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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I find this an interesting and intriguing amendment. The noble Baroness wishes to impose a time limit of three months on the Home Office to reach a conclusion about applications. She suggests that the Home Office has a deliberate policy of delaying because, of course, it delays the payment of benefit. That is not true because--

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, will the Minister give way? I did not say that the Home Office had a deliberate policy of delay. The words I used were that at the moment there is a financial incentive for the Government to be inefficient. Those are the words I used.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Baroness has put her argument the wrong way round. There is no financial incentive for the Government to be dilatory at the moment but there may well be potential for that accusation once my changes have been brought in because people will lose benefit after the first Home Office decision. However, at the moment the longer the decision is spun out, the longer people remain on benefit.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness is a ballroom dancer; if so, she may know that it takes two to tango. The delays currently in the system are put into the system by the applicants, both in their first request for asylum to be considered in the Home Office and then in subsequent appeals. The more they delay--especially the appeal stage--the longer they stay on benefit in this country. That is one of the problems which I brought to your Lordships' attention. It seems to me that the noble Baroness has gone a fair part of the way in agreeing with me, without saying so, that it is one of the major problems in the system.

The situation is made even worse and more difficult for the Home Office, as I explained yesterday, when one considers the increasing numbers of asylum applications we have seen in this country. I do not wish to go over the figures in great detail again but remind your Lordships that a decade ago the figures ran at 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 applicants per year; last year they reached a total of 55,000. That is a fair tide. The seafaring example that I gave the noble Baroness was of rowing against that tide: the harder one rows, the less chance one has of succeeding if the tide is flowing ever faster. That is what is wrong here.

We have made considerable improvements in the asylum system which I explained to your Lordships yesterday. We made 21,000 decisions in 1994, 27,000

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in 1995 and we are on course to make 37,000 decisions in the current year. There have also been unfortunate delays with appeal determinations largely because of the terrific increase in applicants. If we still only had 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 people applying for asylum, I might well be able to accept the noble Baroness's amendment, so long as the applicants did not stall, delay and ask for adjournments and reconsiderations. However, the position is that we have managed to increase appeal determinations from 2,400 in 1994 to a projected 19,000 this year.

What I find most intriguing about the noble Baroness's amendment is that she wants the whole process to be speeded up, yet her party opposed the short procedures which the Home Office and the Government introduced and are introducing in order to carry out the speeding-up process. We introduced the short procedures so that people entering the country are interviewed quickly and their cases dealt with quickly. It is intriguing that the noble Baroness's party opposed the speeding up that would have come from the short procedure.

It is all very well to say that if a decision is not made within three months--and I presume that is for in-country applicants--then those applicants should be allowed benefit. But at the same time the noble Baroness says, "By the way, we don't like you using a short procedure and we voted against it when you tried to introduce it". We introduced the short procedure which I believe will greatly help. Of course, we are at one and agree that it is important that we make decisions quickly. It is important for the British taxpayer who, I remind noble Lords, pays out £200 million every year to people who turn out not to be justified in their claims. But it is also important for the genuine asylum seekers.

I should have thought we would all want decisions to be made as quickly as possible so that the uncertainty is removed as quickly as possible. I should like to have heard yesterday and today some positive measures which would help us to deal with the increasing numbers and to prevent that increase so that we could deal with the genuine cases quickly and not have them sitting for months wondering whether they will receive asylum.

That is not the right way to proceed. The right way is the direction that we are taking. The figures I gave yesterday, when noble Lords were kind enough to ask me what had happened since we made the changes in February, indicated that by May there had been a reduction of 50 per cent. in the number of asylum seekers. If that kind of trend continues and we can bring the figures down so that they are much more in line with the numbers seeking asylum from our fellow Europeans, we shall be able to do what the noble Baroness wants us to do and deal with asylum applications very quickly. The measures I have proposed will do that. I really do not need an amendment from the noble Baroness stipulating three months when I have had her opposition to every other part of my department's policy and the policy of the department of my noble friend Lady Blatch in order to deal with the increasing number of asylum applicants in this country.

