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I am afraid, however, that the position is even worse than I have described so far. Applicants cannot simply turn up in Liverpool with their applications; they must first make an appointment by telephone. The formal opening hours of the telephone line are between 9 am and 4 pm, Monday to Friday, but there are only 80 appointment slots per day, and the system will not
allow an appointment to be made more than 10 days in advance. When all the slots have been used up, the line is closed. I understand that it has been closed at noon on most days recently, but desperate people do not know that. They telephone constantly and hear an engaged tone as other desperate people telephone and the lines clash. Eventually they may get through, but then an answering machine tells them that the line is closed.
The reason for this Kafkaesque system is, I understand, that the case resolution department has been set a deadline of 20 days to decide whether new submissions are valid, and whether those making them can therefore receive hard case support and cease to be destitute. The 20 days run from the day on which the appointment is made-so the answer is to close the line and not make appointments, and leave people destitute beforehand so that the 20-day target can be met. Kafka would be proud of those arrangements.
The new system has made provision for exceptional cases. It is theoretically possible for someone who is very ill and cannot travel to Liverpool to apply by post, but to obtain permission to do that the person must-guess what?-telephone the same number to which it is almost impossible to get through. I recently heard of a traumatised and severely ill asylum seeker who had been viciously beaten in Stoke-on-Trent. I have not been able to discover whether he is my Gazan constituent. He has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and is incapable of travelling to Liverpool. His further submission has been refused because it was posted, and he therefore cannot obtain hard case support and continues to be destitute. I also know of an adviser who spent eight days repeatedly telephoning before finally managing to secure an appointment.
On top of all that, when people do present themselves in Liverpool, they are often met by a security guard who gives them a slip and sends them away. If that is the system, why not just post the submission? Clearly this has nothing to do with getting a grip on the information.
It is impossible to explain these changes without concluding that the ending of postal applications is simply designed to make it more difficult to make an application. This will inevitably increase destitution and homelessness among this very vulnerable group of people. Legal practitioners have concluded that the courts will strike down these arrangements, as they have struck down previous arrangements. In the meantime, however, terrible suffering is being inflicted.
I sincerely ask the Minister to undertake to review the situation, as I cannot believe he intended that it should work in this way. I ask him to revert to having postal applications, and to make arrangements for there to be very quick responses to valid applications for hard case support. Otherwise, to our deep shame, we will see growing numbers of homeless, destitute, mentally ill asylum seekers spread across the UK over Christmas and beyond.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas):
I thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) for raising these issues with her customary sincerity, conviction and consistency. I
shall try to respond directly to the points she has made, and I undertake to look into any matters where I am unable to do so.
There are some misunderstandings. The right hon. Lady started off by saying that the existing convention is out of date. I am on record as saying I also believe that to be the case, but I suspect that that is for different reasons. She suggested that it should be possible to make asylum claims out of country, but I suggest that that would not be practical and would not achieve the desired intention. We are very proud of the United Kingdom's work through the United Nations, and particularly the gateway protection programme. We have a very good record compared with those of other advanced countries; that is frequently recognised by the UN.
The right hon. Lady also asserted that asylum support has been cut. Again, I think that is a misunderstanding. I have double-checked the figures since her letter to the Prime Minister, and I have sent a reply to her on this point. The increase in asylum support was 5.1 per cent. That is in line with the September consumer prices index, rather than the December index, which we had the option of choosing. We chose the September index, because I felt it was right to do so. There were some changes, particularly in the 25 to 26 age bracket and the single parent bracket. Nobody has lost money in real terms as a result of those changes-I have checked the figures in the right hon. Lady's letter-but what has changed is that the number of children has been recognised in respect of that support.
Mr. Woolas: If time permits, I shall come on to deal with the detail of that. The letter in reply to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood will outline the figures and give that answer. A number of other changes have been made.
The right hon. Lady made a very important point about Stoke-on-Trent. There is a political difficulty here, which has also arisen in other towns where the activities of the organised far-right may be designed to achieve the objective of stopping asylum support. This is a very important point which I will look into. I have received two pieces of correspondence that I am aware of about this issue: one of them is from a housing provider, and the other is from an hon. Member.
The right hon. Lady made points about changes in respect of Liverpool, and I shall come straight to them. It is already the case that an asylum claim that is not made at a port of entry-there are such cases, of course-must be made in person, at Croydon or one of the other centres.
Our policy is to improve the decision making and to make quicker and better quality decisions. The problem in the past has been that the backlog has built up. A year ago, in my speech to University college London, I put it on the record that the failure of successive Governments to provide support has caused division in communities and hardship for the people applying. Our
policy is to improve the decision making and the Select Committee has concentrated on getting rid of the legacy backlog. That is what we are doing.
In order to provide good legal advice early in the process, which is our policy-it is in the interests of a fairer system to do so-we have the Solihull project, which we are examining, whereby legal advice can be provided earlier rather than later to avoid some of the problems that the right hon. Lady has mentioned. As a constituency MP, I recognise that point.
Let me return to the right hon. Lady's point about Liverpool. A further submission must, in most cases, be treated as a fresh application. It is not the case that the UK Border Agency does not provide support for people who cannot attend. Indeed, I recently met Scottish colleagues to discuss that point, given the geographical distances involved. Just as new applications that are not made at the port must be made at Croydon, a further submission, which is treated as a fresh application under the Court of Appeal rulings, must also, we think, be dealt with in person. To allow a fresh application to be dealt with by post would simply result in a further legacy backlog and further hardship and destitution.
