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Lord Avebury: As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has again raised the question of timing, perhaps I may repeat a question that I put to the Minister at Second Reading concerning the delivery of the casework system, which is being provided by Siemens and on which, as the Committee will be aware, there have been considerable delays. It had been said that the system would be delivered for preliminary tests by IND on 15th June and that it would be operational in April 2000. I asked the Minister whether the testing had indeed begun on 15th June. That would be a good way to tell whether the commissioning date of April 2000 is likely to be met. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can deal with that point.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: I wish to commend the amendment and to say how strongly we support it. It is a most enjoyable amendment. It has the quality of bringing forward joined-up government, competitive government, modern government, efficient government and government responsive to the customer. Those are all principles which I believe Her Majesty's Government hold deeply dear.

I hope the Government will give the amendment careful consideration. The prescribed time gives them a certain amount of flexibility as to the objectives that they set. It is of course right and proper that government departments should deliver within the prescribed times that they themselves set. There is the great attraction of setting a substantial incentive to Home Office civil servants to complete their work on time, and for Ministers to do the same thing. Finally, the amendment has the advantage of being compassionate, because it will enable those affected to be dealt with quickly, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, have implied.

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I commend both noble Lords on the Conservative Benches on the far-sighted vision of this amendment and I hope that it will appeal to the Minister.

Lord Hylton: At this early stage of the Bill, perhaps I may re-emphasise a point that I was trying to make at Second Reading that speed, although desirable, is not the only element that is necessary. We also expect a high quality of decisions in all asylum and immigration matters. If that can be achieved--I hope that it will be--it will be bound to reduce the number of appeals and thus the overall time taken. I hope that can be taken on board.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Perhaps I may make a preparatory remark. Clause 4 concerns in-country applications for leave to remain on the basis of variation of leave to enter. It does not deal with asylum seekers. I have undertaken to exclude from the clause applications for leave from asylum seekers. Therefore, this clause will not affect process times for asylum applicants, whether in-country or at port. I suspect that that is what the pertinent questions of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on that other aspect were aimed at. The noble Lord is nodding helpfully. Perhaps I may therefore pass on his well-judged questions because they do not deal with this part of the Bill.

The amendment would require the refund of fees if particular applications were not determined within a period to be prescribed. I fully accept that the service of the Immigration and Nationality Department at Croydon is providing just now is less good than it ought to be, to put it quite mildly. Nevertheless, many callers to the public caller unit still have their applications determined on the day that they make them. The Government and the Home Office have a commitment to public service and we are determined that the service levels in Croydon and Liverpool will improve. But that will take a little time.

I do not believe, in any event, that it is appropriate for service levels of this nature to be set out in legislation. There could be any number of reasons beyond the control of the Home Office affecting turnaround times, including, for example, the time taken by applicants to respond to inquiries. When service standards are to be published, this should be done administratively and in a way in which they can be amended quickly if required.

Even when a service standard is set, it does not follow that failure to meet the standard means that the full fee should be refunded. That does not happen in the private sector and there is no reason why it should happen in the public sector. Even when private sector undertakings provide compensation for poor service delivery, it falls far short of the price paid by the customer.

The essential reason for this clause is to reduce the costs which currently fall on the Exchequer. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, would either reduce receipts to the Exchequer or increase the fees which other applicants have to pay. I have no doubt that noble Lords on all sides of the Committee would wish to give every encouragement to IND to process cases more quickly. My right honourable friend in

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another place fully supports that. But I do not believe that this amendment would assist. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell: Perhaps the Minister will take this point on board. Were the amendment in place, I would have to write to his noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, and his honourable friend, Mr O'Brien, a good many fewer letters than I do at present. Although those letters are processed with quite exemplary expedition, generosity and success, it might be nice for all of us if we could be spared the trouble.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: I should be interested in the response that the noble Earl receives to his letters. If he always has success, he will encourage a great many more letters.

Earl Russell: I did not say "always".

Lord Cope of Berkeley: It sounded rather like that. However, be that as it may, in the light of the earlier agreement to alter the Bill, under this amendment we are in danger of giving the Home Office an incentive to process asylum seekers more slowly in order to speed up those covered by the amendment, which of course is not what we would wish to do. The noble and learned Lord made some good points in the sense of wishing to speed up the process, which is what we are trying to achieve. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 18:

Page 4, line 13, leave out subsection (6).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 4, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 5 [Members of missions other than diplomatic agents]:

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 19:

Page 4, line 23, leave out from ("member") to end of line 24.

The noble Lord said: This is a small amendment probing the meaning of the clause. Under Clause 5, a member of a diplomatic mission is rightly exempt from immigration control. However, the wording of the Bill implies that if someone is offered such a post but ceased to be a member of the mission before taking it up, he would still be exempt from immigration control. If he is offered a post but ceases to be a member of the mission after taking it up, he ceases to be exempt. Perhaps we are not reading the Bill correctly, but the situation seems unclear. However, on the face of it, that is what is stated and I doubt whether the Government intend it to state that and it is not what it should state. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: As ever, the noble Lord is spot on the point. Perhaps I may explain what we are trying to do. Clause 5 is intended to prevent foreign nationals taking a job in a diplomatic mission in an attempt to evade immigration control.

Before 1988 any foreign national who worked at a diplomatic mission, regardless of immigration status prior to being engaged, was exempt from immigration

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control. However, it was discovered that people subject to enforcement action were using such employment to benefit from exemption from control and thus avoid being removed from the UK.

Section 8(3A) of the 1971 Act was introduced to allow for locally engaged staff--that is, any foreign national offered a position at a diplomatic mission here while in the UK--to remain subject to immigration control. The current wording of that section means that foreign nationals already in the United Kingdom who are offered a job in a diplomatic mission remain subject to control so long as they remain in this country. However, if they travel abroad and then return to the UK, the current drafting of Section 8(3A) means that they become exempt simply because they have entered the United Kingdom as a member of a diplomatic mission. This means that once again any person attempting to avoid removal could do so quite easily. In other words, one is subject to immigration control; one joins a diplomatic mission, still subject to control; one goes abroad on a day trip to France; and on return one has sprung free from all immigration control.

Clause 5 closes the loophole by providing exemption only if the person was resident outside the United Kingdom, and was not present in the United Kingdom, when offered his post. Furthermore, the exemption will be lost if the person concerned ceases to be a member of the mission after taking up the post, unless he is re-employed under circumstances which again satisfy the requirements of the clause.

The effect of subsection 3A(b) is to prevent abuse when a person leaves his exempt employment and is then locally engaged as a member of the same mission. This subsection prevents such an individual from relying on a previous exempt status, to which he is no longer entitled, to evade immigration control. The effect of Amendment No. 19 would be to remove this second requirement, which obviously defeats the object of the clause.

In the light of my explanation, I urge the Committee to reject the amendment.

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