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4 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am very disappointed with the Minister's reply. This is the usual process that we see throughout Tory social security legislation: when in doubt, finger the victims; it is all their fault for seeking benefits; if only they were clued in enough conveniently not to seek benefits, we should not have to deal with them and there would not be delays. That is a pretty story. We get it in relation to JSA, child support, child benefit issues, and now in relation to asylum seekers. It is their fault for seeking benefit; that is the reason for delays at the Home Office and why we cannot get money for them. They cannot have benefits because they are being foolish enough to ask for them. The very act of asking for benefits disqualifies them.

It is a classic Tory government argument. We have heard it time and again in relation to social security. If people are unemployed, it is their fault for not finding a job; if people are destitute, it is their fault for not being self-supporting; if people are not receiving support from a partner, it is their fault for not naming him, even though they may be frightened of doing so. It represents a constant fingering of the victim. That is all we have heard from the Minister today.

If the Government were right, if they were so overwhelmed by delays that have grown in the past 18 months, as they have tried to suggest with all the images of poor little rowing boats against enormous tides that we are getting yet again--you would think the speechwriters could find new metaphors, having used boats and tides for the last three sessions running; there are other metaphors in the repertoire, I assure the Minister--if the Minister were right in his argument that these problems have occurred only recently and there are huge increases in the figures, why then are 10,000 people still waiting from 1991? Why then are similar numbers still waiting from 1992? Why are similar numbers still waiting from 1993, if the tide of immigrants that is swamping us has come so recently and so rapidly that only now we cannot cope?

I have the figures in front of me. Applications in 1990 were 26,000; in 1991, 44,000; in 1992, 24,000; in 1993, 22,000; in 1994, 32,000; and the figure as of February for the number of applications still outstanding was 15 per cent. for the first three years and 25 per cent. for the past two. I give way to the Minister.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I never said that it was only in 1995 that the increase occurred. Perhaps the noble Baroness will look at Table 2.5 in what I suspect is the book she is looking at. She will see that the 4,000, 5,000 and 6,000 I cited in the mid-1980s and the second part of the 1980s began to increase quite sharply in 1989 and 1990, reaching 73,000 in 1991. That is the problem. It is not just that the numbers of applications increased in a jump to 1995; the increase started in 1989 and took off in a very big

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way in 1991. Thankfully, the numbers fell back a little, but they have begun to increase again. I commend Table 2.5 relating to applications.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, in that case the Government have had five years to deal with this rising tide and have failed to do so. In other words, instead of what we were told yesterday about extra case workers and so on, as though this were a recent phenomenon, and since other countries tightened up we have been swamped, the Minister now concedes that it is a situation to which we have been trying to respond for the past five years. The problem continues to worsen and the Government have failed, not over one or two years, but over five years to deal with a problem in which the number of applications outpaces the resources that the Government are willing to apply to resolve it. Therefore, the Government are simply seeking to deny people benefit in order to deny them the ability to sustain their claim. That is the consequence.

We cannot have it both ways. Either this is a recent tide, in which case why were the earlier applications taking so long to resolve; or it has been a longstanding tide, in which case why have the Government been so inefficient in responding to it? Which of those two situations do the Government prefer as an accurate description? Either way, the asylum seeker is the victim, either of the Government's dilatoriness or incompetence or of their refusal to take the need seriously.

The Minister made a point about the Opposition Benches voting against the short procedure. As I understand it, although I was not personally involved in that debate, we voted against the short procedure because it was unjust. We did not, I understand, vote against the whole clause. Therefore the Minister is wrong to attribute to these Benches opposition or hostility to speeding up procedures. Speeding up those procedures cannot and must not be at the expense of the fair assessment of claims.

At the end of the day we see the Government doing what they always do--blaming the asylum seeker for seeking benefit and seeing that as the source of the problem. There are other amendments that we shall wish to explore at even greater length. Were that not the case, I should seek the opinion of the House. However, at this stage I shall not do so.

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