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Lord Judd: I hope that, as this is a probing amendment, my noble friend the Minister will deal with the anxieties expressed from the Benches opposite. However, I want to say to those who proposed the amendment that in some respects its wording is unfortunate. We are after expeditious, effective action which is committed to justice. It seems to me that the amendments lend credence to the concept of administrative targets. Targets of that kind may work against the deliberation of justice and against ensuring the right outcome. Therefore, I suggest that, after making their probe and if they go away to consider what they will do on Report, they come back with a rather more considered amendment on this point.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I speak in support of my noble friend. Twice during this Committee stage I have alluded to the fact that in the previous Parliament I found that I had to write to the Home Office 40 times as often as I had done in any earlier Parliament. Primarily that was because at a particular moment in the previous Parliament Ministers requested Members of Parliament writing on behalf of constituents to cease writing to Ministers and to write to officials instead. Inevitably, that slowed down the speed with which one received a response, but I understood the problems that the Home Office had during that periodtranslating manual files into computerised onesso I was happy. At all stages I faithfully did what Home Office Ministers asked, until one Minister said that the situation was easing and it would be all right to write to Ministers.
The consequence of writing 40 times as often as I ever had beforepreviously I had communicated only with Ministerswas that I gained a wide experience of how long it would take for a file to be sorted out if it came direct to officials and not via a Minister's private office. My experience was the same as my constituents would have had if they had written to Home Office officials themselves. I hope for the sake of everyone concernedthose in the Home Office and former constituents of minethat that situation is now easing, and that the Government's attention to current cases will gradually produce a removal of the backlog. I understand the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, but I cannot say whether an annual report of this kind would make any difference. There were moments when I wondered whether Ministers had any conception of the experience of Members of Parliament in dealing with officials rather than with Ministers' private offices.
I shall cite a particular instance. A constituent of mine who started communicating with me in about 2000, after visiting me at a surgery, had been through the entire procedures in relation to remaining in this country as early as the end of 1996 and had been invited by the Government to leave the country. He had not done so, but had continued to live in a hostel in my constituency. Once a year he went first to Dover and then to Ramsgate to acquire authority to stay for another year. In 2001 he wanted some degree of finality to his situation because he could not get on with his life, but when I communicated with the Home Office it said that that was the first time that it had heard of the individual since indicating to him that he should leave the country in 1996.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, in his early days as a barrister, was once asked to defend the Three Hands Disinfectant Company. He resisted the temptation to say to the judge, "This is one of those cases where two hands did not know what the third hand was doing"! The experience of those who dealt with the engine room of the Home Office during the two years when we were asked not to communicate with Ministers left one with a real concern on behalf of constituents as to what happens in the engine room which is invisible to the outside world.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for his story and personal experience. I share his sense of frustration. In the past I too have had to conduct casework with large bureaucracies, including the Home Office. There is always room for improvement. We would not pretend that in the past matters have been perfect and we will not pretend that they will be in a state of perfection in the future. For that reason this substantial piece of legislation is before the Committee. We are seeking to make improvements to the system. Noble Lords cannot have missed the substantial sums that the Government have set aside to invest in improving this area of their operation.
Delays in official correspondence are, quite rightly, often paraded in aid of an argument in your Lordships' House. However, it must also be placed on the record that the casework performance, certainly within the Home Office and its agencies, has improved considerably. Casework has certainly speeded up for both asylum and non-asylum cases. The noble Lord helped to make the point. Computer systems being introduced and going over from a manual to a computer-based system led to a significant improvement following difficulties in earlier years. That is recognised. We are starting to make serious inroads into the target times that have been set. Targets are aimed at reducing processing times and they are improving year on year, particularly on the two-plus-four target.
We now have a fully integrated case-work system bringing together immigration officers and those who work on asylum cases. We are aiming to ensure that the process works much better in the future. This group of amendments seeks to oblige the publication of an annual report with those targets in mind.
However, the information which Members of the Committee are keen to have in the public domain in the form of an annual report is already publicly available in the Home Office annual report and in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate report. The information the amendments require are those fundamental to the achieving of aim six, which the Immigration and Nationality Directorate exists to deliver.
In common with other departments, the IND produces its performance and business priorities in publicly available reports. So we are already doing what the amendment would oblige us to do. I cannot accept the proposition that to produce another report replicating information already in an annual report in exactly the same form would lend any greater or added value. It is also the caseI am sure Members of the Committee who have been Members of another place know this full wellthat the Home Affairs Select Committee reviews the Home Office annual report, and the Permanent Secretary and the IND director-general have to answer questions on it. In fact, they are due to answer questions on 18th July this year on precisely those issues.
Therefore the Government must resist the amendment. We are making improvements to casework processing. The information sought by the amendments is already in the public domain; it is debated publicly; it is
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I thank the Minister for that reply. I made clear at the beginning that this, like all my other amendments this evening, is merely a probing amendment and like other amendments will not be pressed to a Division tonight. In other words, I am giving a cue note to Members opposite that they can relax.
I was grateful to hear from my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville who has long experience as a Member of the other place acting on behalf of constituents. It is important for that information to be on the record. There was perhaps a subtle irony in that in moving the amendment I was trying to persuade the Government to set yet more targets when they seem to be wedded to them up to the eyeballs. Yet we have a Member on their own Benches in the form of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, trying to persuade me that setting targets can be counter-productive. So it looks as though we have won one convert on the Government Back Benches. Perhaps we might win some more as time goes on.
Of course I shall read carefully in Hansard what the Minister said. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 105 [Fee for work permit, &c.]:
Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 222:
Clause 105 gives the Secretary of State the power to charge for the consideration of applications for immigration employment documents including work permits. Subsection (3) provides for regulations to give details of the charges to be made.
Amendment No. 222 would ensure that non-profit organisations would not be subject to charges. As the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association has pointed out, it is only right that there should be a distinction in this matter between profit-making and non-profit making organisations.
What progress have the Government made with the consultation mentioned during the debate in Standing Committee E on this amendment in another place on 16th May at cols. 282 to 284? My honourable friend Mr Malins asked the Government to consult widely on what should happen to charitable and non-profit making organisations. In response the Minister,
Can the Minister confirm whether that consultation process has been completed? How many charities and non-profit making organisations were given the opportunity to respond? When will the results be published, since publication was promised by the Minister in another place? I beg to move.
Lord Avebury: Amendment No. 222A provides substantially the same as Amendment No. 222 but in slightly different words. We think there is a case for exempting non-profit organisations from the fees that would otherwise be chargeable under the clause. We realise that the Minister has the power to exempt them in the clause. We hope that it will be clear that he will do so on the face of the Bill.
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