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Lord Henley: My Lords, I accept that point. I should be grateful if in response the Minister, with the authority of the Government, could give a figure which would satisfy us all so that we are able to quote a valid figure.
In answer to the Question asked by my noble kinsman on 27th October last year, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, made it clear that the length of time taken to process a claim could make it more attractive to make that claim. I believe that we would all agree with that assertion. We continue to believe that it is vitally important that we do all we can to reduce the number of bogus claims. That is why, despite opposition from the then Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, we made the necessary changes to the benefit rules. We believe that it is also right to do everything possible to speed up the process by which the claims are dealt with. My noble friend Lord Renfrew dealt with that matter in some detail.
In October, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, informed the House that there was then a backlog of some 50,000 cases with the Home Office. I should be grateful if tonight the Minister could update those figures, giving either year ending or current figures. It is four months since the Home Office announcement. Has the figure declined? The figures I have are 70,000 applications for 1995 and 57,000 for 1996. Can the Minister confirm that those figures are correct and that there was a rapid decline in the number of people seeking to have their cases dealt with by the Home Office? In other words, can he confirm that the changes announced in 1996 by my right honourable friend Mr. Michael Howard reduced the figures and that the reduction to 50,000 is part of a continuing trend which started in 1995? I refer not only to the benefit changes but also to the extra money which he provided to the Immigration Directorate within the Home Office.
Reference has been made to the inter-departmental review mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, in response to a Question asked on 30th January. I appreciate that there is still some time to go before the review makes its pronouncements. However, it would be useful if the Minister could comment on its progress and say what the Government hope to receive from it. Perhaps he could also comment on the consultation with immigration advisers, announced by the Home Office, which began in January and is due to conclude in March. We should be grateful for that.
I appreciate that we have given the noble Lord a great deal to respond to, but I am sure that with his usual tact and skill, he will be able to respond to most of the points that have been put before the House. If the Government
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this debate. The breadth of opinions expressed has served to underline the great interest of the House in asylum-related issues. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity to re-state the Government's commitment to an open and collaborative approach on asylum matters. I thank the noble Lord also for the kind remarks which he made about what the Government have already done.
As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, my difficulty is in replying in the time available to me to all the questions which have been raised. First, I should like to deal with the present situation because in some ways, while we have all enjoyed the debate in relation to the review that is taking place, I am in some difficulty in replying to the questions raised because that review is still under way.
That study is part of the Government's comprehensive spending review. It is looking at the whole problem of delays, backlogs, costs, procedures at determination and appeal, the state of welfare provision and the problems of enforcement. I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the study is being done not just by the Home Office but by several of the government departments concerned with asylum seekers and refugees. The study team has been taking a wide range of views from both within and outside government, including from the Refugee Council and other asylum interest groups. The breadth and depth of the asylum study team's task has reflected our recognition at the outset of government that the asylum system we inherited was in need of radical overhaul, and I believe that is agreed by all noble Lords who have spoken.
I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that the Government have been all too aware of the consequences that resulted from hasty, impulsive and half-baked attempts to solve the problems of asylum and immigration control which were employed by our predecessors. The sensible way forward had to be a measured careful and comprehensive study of the asylum process. That is what we are doing. The study which is one of several Home Office spending reviews has yet to finalise its work but hopes to do so in the near future. We shall then consider its findings very carefully.
I am sure that noble Lords will understand my difficulty in relation to that review because it covers many of the issues raised by noble Lords. I am afraid that I am not in a position to comment on the detail of a study which has yet to be finalised and considered.
However, I can say what the aims of the study are: first, the creation of a strategy for dealing with asylum and immigration which is responsible, properly thought out, comprehensive and enduring; secondly, the need to show a real commitment to protection issues, linking our asylum policy to a broad and active human rights agenda--and that is what has been called for this
As regards some of the improvements that are sought, and have been asked for tonight, we need quicker decisions, both initially and on appeal, and we need to be open in our consideration. Delays are bad enough in themselves but are worse when they leave the justified claimant in a limbo of anxiety and fear, as has been mentioned tonight. But quicker decisions on claims which have no validity are also important, not least because they clog up the system and hold up progress on the more deserving cases. That point was made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew. The noble Lord asked me what number of cases are determined each year by each asylum case worker. I am afraid that depends on the individual circumstances of each case that is dealt with, not least because cases vary, although most of them are complex. I shall write to the noble Lord on that point.
