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Ms Abbott: The hon. Gentleman criticises the Government for the level of removals, but is it not true that the level was not much higher under the Conservative Government? [Interruption.] Indeed—it was lower. It is easy to call for many more removals, but in fact it is a very difficult and contentious thing to achieve.

Mr. Malins: I agree with the hon. Lady that it is a very difficult thing to achieve. I also agree that the previous Conservative Government did not remove every failed asylum seeker, but she should not forget that the problem is getting worse. I hope that she understands that there are tens of thousands more failed asylum seekers than there were seven years ago.

Let us have a look at the comments of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It was three years ago, I say to the hon. Lady, if she is prepared to listen—[Interruption.] She is not. It was three years ago that the Home Affairs Committee, dominated by the Labour party, concluded that this Government had been dilatory in enforcing removals. It added that that in itself had attracted more people to the UK. There was further criticism of the Government on removals by the same Committee in spring this year. A glance at the statistics illustrates the problem. Last year was one of the worst on record. Of 45,000 failed asylum seekers who should have left, only 10,000 went through removals and voluntary departures. What kind of efficiency is it when barely one in five failed asylum seekers are being removed from the UK?

The Government compound the problem by setting themselves targets to try to grab the headlines. They had a target of removing 30,000 failed asylum seekers per

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year, rising to 37,000 by 2003–04, but what on earth is the point of setting a target if it is so unrealistic that it cannot be met and has to be abandoned? Again, as the Home Affairs Committee has remarked, what on earth was the basis for the belief at the time that the target was achievable? A target that is not reached and is dropped serves only to arouse false expectations of what can be done. That failure results in a drop in morale among all concerned.

There is another basic failure, which is at the beginning of the asylum process: the Government's continued refusal to understand that initial decisions must be fast and of the highest standard. At the moment, I do not believe that they are either. A parliamentary answer in June 2002 revealed that the average time for a Home Office official to reach an initial decision on an asylum application was seven months. It further revealed that at that time nearly 20,000 cases had been awaiting an initial decision for more than six months. Some 16,000 cases had been outstanding for more than 12 months. That was in 2002 and, to the Government's credit, times for initial decisions are coming down, but it is a slow process and it will take years to catch up. Even today, with the vast resources and money poured into the system, considerably more than 20,000 applications per year have to wait more than two months even for an initial decision.

What of the quality of those decisions? They are made largely by inexperienced Home Office officials who are on a starting salary of £15,500 per year—two thirds of the national average. With only 27 days of training, those officials have to make decisions that can literally mean life or death to the applicant. They are neither paid nor trained well enough to deal with those complex issues. I wonder whether the Home Secretary knows what the turnover rate of such staff is. It is a telling but unsurprising fact that considerably more than 20 per cent. of appeals against their decisions are successful. The percentage used to be 4 per cent. In relation to some countries, the successful appeal rate against initial decisions is even higher. That must surely concern us all, and it has certainly concerned the Labour-dominated Home Affairs Committee.

The inefficiency at the early stage of the process is compounded by the fact that at most appeals before an adjudicator the Home Office simply does not have a presenting officer present to argue its case. I ask the Home Secretary, what has happened in the past year to cause so many part-time and full-time adjudicators to bemoan the fact that the Home Office has simply stopped providing representation before them? That failure can only lead to more delays and, in practice, a greater likelihood of appeals being allowed.

With that background, it can be no surprise that the Government have largely lost the confidence of the British people. I wish that they would take our advice and concentrate on an expert and timely initial decision-making process, coupled with an efficient removals system.

David Winnick: When the then shadow Home Secretary, now the shadow Chancellor, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs a few months

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ago, his party's solution was to put all the applicants on an island, from which their claims would be processed. Does that remain the policy of the Conservative party?

Mr. Malins: I will tell the hon. Gentleman what our policy is, and I am glad to have the opportunity to do so. We believe that the current system is in many ways discredited and that the Home Secretary has real difficulties getting it to work properly. We doubt whether he will ever be able to do so, although we wish him well in that pursuit. We believe that the appropriate course of action is to scrap the current system entirely, to accept—[Interruption.] I am explaining, if the hon. Member for Walsall, North will listen, that we should accept a quota of refugees, designated and agreed between us and the UNHCR every year, so that we know when they arrive that their arrival has been agreed, and they are to be welcomed.

Under that quota system, if anyone else sought to claim asylum on these shores, they would be removed to a safe offshore haven. I am using my words carefully here: they should be removed to a safe offshore haven—forget the island—where their cases would be decided. [Interruption.] It is all very well for the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) to barrack, but there is a great deal of sense in deciding asylum applications offshore if possible, because we would be able to avoid the problems that the Home Secretary is now facing, which he cannot solve.

We want to work towards a combination between a quota system and offshore decision making. We do not want a system like the one that the Government preside over, which is so discredited throughout the country.

Keith Vaz rose—

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Malins: I shall give way to my right hon. and learned Friend first.

Mr. Hogg: May I press my hon. Friend a little on the policy that he is enunciating? If we are to delegate to the UNHCR the role of determining who is an asylum seeker, is not one of the consequences that if somebody comes to this country unlawfully we should simply refuse to entertain an application from that person, but rather say that he or she should make an application within the UNHCR procedure?

Mr. Malins: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend—or at least, I think I am. We all want to avoid the situation in which people travel to this country, at great risk of their lives and under the cosh of the gangs, in order to make their claim, so there is much to be said for the proposal that every year we take a quota of refugees who are officially recognised by ourselves in conjunction with the UNHCR. There is also a great deal to be said for moving as rapidly as possible to an offshore processing system, which would be a much more efficient way of handling matters. [Interruption.] Before Government Members scoff, let me ask them this: in the seventh year of this Labour Government, is not their record one of abject failure on

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all fronts, and do not the British people regard the system that they are currently operating as chaotic and in a complete shambles?

Keith Vaz rose—

Lynne Jones rose—

Mr. Malins: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, and then to the hon. Gentleman.

Lynne Jones: Would the accommodation provided in those offshore havens be of a large institutional nature, or would there be small units, as advocated by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)?

Mr. Malins: The hon. Lady is trying to tweak me on this subject, but I shall give her a frank answer. We do not know the answer to that question yet. Let us just occasionally be frank in this House, and say that we are not sure—

Mr. Blunkett rose—

Mr. Malins: I shall give way in a moment. I shall just finish my sentence and say to the hon. Lady that there would be centres where—

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Neither offshore nor sure.

Mr. Malins: That is a good line. I shall remember that. Let me just tell the hon. Lady that at those offshore bases and centres there would be a proper judicial system, with legal advice and the fullest possible help given. Part of the purpose of that policy is that if we send a message throughout the world—[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Lady will take this on board. I am saying that if we send a message—

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