HC Deb 19 May 1988 vol 133 cc1080-2
1. Mr. Hanley

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what progress has now been made on clearing the backlog of nationality applications at Lunar house; and if he will make a statement.

5. Mr. Turner

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the present backlog of applications for British nationality.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)

Good progress is being made. All applications received before 31 December have been acknowledged and passports and other documents returned to applicants.

We still face a formidable task in dealing with some 268,000 outstanding citizenship applications. They include over 80,000 naturalisation applications and 187,000 for registration as British citizens. To deal with the latter we have decided to establish a new nationality office in Liverpool, where we will create over 100 new jobs. Suitable accommodation has been identified and negotiations for its lease are in hand.

It will not be practicable to reach decisions on all the registration applications by the end of the year, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs has recommended, but I am confident that a substantial proportion will be decided by April 1989 and the remainder during the following 12 months.

Mr. Hanley

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress that has been made and the staff at Lunar house on meeting their immense task. Does my hon. Friend agree that the heavy work load at Lunar house was the result of more than 250,000 people leaving it until the last minute, having been given seven years within which they could have applied? Does my hon. Friend also agree that publicity should be given earlier to help not only the staff at Lunar house but those who have made applications? Would it not be sensible to do that with passports, where early application is always sensible?

Mr. Renton

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I shall pass his congratulations on to the staff and management at Lunar house, who have worked hard to deal with the great mountain of work that arrived, particularly in the last weeks of December.

Active publicity to remind people that registration for citizenship applications had to be in by the end of last year started fairly early in 1987. I was pressed to increase the advertising and the number of leaflets to ensure that everyone knew, and that was done. Such was the success of the advertising campaign that we received a great many nationalisation applications—more than usual—even though there was no deadline.

Mr. Turner

Will the Minister show some humility, in view of the answer that he has just given, to the plight of those 280,000 people who are suffering indignity, frustration and anxiety as a result of the Government's incompetence? Irrespective of his announcement about the 100 new jobs, when will he reach out to those who at present believe themselves to be stateless, respond to their requirements and do the necessary and honourable thing?

Mr. Renton

As the House will know, I am a naturally humble person. However, most of the people who applied—100,000 in December alone—had waited five years before the deadline was announced before submitting their applications. They were in no hurry to apply. The hon. Gentleman must realise that application for British citizenship is important and should not be decided in a great hurry. In the intervening period, while their applications are being processed, we have told them many times that they will lose nothing by way of social security, pension, housing benefits or voting rights, so they have nothing to worry about. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will pass that message on to his constituents.

Mr. Budgen

Does my hon. Friend realise that those hon. Members who represent constituencies which contain many immigrants could have told him that there would be a flood of applications? We recognise that those applications should be dealt with properly, if necessary, by employing a large number of temporary assistants.

Mr. Renton

My hon. Friend's expertise on this matter is very different from that of officials in the immigration and nationality department at Lunar house. They took advice from a number of people in 1986 and were advised that most of the people who wanted British citizenship under the registration procedures had already applied in previous years.

The Department has increased its administrative divisions by 300 posts in the past three years. One hundred and eighty clerical staff were recruited last year, and over 300 applications for clerical posts are being processed at present. I assure my hon. Friend that we are making every effort to increase the staff complement.

Mr. Madden

Why did the Minister reject the urgent advice given to him by senior members of his own staff last summer that the arrangements for dealing with the inevitable number of applications were wholly insufficient? He is also the victim of justified criticism from the Select Committee on Home Affairs which roundly criticised him for presiding over an administrative shambles when the Government had several years to plan for this. The hon. Gentleman should have appointed the necessary staff to deal with the applications. He has failed and he should resign.

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman has again made his Second Reading speech on the Immigration Bill. There is no record of the trade union side at Lunar house having given officials and management such advice. When I met trade union officials at Lunar house in early February, they did not wish to recommend the staff at Lunar house even to do overtime. The management had to work extremely hard to persuade the staff to do overtime.

Mr. Churchill

Is it not clear that, if present trends continue, accommodation will have to be found in this country over the next 10 years for about 500,000 new immigrants? What provision are the Government making in their costings for assisting those areas of the country, to which the immigrants are likely to come, to provide additional housing, schools and hospitals?

Mr. Renton

As my hon. Friend will realise, that is a matter not so much for the Home Office as for the Department of the Environment. However, we are actively engaged in a number of initiatives—for example, an inner cities initiative to help those who have recently arrived in this country to become involved in their own small businesses. Last year the number arriving here for permanent settlement was 45,000—the lowest for many years and only about half of what it was in the 1970s.

Mr. Randall

Is the Minister aware that 60 per cent. of telephone calls coming into Lunar house are wholly ignored, not even being received on a telephone answering machine? How does he justify that policy?

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman's remarks are out of date. The telephone inquiry bureau has shown a marked improvement in recent weeks, and an improvement was certainly needed.

Mr. Randall

Since I have been there.

Mr. Renton

A few weeks ago the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) visited Lunar house, and they spent the greater part of their time, according to the Observer, looking for a photo opportunity in front of the mail bags. That may have been of great help to becoming a political tennis star, but it did nothing to help the problems of Lunar house.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is an important matter, but I hope that we can now proceed more rapidly.