Other speakers have asked about benefits. We have inherited much of the present position with regard to benefits. We need an effective strategy which provides support for those who really need it, but yet at the same time does not encourage abuse and which makes sense in relation to the wider provision of accommodation. We have to find the right solution, but I am afraid that will take some time. This, again, is a key priority for the study team and for the Government.
Before I respond to individual points that have been made, I shall refer to progress that we have made on other issues. We have abolished the primary purpose rule which had been the cause of so much suffering. We have also introduced an unmarried partners concession which will benefit those in longstanding relationships. Following the Chahal case we set up a proper review structure for deportation cases. We have also introduced a Bill which will give further effect to the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights. These are early days but we are considering other matters in relation to the comprehensive review.
I have already referred to the matters that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew. As far as I am able in the time available to me, I shall also respond to other points made by other speakers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon asked about attitudes in relation to asylum seekers. We are bound by, and apply, the United Nations convention in relation to this. All asylum seekers are carefully considered against the criteria set by the convention relating to the status of refugees. When an asylum applicant does not meet the
The right reverend Prelate also asked about the port of entry. No port asylum seeker will be interviewed in connection with an asylum claim unless he has signed a declaration to confirm that he is feeling well; that he is ready to answer questions; that he is happy to be interviewed in a specific language; and that he understands the interviewing officer or the interpreter. We are trying to ensure that that is carried out at the port of entry. As the right reverend Prelate said, many of the refugees are in a state of shock at that time. We are trying to ensure that people are not interviewed unless they agree to take part in an interview.
The right reverend Prelate also asked about the Romanys. We have taken the view that the Czech and Slovak republics--I agree with the point he made--in common with other countries in eastern Europe do encounter discrimination and harassment from some elements of the community. However, we consider that, where there is no evidence that that attitude is generally endemic or condoned by the authorities of the country concerned, the applicant should seek the protection of those authorities rather than international protection.
I turn now to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. As usual, he made an extremely witty speech. He dealt sympathetically with the position of refugees and called for many of the provisions which I hope will be covered in the review being undertaken. As I said earlier, the matter will not be considered merely by the Home Office but by quite a number of departments.
As I am sure the noble Earl will agree, this country has a long and honourable tradition of accepting refugees. But it also has a responsibility to protect the integrity of its immigration control against those who would seek to abuse it. We need to achieve that balance. I am hopeful that, when we have considered the review, we shall have the "joined up" policy for which the noble Earl asked in relation to it.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked me a number of questions. In regard to the abuse of Campsfield House, the report and recommendations are awaited. Full consideration will be given to all the points made once we have received the review and once it has been published.
The noble Earl also asked about detention. The initial decision to detain is always taken at a level no lower than chief immigration officer. It is subsequently reviewed regularly and at an increasingly senior level within the Immigration Service. As I said, the reasons are explained orally to detainees in a language that they understand, with an interpreter present if necessary. The desirability of an independent review of the decision to detain was referred to, as was the provision of written reasons for initial detention. Ministers are currently considering the recommendations drawn up following wide consultation. So again, I hope the noble Earl will accept that the matter is being examined under the terms of the full review.
In relation to the issue of bail, we have to re-examine the advantages that occur. But it is true that in many cases in which bail is granted it does not work very well. Again, that matter is being examined in relation to the review.
The noble Earl asked how many children are detained and pointed out the undesirability of detaining children. My information is that at 12th February no persons were detained under Immigration Service powers who were accepted by immigration as accompanied minors. There is always a difficulty in ascertaining a person's exact age, but that is the information I have received. In relation to Algeria and Iraq, all asylum applications are carefully considered against the criteria set out in the United Nations convention. The "white list" and other provisions under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 are all being reviewed as part of the examination of asylum procedures.
I now turn to the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I wish to belatedly thank him for the help that he gave to me in relation to land disposal, and I was grateful to him at the time. Today he asked me several questions on statistics. Those I have are that in 1997 only 11 per cent. of initial decisions were to recognise the applicant as a refugee and grant asylum; 9 per cent. were refused asylum but granted exceptional leave, while 80 per cent. were refused outright. The noble Lord also asked me about the rate of appeals. In 1997 special adjudicators determined 21,090 appeals. Provisional information indicates that only 5 per cent. were allowed and
I thank everyone who has taken part. I wish we had known the full results of the review and studies that have taken place and that I could say a little more in relation to all the points raised. If I have not replied to any Peers, I shall of course write with the necessary information, so far as I can. I stress again that at the end of the review we look to provide a service which is open. That is a significant part of the initiative to make the Government, in relation to this as to many other issues, more responsive and accountable.
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