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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his time.

5.20 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I profoundly disagree with the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who led, though with some hesitancy, for the Opposition, that the asylum system is in real difficulties. I am very impressed by the progress that has been made by the Home Office with the asylum system in recent months in speeding it up. In short, I would describe the Home Secretary and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration as having brought it back from the brink. They have started to turn it into a legitimately effective system—speeding it up, cutting the backlogs, halving the applications. I accept, too, that there is more to do and that further steps have to be taken to achieve greater efficiency.

Subject to the Standing Committee's deliberations and to a good deal of anxiety, and I hope a good deal of Government flexibility, I could even be persuaded that further strong measures to persuade people to be removed are necessary, but if there are to be tougher removal measures, it is critical that we are sure that we will remove the right people, and that requires a proper judicial process with a proper appellate system.

At present, asylum seekers apply to the Home Office and the appeals, as we know, go to Home Office adjudicators, who allow about 22 per cent. of those appeals. But what is clear, and I think is admitted by those on the Government Front Bench, is that the quality of those initial decisions is very poor. What is also clear, and I am very ready to accept, is that many appeals beyond that are put forward when they have little hope of success.

As I said in an intervention, there are excellent practitioners and there are very poor ones. Very good asylum practitioners bringing proper appeals have success rates of 90 per cent. That is how poor the calibre of initial decision taking is, and how unrepresentative even that quite high figure of a 20 per cent. success rate is.

It is clear that the quality of decision making at the beginning should be improved, but it is equally clear that we must root out those charlatan advisers who push families through an appellate process inappropriately, doing them no harm and everybody else a good deal of damage. However, the Legal Services Commission is beginning to know who they are, it is beginning to weed them out, and it can do more. That is the job that should be being done now. The problem is the slack in the system, which can be weeded out in the ways that I have mentioned.

At present, appeals from adjudicators go to a High Court judge chairing a panel, and that is the tier that would be abolished. I can say, without any fear of contradiction, that that is by far the best tier that exists in the asylum system. First, it is presided over by a High Court judge; adjudicators are not that—I will say what they are in a minute. It is speedy, efficient, self-regulating, it has recently speeded up its processes and it

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polices its own considerations, so it grants leave for itself to review cases only if there is merit in them. That is proper judicial supervision.

It is so odd to be trying to abolish that tier, because, as has already been said, it is terrifically good at weeding out exactly the appeals that should not go any further—those that are put in by some of the less good advisers. It weeded out nearly 23,000 applications for leave, and since the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 removed any power to appeal by judicial review against the decision not to allow an appeal, that is really the end for a vast number of appeals. That is an important role and that too will be abolished if that tier of appeals is abolished. Moreover, it works—this is important—on a proper legal merits basis. It has been said, but it bears repeating, that when it accepts that appeals have been properly brought, the panel allows 60 per cent. of them—that is to say, 60 per cent. of adjudicators' decisions that are properly appealed are defective.

The intention is to scrap all appeals to that tribunal, which is crazy. The process will simply stop at the adjudicators. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary called them judges, but that is not right. Their numbers have been rapidly increased through recruitment to cope with the huge burden of work. The only qualification that is required is to be a solicitor or a barrister of seven years' standing—they do not even need to have dealt with an immigration or asylum case before. They are not highly trained, and they are under huge time pressure—it is common for them to deal with three cases a day. They tell us that they have to work at breakneck speed, to deal with badly reasoned Home Office decisions, to conduct a fresh inquiry from the start, to look at the background country conditions again from the beginning, and to consider all the relevant legal principles. They are required to consider natural justice in highly complex situations, and to look at a mass of national laws and rules and a mass of international law principles from a variety of conventions. They often have to do that without well qualified representatives before them, and sometimes there are no representatives.

Mr. Malins: Are adjudicators less qualified than district judges?

Vera Baird: They do not have to be qualified in the area of work that they are intended to deal with. It would be rare to get such a vast increase in recruitment of district judges. I could tell the hon. Gentleman some horror stories about people who are working in this field.

The tribunal that will be the beginning and the end of every asylum seeker's appeal process has, on a legally scrutinised basis, a 60 per cent. failure rate. Clause 10 says:

over any of its determinations or decisions, even if such a decision was a nullity because there was a lack of jurisdiction, an irregularity, an error of law, a breach of natural justice, or for any other reason. It is the be all and end all.

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What is to be gained at this judicial appeal? Frankly, nothing worth having. It will be able to review its own decisions. That means that a person appeals to the same people, so that the issue is not between them and the Home Office, but between the Home Office and the tribunal—and it is the tribunal that does the decision making. That is called being the judge in one's own cause—or, as we would see it up in Redcar, it is like Boro playing the Magpies with the referee coming from Middlesbrough. The fact that that is the only way in which we would ever win the match is beside the point. One has to ask what is the point of such an appeal. If the tribunal upholds its own decision or refuses to review it, one can do nothing about it—one is dealing with the same people with the same level of qualifications and training, who get many things wrong.

Another overwhelming principle is involved. The adjudicator

I am quoting the Prime Minister, and he was right. There is nothing to put in its place. There is a nominal power for the president of the adjudication body to refer on to the Court of Appeal for advice. However, he will not necessarily be a High Court judge, because that requirement has been removed since the previous Act: he need be no more than an ordinary adjudicator.

There is no provision for anybody to ask the president to make a referral; there is no procedure for that. How will he determine the cases that he refers on a principled basis? How many hundreds of adjudicators must he supervise? Even if one can write to ask him to use his powers, there are no criteria whereby he decides whether to do that. He does not even have to read the letter. The correspondent will never know whether he has done so. There are no legal precedents to guide him about the decision because the immigration appeal tribunal—the body that sets them—has gone.

If the president sends the right case and the point of law is found to be wrong, there is no means of enforcing the finding. The victim of the wrong point of law can do nothing. The Court of Appeal has the power only to make an advisory ruling. It may be clear that I should not be deported to Burma—someone was almost deported to Burma a couple of weeks ago, despite all that is said about that country—but there is no way to enforce that right because the Court of Appeal's power is merely advisory. Neither power—to refer and to advise—is worth much. The process therefore starts and finishes with adjudicators, who, as we have witnessed, are frequently wrong, yet make decisions about life and death.

I accept that there is delay in the current system. Some lawyers and advisers—for cash or political correctness—waste time and resources. That is the problem, and the Legal Services Commission should close those lawyers down. The immigration appeal tribunal is speedy and efficient, has good procedures, is effective in weeding out poor applications and finds that 60 per cent. of those left have been decided erroneously. It has proper processes. All we are left with is an adjudicator's decision being checked by the adjudicator

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at the next desk. That cannot achieve the same result. We must be careful not to act on a call for efficiency and deliver gross injustice.

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