. Just over 80 per cent. of initial decisions are now taken in the first eight weeks, compared with an average time of 20 months under the previous Government. We have dramatically cut the numbers waiting for an initial decision, and the numbers waiting for their appeals to be heard. Some 6,000 people per month are now passing through the appeals system, but legislation is necessary. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, whose Department co-operated with us in looking at what else needs to be done.

It has been suggested in the media that we are somehow doing away with the right of appeal.

Keith Vaz: You are.

Mr. Blunkett: We are not. [Interruption.] Well, when is a right of appeal not a right of appeal? When it consists of multiple appeals, presumably. If those who do not like an initial decision are permitted to take their cases to a tier of appeal in which appeals can be dealt with differentially, according to the type of appeal being made—for instance, non-suspensive appeals are dealt with differently from straightforward cases—that means that we provide not only a right of appeal, but a sensitive appeals system that is appropriate to the particular case. If someone wishes to take their case to a further appeal—such as to the Appeal Court on a point of law—they will be permitted to do so. At the moment, applicants not only have the right of appeal on the initial decision to the immigration appeal tribunal, but they can have multiple judicial review appeals that string out the appeals process month after month. My hon. Friends and Opposition Members asked for the process to be speeded up, but we have to change the law to do so, if individuals or, more likely, those representing them, string out cases. We are accused of not completing cases, when those involved are responsible for it.

Keith Vaz rose—

Mr. Blunkett: I give way to my hon. Friend in the full knowledge that he will be able to enlighten me about how he would organise the system differently.

Keith Vaz: I will enlighten the Home Secretary. The problem is bad decision making and the inefficient way in which such matters are handled. I have great respect for him and the work that he has done in the community and in policing. However, this afternoon, he is playing with words. If he takes away a whole tier of the appeals system, he will restrict the right of appeal.

Mr. Blunkett: No. We do not give income support appellants or disability living allowance appellants the

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right to make multiple appeals. If they do not like the decision that has been made, they go to appeal. It is not the case that the system is unfair or that the appeals process is failing unless they have layer after layer.

I shall restate the statistics, so that there is no misunderstanding. After initial decision, 20 per cent. of those who go through the appeals process have their appeals upheld. That figure is too high, so initial decisions need to be better. However, in the appeals process that we are curtailing, only 3 per cent. of appeals are successful. That is a 97 per cent. success rate for the process that we are retaining and enhancing. I do not know where the statistics that some use come from. Perhaps people listen to the pressure groups instead of looking at the reality. I appreciate that not everyone can be an expert on such matters, but I do ask that if people—not least on my own side—criticise proposed legislation, they do so on the basis of facts rather than on what they have read in the newspapers. After all, the Leader of the Opposition made the terrible mistake last Wednesday of believing what he had read in the newspapers rather than what I had said in the press and on radio and television.

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