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3.29 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): The Minister and I have had many dealings together in Committee and across the Floor of the House. Throughout my dealings with her, I have found her courteous, kind, helpful and efficient and I make no challenge whatever to her personal integrity. But today she and the Home Office face two central charges. The first is that Ministers have presided over an increasingly chaotic and shambolic asylum and immigration system that, after more than seven years of the Government, is universally condemned throughout the country for its inefficiency. The first charge is massive incompetence.

The second charge is more serous and it is this: in order to persuade the general public that all is well when plainly it is not, Home Office and Foreign Office officials are encouraged, if not ordered, by someone somewhere to manipulate the system, to operate it improperly and to behave improperly, in an attempt, first, to please their political masters and reach the targets they have been set, and secondly, to persuade the general public that everything is under control, when plainly it is not.

Kali Mountford: What does the hon. Gentleman say to the charge put to his party by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) that exactly the same procedures were adopted for the new accession countries under the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported?

Mr. Malins: No, not in the same way. I shall come to that in the course of my remarks.

Mr. Garnier: May I add another reason to my hon. Friend's two? Is there not a fundamental constitutional issue? Under our eccentric constitutional arrangements, we have the Executive sitting in Parliament. Unless they are prepared to be accountable to Parliament, they are not performing their proper constitutional function. Irrespective of the personality involved—I was ticked off a moment ago for using a personal name—unless Ministers are prepared to accept responsibility for their role as Ministers, rather than passing the buck down the line to civil servants, the system breaks down. That may not be important to some, but to me, and I hope to my hon. Friend, it is.

Mr. Malins: My hon. and learned Friend is right. It is nothing to do with personalities. It is to do with the office of Minister. Responsibility must be lodged somewhere. It is not right for Ministers continually to blame junior officials when, in truth, the buck stops with the Minister. My second allegation relates to the integrity of the system, which I believe is now at stake.

I shall deal briefly with the first allegation—incompetence. In the Government's first year of office, the bilateral treaty that we had with France whereby people arriving unlawfully on our shores were returned to France lapsed and the Government were never able to renegotiate it. That was their first failure. Partly in consequence, the number of asylum seekers began to rise dramatically. By 2002, we had become the asylum capital of Europe, with well over 100,000 asylum applications in that year, the largest total ever.

The Government could not cope properly. That important area of initial decision making was hopelessly neglected—and is still neglected, according to the

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Labour-dominated Home Affairs Committee. Life and death decisions are made by officials who receive a mere 27 days' training and a salary of only a little more than £15,000 a year. Proof that the quality of initial decisions under Labour is going down can be found in the statistics. In 2002, 22 per cent. of appeals against their decisions were successful, whereas in the last year of the Conservative Government, that figure was only 4 per cent. Members in all parts of the House—Members of the Minister's own party—have roundly condemned the Government for failing to put sufficient resources and expertise into initial decisions.

Mr. Watson: As a former member of the Home Affairs Committee, I remember the dignity with which the hon. Gentleman took evidence. Does he recall taking evidence about the computer system and, more importantly, about the 1,200 redundancies of experienced caseworkers that that situation created, which contributed significantly to the backlog?

Mr. Malins: We are sick and tired of Labour Members discussing so-called failures seven or eight years ago. The Labour Government have been in power for more than seven years, and they should take responsibility for their actions and for their failings.

I note that delays are still endemic in the system. More than 10,000 cases a year still take more than eight weeks to get an initial decision. The average time to get from the initial decision to the adjudicator is now some 17 weeks, or more than four months.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): It is a bit better than it was in 1997.

Mr. Malins: Again, a Labour Member mentions 1997. When will the Labour party begin to take responsibility for the past seven years, rather than continually looking back to the seven years before that?

Given that the conduct of the appeal is usually in the hands of the Home Office, a 17-week delay is far too long. Much to its shame, the Home Office is increasingly unrepresented by lawyers or its own presenting officers at hearings before the adjudicator, which causes further delay.

Life for the adjudicators has been made even more frustrating by the ability of appellants to include all their human rights claims in their appeal. As a result, thousands of applicants for asylum who fail under the convention are nevertheless permitted to stay and are granted exceptional leave to remain under the Human Rights Act 1998. It is a stark statistic that, in the last year of the Conservative Government, about 3,000 people were granted exceptional leave to remain in this country, whereas under this Government more than 20,000 people have been allowed exceptional leave to remain in each of the past two years.

What happens at the end of the day to the failed asylum seeker? In truth, the Government's removals policy has been an abject failure and is widely recognised as such up and down the country. They set themselves a target of 34,000 removals per year, but they have been unable to get anywhere near it and have had to abandon it. The system has been discredited, because four out of five failed asylum seekers know that they can remain in

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this country, notwithstanding the fact that they have no case whatsoever. One consequence of that discredited system is that the Home Secretary was obliged to grant, as he did last year, an amnesty to about 50,000 failed asylum seekers.

The Government say that legislation is the answer, but I remind them that the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 had virtually no effect on the system, and the flagship policy of placing asylum seekers in accommodation centres and induction centres has been a disaster. In the past two years, not one accommodation centre has been set up under this Government. They have talked a good case but failed to act.

The Government have no clear or effective policy on managed migration. When the Home Secretary was asked to estimate how many people are here illegally, he replied that he

On migration generally, he argues, quite wrongly, that there is no obvious upper limit on the number of migrants who could be present in this country.

The charge of incompetence is proved beyond reasonable doubt, but the second allegation about the integrity of the system is even more serious, and we must deal with it today.

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Gentleman prefaced his remarks by paying tribute to the Minister's competence and personal integrity. Is it just a coincidence that whenever the Conservative party guns for the scalp of a Minister, it happens to be a woman, as was the case with the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who is now Minister for the Arts, and with the Minister for Children, and now with this Minister? Was the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) right when she said that her party was a "nasty party" that would take such action on such grounds?

Mr. Malins: Frankly, that is such an absurd intervention that I will not dignify it with a response.

The story of Mr. Steve Moxon, which broke a few weeks ago, should have put the Government on notice that there were serious problems ahead. He is an immigration caseworker who revealed that officials had been ordered to fast-track thousands of applicants with few or no checks on their authenticity. Since November 2002, civil servants have been told to fast-track applications under the BRACE—backlog reduction accelerated clearance exercise—procedure. Rather sinisterly, the memorandum said:

That shows that a lot is going on behind the scenes with this Government that we do not know about, and that we should know about. When challenged about it, the Home Office said that there had been no changes in procedures or dips in the level of the scrutiny applied by caseworkers. Pull the other one: the truth is that there have been changes and dips in scrutiny. Unwisely, the Minister told the House of Commons that the case was

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"rare and untypical". She would have been much wiser at that stage to acknowledge the seriousness of the allegation and set up some form of independent inquiry right across the Home Office. She went on to tell the Select Committee on Home Affairs that it was absurd to imply that she should be made responsible for this.

The second major allegation relates to what took place on 28 March, with new leaked documents claiming that the Minister authorised the fast-tracking of applications. The memorandum from two senior officials at Croydon stated:

Significantly, it adds:

Thirdly, we heard from the diplomat in Romania about what he was instructed to do.

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