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Immigration Cases

3. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the backlog of immigration cases at the immigration and nationality directorate. [197731]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): Asylum cases awaiting initial decision are now at the lowest level for a decade, continue to fall and are likely to reach frictional levels by the end of the current financial year. The number of asylum appeals awaiting processing in the IND is at a record low. At June 2004, 9,000 asylum appeals awaited processing—reduced from 30,000 in December 2002. Figures for non-asylum appeals are not published. There are minimal backlogs of charged cases in the general group. Although the non-charged work-in-progress cases have increased in certain specified areas, the aim is to get all that work to frictional levels by 31 March 2005. Over the past six months, work permit backlogs have increased owing to substantial additional pressures on resources as a result of new work streams, new processes, increased applications and difficulties in recruiting.

Keith Vaz: I appreciate the real efforts made by Ministers and senior officials at the IND to reduce the backlog of immigration cases. However, what shall we, as Members of Parliament, say to constituents who come to our surgeries—as many did to my most recent surgery—clutching letters from senior IND officials, with dates such as April 2003, telling them that they would get a reply to their cases within 16 weeks, yet 18 months later no decisions have been made? Is it not right that we should seriously consider trying to address the problems that we inherited in 1997 by giving the
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IND additional resources so that we can complete the important work begun when this Government were formed?

Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Of course, if he wishes to bring individual constituents' cases to my attention I shall be happy to look at them, but I cannot deal with them at the Dispatch Box. He is right to suggest that there were significant delays—for example, when we came to power in 1997 it was routinely taking 22 months for an initial decision to be made on asylum applications. That is now down to two months. Charged general casework, to which he referred, is at frictional levels for this time of the year, and that accounts for about three quarters of the work in the IND. We continue to deliver good service levels and are improving them by the injection of resources and the training of caseworkers. Of course, the Conservatives wish to strip out all that cash, because without it they will not be able to get anywhere near to their promises about police officers.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Does the Minister accept that one of the reasons why the Government find it hard to keep on top of asylum applications is that it is too easy to claim asylum in the United Kingdom? What plans do they have to renegotiate the UN conventions governing asylum, given that they were designed to deal with the problems of refugee Europe after world war two, not with the problems of economic migration that we face today?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady is correct to say that the convention on refugees was not designed for the problems of economic migration, but it is no easier to claim asylum under that convention in the United Kingdom than in any other country in the world—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady now wishes to ask me another question, but the point that she made was that it was easier to claim asylum under the convention here than elsewhere, and it is not.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a process known as convention-plus, which we support, for the modernisation of the convention to enable it better to meet the circumstances of the 21st century. She is right to say that that convention was drafted in post-war western Europe, but what she does not say is that it has also been informed by the developments of the whole of the second part of the 20th century, and by the experience of the whole world. Derogations from the convention would be a denial of that history and would put the United Kingdom in a unique position, which I am sure that most people in this country would not wish to occupy.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab): The Home Department should be congratulated on what has been a dramatic turnaround for applications in asylum cases, but I have to tell the Minister that I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz): at times, it seems that improvements to asylum claims are at the expense of other claims in the IND, especially for exceptional leave to remain. When will we be in a position to set targets across all the functions of the IND, so that all the people who come to
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our surgeries can expect to receive a time, which will be kept to, within which their applications will be answered?

Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to suggest that leave to remain is experiencing delays, as I said in association with work permits. Currently, it takes about 12 weeks to process such applications. We have, as he suggested, increased decision-making staff in that sector by 30 per cent. since April 2004 and further staff are being recruited, but Members will appreciate that staff have to be recruited and then trained to do that complex work, so we shall not see the benefits of those recruitments until the training has taken place.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): The figures published last week on the number of new EU citizens who have applied to the worker registration scheme have shown that a sizeable backlog is developing. In August, 685 applications were outstanding, but in September the number was 2,670. Can the Minister tell us why the figure quadrupled during that period, especially as the number of applications has gone down? Is not that just another example of failed bureaucracy in the Home Office?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that at one stage in the worker registration scheme there was an accumulating backlog, but that has now been significantly reduced. In fact, the majority of applications are dealt with in a week. However, the real concern about the backlog was the fact that the IND was holding on to people's passports while their applications were being processed. We have now changed the rules and passports are being turned around and returned to applicants within 48 hours, so significant improvement has taken place. I think that the hon. Gentleman will discover that we will be at frictional levels in terms of backlog within the comparatively near future.

Forensic Science Service

4. Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): What representations he has received regarding the future organisation of the Forensic Science Service. [197732]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): We have received a broad range of representations from hon. Members, trade unions and others, all of which are being carefully considered.

Colin Burgon: May I draw the attention of the Minister to the recent early-day motion 1522, in which nearly 100 Labour MPs expressed their opposition to privatising forensic science, and also to the submission to the Select Committee on Science and Technology by the Public and Commercial Services Union and Prospect—the trade unions representing people working in forensic science—in which they argued that forensic science should remain in the public sector? What impact have those two pieces of thinking had on Government thinking?
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Caroline Flint: We are in consultation with the trade unions and others about those issues; in fact, we held a workshop in July and I am due to meet trade union representatives on 30 November. This is not about privatisation; it is about having a service that remains in the public sector but is privately delivered—a public-private partnership. The reason that we have to look at the situation is that six police forces account for about 47 per cent. of the revenue of the Forensic Science Service. In the past year, the Metropolitan Police Service has moved a share of its work to the private sector, and Thames Valley police force moved its final share of work to the private sector. We want a Forensic Science Service that can deliver for the future, but it has to work in a world where the competition is greater than it has ever been.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the Minister accept that forensic science will have growing importance in the future in detecting crime and thus in deterring it, as detection is the best way to deter? Will she therefore withhold any restructuring decisions until the Science and Technology Committee has made its report on the Forensic Science Service?

Caroline Flint: Last year, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced his intention radically to change the way in which we deliver forensic science services. We have given evidence to the Select Committee and will listen to what it has to say, but I have to say again to hon. Members that we are dealing with a world in which technology is advancing and other competitors can provide services.

If we consider the changes in the police forces, we see that the police spend 52 per cent. of their forensic budget on services they provide internally, compared with 48 per cent. on the external market, so we have to recognise those changes while also recognising the very good work of people in the Forensic Science Service, which I hope it will be able continue to deliver, even if in a different form, in the future.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): What representations has my hon. Friend received, other than from the private sector, urging greater private sector involvement in the Forensic Science Service?

Caroline Flint: Well, representations have come from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Superintendents Association and the Association of Police Authorities, for example.

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