Simon Hughes: The Minister knows, because I have worked closely with his colleagues to try to get a better system, that there is now a regional allocation of immigration staff in his Department who work with MPs in the regions of England and separately in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That suggests that a perfectly competent system could be arranged regionally to allow people to take in their application. Applications from MPs with further representations could still be considered, as all it would mean would be that people could come to MPs rather than having to go in person.
Mr. Woolas: My policy is to clear the backlog. My policy is that we should take decisions fairly and quickly, commensurate with fairness. I have looked at the Croydon figures as a result of the changes that we have made, and it is not the case that the number has fallen, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has suggested. Indeed, the overall numbers applying at Croydon have diminished as we have cleared the backlog and got more on top of the situation.
Clare Short: To repeat the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), will the Minister please consider allowing pre-March 2007 applicants to take their new application to their regional or local office, where they have to go anyway every so often to sign on? That would overcome lots of the difficulties that I have just outlined.
Let me outline some of the policy measures, because I think that I can address that point. When a failed asylum seeker asks us to reconsider their claim due to a change in their circumstances, in the past we simply have not dealt with them fast enough. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By definition, as time goes on circumstances change. People's lives do not freeze as we consider the legacy. Dealing with the decisions quicker, but commensurate with fairness, is critical to our policy. We are achieving that. The backlog is being dealt with
and decisions are being taken within our objective of 60 per cent. within six months. The figure of 40 per cent. is not because we are not fit for purpose, as some might say, but because some of the cases are inherently more complicated, particularly those that deal with families.
Our policy is that we have been working since 2005 to require asylum seekers to make initial claims in person. As the right hon. Lady rightly said, this October we brought the process for further submissions into line with that by introducing a requirement to make a further submission in person. The reason for that change is to make the system better. We cannot be asked to treat a further representation as a fresh application and then to deal with it by post, because there would be abuse, corruption and exploitation, which I have a responsibility to address.
The change helps to minimise the risk of fraud, because we often receive applications, or fresh representations, from people who are not the person in whose name the application is made. It also discourages abuse of the system by people who attempt to frustrate a removal. All of us know, from our experience as constituency MPs, that there are, sadly, people who attempt to frustrate the system. Out of fairness to genuine applicants and their rights, we have to address that issue. In making this change, we are reducing the incentive for individuals to make unfounded further submissions. Again, it cannot be denied that there are legions of unfounded further representations. Anyone who has looked at a case that has been strung along-sometimes for years, and often not to the benefit of the child where a child is involved-will know that that is the case.
The change helps to ensure that those who need our protection get it as early as possible, because it enables us to deal with cases more quickly. Are there exceptions and facilities for people to make further representations, or fresh applications if one takes the court's definition? That is the case if they genuinely cannot appear to make the application, and we consider such situations on a case-by-case basis. I believe that the House will find that the impact of this policy will not be what is feared; indeed, it will be the opposite.
The right hon. Lady has raised a number of points. I will check the Croydon figures and come back to her about what I recognise to be a critical point. If she is right and I am wrong, I will need to review the policy.
I do not wish to take up any more time, but I hope that the Minister will respond to me as well as to the right hon. Lady. This issue could be dealt
with just as well and as efficiently, addressing all the relevant objectives, if it were dealt with regionally, without the huge disadvantage that the present system of going to Liverpool causes to individuals and their families. All the policy objectives could be achieved in that way, there would be face-to-face engagement and the system would be just as efficient.
Mr. Woolas: I do not rule out that possibility, and I see that point. I hesitate to say that the hon. Gentleman is being naive, but the system has been subject to frustration, to the detriment of genuine applicants. I have raised this issue with our directorates in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we have mechanisms in place to allow what he suggests. If something positive can come out of this debate, I shall reconsider that point.
Let me briefly consider destitution. The idea that a Government-especially a Labour Government-would deliberately cause destitution genuinely worries people and must be taken seriously. Putting aside the asylum system, let us consider the Government's commitment to end rough sleeping. Of course, it has not ended completely, but a sea change has happened. The "no one left out" strategy has a goal of ending rough sleeping by 2012. The right hon. Lady raised some cases with me recently and I have looked at the figures. I recognise that the methodology might not be perfect and I am not so naive as to think that everyone who is destitute sleeps on the pavement. They may sleep in empty buildings or in places where our systems do not reach them, but there is significant evidence to show that rough sleeping has decreased significantly.
Now we get to the difficult matter of what to do when the end of the appeals system, the legal consideration and the decision making has been reached. Of course, if somebody has failed to be granted leave under the asylum system and cannot, through no fault of their own, return to their country, support is available. However, when that is not the case, we have a difficult dilemma. Are we to say that the taxpayer should continue supporting a person, when there is no obstacle to returning, especially given the voluntary return system, which our constituents criticise heavily? The easy political option for the Government would be to give in to those pressures and not provide support for the voluntary return system. Indeed, there have been several high profile cases recently, and I, with my colleagues' support, have resisted that pressure on us. The Refugee Integration and Employment Service and our work with the International Organisation for Migration-