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The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): My hon. Friend will know that the benchmark that we took was the monthly figure for October 2002the period immediately before the introduction of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. In September 2003the latest month for which data are availablethere were 4,225 applications for asylum. That figure is 52 per cent. lower than the number in October 2002. We have therefore met the Prime Minister's 50 per cent. pledge, which is very encouraging. However, we are not complacent and we continue to look into ways of reducing the number of asylum claims further.
Jim Dobbin : In those figures I am sure that there will be a number of families with children. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that their rights regarding housing, health and education will be protected during the whole asylum process?
Beverley Hughes: Yes. While an asylum claim is ongoing, until it is finally completed, individuals and families, including children, have access to health and education as well as asylum support and housing through the National Asylum Support Service process. Of course, if and when a claim is refused and the appeal rights are exhausted, we expect failed applicants, including families with children, to return home. My
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Is the Minister aware that because of the emphasis on the asylum backlog, routine visa applications such as those connected with marriage are inordinately delayed, often for years? Why does the Home Office not adopt the simple policy of copying travel documents once they have been verified, and releasing them so that people can get on with their lives while they are waiting?
Beverley Hughes: I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman proposes; that is exactly what we are trying to do. In some cases, for various important reasons, it is not possible, but I agree that in general, documents can be copied and sent back, and we have asked the immigration and nationality directorate to implement that process in future.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I welcome the considerable success that the Government have had in reducing the number of asylum applications, but does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a danger that some people who might have applied for asylum will be drawn into illegal working in this country? Will she take this opportunity to say that she would welcome the use of the Proceeds of the Crime Act 2002 against employers who knowingly employ illegal labour?
Beverley Hughes: That is a suggestion that my right hon. Friend made a little while ago in the context of the Home Affairs Committee inquiry and, as I shall indicate in my response to the most recent inquiry, we are looking at it in great detail. I shall be happy to provide him with further information once we have undertaken that investigation.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): We need effective legislation and enforcement, but we also need to harness the support of local communities in tackling gun crime. That is why we have provided support for the Disarm Trust to work directly with affected communities and community groups, and have allocated £1.2 million of recovered assets money to support community action in the most affected areas. In January this year, we held a very good conference in Birmingham, involving more than 200 community organisations, individuals and young people, to identify better ways to work together in the future and to stimulate more ideas for action.
Caroline Flint: I am aware of the incident to which my hon. Friend refers. She is right to draw attention to the links between gun crime and other organised criminal activities, especially drugs. The serious organised crime agency will look into such issues and that will be helpful for the future, but we also have to ensure that there are operations on the ground to deal with them effectively. The Bradford district is taking a proactive approach to gun crime and over the next six weeks it will launch a media campaign to make local people aware of what it is doing and to encourage them to come forward with information. We are seriously looking into how we can further improve witness protection nationally. We need to attend to that very serious issue.
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): We are committed to reducing the numbers of outstanding cases in all areas of the immigration and nationality directorate to a steady state of frictional levels of work in progress and we have allocated dedicated resources to achieving that. As I have already mentioned today, the number of outstanding asylum cases awaiting an initial decision had fallen to 29,100 in September 2003the lowest level for a decade. The number of outstanding asylum appeals is being reduced by 1,500 cases a month. We expect to clear outstanding leave to remain work by spring 2004 and nationality work by autumn 2004.
Keith Vaz : I welcome the Minister's commitment and the news that she has announced today; however, the fact remains that there is still a substantial backlog. A constituent who came to my surgery last Friday has been waiting for two and a half years for a letter from the IND. Will my right hon. Friend look in particular into the fact that Home Office presentation officers do not attend immigration tribunal cases? A third of all such officers simply do not attend and that must have an impact on the backlog. Will she make a commitment to ensure that there is better attendance by those officers at the hearings?
Beverley Hughes: I acknowledge that the availability of presentation officers has been a problem, especially in London where there has been a shortage. However, I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that we have already taken action and that 65 additional officers are being appointed. The process is far advanced and I expect them to be in post by March this year. I am sure that, as my hon. Friend says, that will have a discernible impact on the problem that he outlined.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Minister has told us that the backlog stands at 29,000. Can she tell us how many asylum seekers have benefited from the relaxed criteria introduced by the Government in their backlog clearance exercises? How many?
Beverley Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman is talking about the indefinite leave to remain exercise announced at the end of last year, the process of identifying people who meet the criteria is still going onas I made clear when we made the announcement. People have to be checked, both as to whether they meet the criteria and, for example, whether they have committed any criminal offences in the meantime. We expect to conclude the whole exercise by April or May this year.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): The Home Office provided a grant to the National Neighbourhood Watch Association of £150,000 in 200203 and of £200,000 in 200304. The National Neighbourhood Watch Association provides guidance and training to local neighbourhood watch associations. Local neighbourhood watch schemes are independent and largely self-financing. They are supported by police forces with which they work closely.
Mr. Wyatt: I commend to the Minister a scheme in San Jose, California by which each neighbourhood watch is funded. When graffiti appears, telephones and microwave systems are used, and graffiti can be removed within 24 hours. Those neighbourhood watches make neighbourhoods safer, and they are funded at a very low level. There are more than 700 neighbourhood watch schemes in my patch, and I would love to enable them further because they are so successful.
Fiona Mactaggart: We recognise that neighbourhood watch schemes are vital partners for the police in preventing and reporting crime and in supporting witnesses. The US scheme that my hon. Friend describes is interesting. Neighbourhood watch schemes and other community groups can work with the police to try to tackle such issues. In America, however, local community associations and local government are less vital than in the UK. Perhaps Americans depend on neighbourhood watch schemes where we have other resources, but I will examine the scheme that he describes.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Minister concentrate on neighbourhood watch schemes in this country? Does she agree that, alongside Crimestoppers, community policing and neighbourhood wardens, the neighbourhood watch is an important part of the jigsaw that provides safety in our communities? Although national funding for neighbourhood watch schemes should be recognised and appreciated, does she agree that much more could be done locally if there were core funding for back-up administration?
Fiona Mactaggart: We recognise the vital role of neighbourhood watch schemes, which was laid out for the first time in statute in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, demonstrating the value that we place on them. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that neighbourhood watch schemes play a practical local role, which is why we work to ensure that they are closely involved in crime and disorder reduction partnerships and that they can work closely with the police. We have not ruled out considering providing them with resources, which is often best done locally. We see them as partners in part of our police reform programme, in part of our crime and disorder reduction programme and in tackling antisocial behaviour and crime in neighbourhoods up and down the country.