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Lord Acton: My Lords, how long has the inquiry taken and how long did the previous three inquiries take?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, this inquiry started at the beginning of last year. It has now been running for just over a year. I shall let the noble Lord know the timing of the previous inquiries. It was before my period of office so I shall need to look up the detail.

UK Military Communication Satellites: Security

3.12 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that the United Kingdom's military communication

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satellites are secure. Control of the satellites is effected through secure radio links, and all associated terrestrial communications are secure and separate from any publicly accessible communications system. The security of the on-board computers is therefore ensured. Nevertheless, we keep our security arrangements under constant review to ensure that they remain effective.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reassuring reply. Will he reassure the House a little further by saying that the reports--which first appeared in the British press at the end of last month, and subsequently in the international press--that the computers on board a British military satellite had been illegally accessed by what are known as "hackers" who had shifted the military satellite out of its orbit are without foundation?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I note the noble Lord's concern about our security. I am aware of the press reports. However, as far as we are aware there is no foundation in such reports. I can confirm that there has been no unauthorised access into the United Kingdom's military communication satellite system. That system is monitored continuously to ensure that there is no possibility of the system being attacked without our knowledge.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate: Computer System

3.14 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect the computer system in the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office to work satisfactorily, and what interim arrangements are in hand to deal with the backlog and the situation of those whose immigration and asylum status is uncertain.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, we regret the recent disruption to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's caseworking operation during the first phase of the casework programme, a private finance initiative partnership with Siemens Business Services. The current plan is for the full computer system to be made available for testing in June and rolled out by early 2000. We have set up a joint team with Siemens Business Services to recover the previous level of service and catch up on the backlog which has developed. The applicant's status is protected where an application is made before expiry of permission to stay.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that at a time when the Immigration and Asylum Bill is being debated in another place we now have a backlog of over 200,000 cases; the files are stored in garages, which are unsafe and those files cannot be located; people queue at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate from four o'clock in the morning, and applicants are advised that

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they can apply to their embassy for new passports because theirs cannot be located? Does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need to build up applicants' confidence in the system? Would he therefore undertake to issue regular briefings to the newspapers about the progress made, explain to applicants the procedures for claiming compensation from the Government, and not to take action against those in breach of their immigration status through no fault of their own?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord raises points of validity. The figures I have are not the figures he gave. They are still not good figures, by any stretch of the imagination. On 19th March, which is the most up-to-date material I have for your Lordships, there were 125,165 cases waiting to be decided. Of those work-in-progress cases, 67,000 were asylum cases. In the Case Allocation Unit there were almost 10,000 asylum cases, making a total of 76,853 asylum cases. So, it is not a good story by any means.

We give regular press briefings which I believe are of assistance. We propose to continue those regularly. As regards compensation, it has always been the practice that we consider ex gratia payments in individual cases if there is full supporting evidence to show actual and necessarily incurred additional costs. As to the third matter raised by the noble Lord, I appreciate that this is a matter of great concern. No applicant should be disadvantaged by the changes we are in the process of making.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the present situation is absolutely deplorable? It is of benefit to those who have no right to asylum in this country, including some villains, but it is awful for genuine, honest asylum seekers who are entitled to asylum under our law and by all the laws of decency of this honourable land. What steps will be taken to deal with the matter even more speedily? Surely, the situation should never have arisen. Now that it has, we are not dealing with it fast enough.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I agree that the situation should never have been allowed to arise. I have made it brutally plain that I regard it in the same way as noble Lords who have already contributed to this Question. On 15th March we set up a joint taskforce, which I outlined a moment ago, and which is to report by mid-April. This contract was let to Siemens Business Services in April 1996. We are therefore attempting to deal with an inherited situation as promptly and as fairly as we can.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, as the noble Lord has admitted that something ghastly has happened and as it does not matter whether the arrangement was set up by the Tory government or by the present Government, can he please say that the heads of those who made the mistake will roll?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is a novel constitutional doctrine of governmental and ministerial responsibility that it does not matter whose fault it was.

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I imagine that that might be of some comfort to me in the months to come. A National Audit Office investigation has already gone into this matter with great care. Undoubtedly, mistakes were made, but I do not feel able to point to a single individual who needs his head removed in the way that the noble Earl has suggested.

I think that we both agree that the important point is that this situation should never have been allowed to develop. It is not satisfactory conduct of public administration. We are doing what we can to remedy the situation--I have been as plain as I can be about it--but it will take time, and I am sorry for that.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is it not a fact that heads rolled massively on 2nd May 1997? Having inherited this situation, does my noble friend agree that speed is clearly of the essence and that the House will be reassured by what the Home Office is doing at present? However, is it not regrettable that it seems to be implied that the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are bogus, but that is not true and the people who are here, awaiting the determination of their cases, are entitled to respect rather than being subject to such inferences?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I agree absolutely that anyone who is applying for asylum in a foreign jurisdiction is entitled to decent, civil and civilised treatment. It is taking time to put this matter right--I have given the dates. Although we hope to have the computer beginning to work properly by June of this year, it will be the early part of the year 2000 before the scheme is properly rolled out.

Lord Meston: My Lords, can the Minister say how many children are affected by this problem and whether steps are being taken to give priority to cases involving children?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I cannot do that, but I can give the figure for general and settlement cases: there are 15,000 work-in-progress cases and 13,500 in case allocation, making a total of 28,500 general and settlement cases. I believe that that gives part of the answer which the noble Lord is seeking. If I can obtain further material on this, I shall send it immediately to the noble Lord and place a copy of my letter in the Library.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as a lay member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. I have two questions for the Minister. First, was there a penalty clause in the contract with Siemens and, if so, will it be invoked? Secondly, I understand that as the new computers will not be working until early next year, there may be problems with the existing computer system and the millennium bug. Can the Minister give us some assurances on that because we seem to have lost enough cases already?

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