HC Deb 07 February 1991 vol 185 cc400-3
5. Mr. Viggers

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he has taken to enhance the expedition with which claims to immigration rights are resolved.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

The immigration and nationality department is required to meet a rising demand for its services. Every effort is being made to deal with the work expeditiously. Improvements in efficiency have been made in many areas and additional resources are being provided for the next financial year.

Mr. Viggers

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the procedures involved in the cases of alleged illegal immigrants, including various forms of appeal, can mean that an alleged illegal immigrant can wait some months, or even up to a year, before a final decision is reached? As what is at issue in most cases is a matter of fact, can nothing be done to speed the process?

Mr. Baker

I am concerned about the substantial delays in the department which are growing because of the number of applications for settlement here and for entry for various purposes which involve not only adjudication but determination by tribunals. That takes a long time. It is made all the more difficult by the matters referred to briefly in the previous question. We are facing an unprecedented increase in the number of applications for political asylum in Britain which is delaying the process. I shall be coming to the House with proposals to deal with that in the near future.

Mr. James Lamond

Is the Home Secretary aware that, in addition to lengthy delays between hearings and appeals, there are often administrative mix–ups, such as that involving my constituent, Mr. Mohammad Ifran? On 10 September, the Home Office was informed that his appeal had been upheld and it immediately told the entry clearance officer in Islamabad, but the papers sat on his desk for eight long weeks before he issued the entry clearance certificate. We are dealing with wives waiting on husbands and husbands waiting on wives. Eight weeks is a long time to wait after one has already waited for two years.

Mr. Baker

I will look into the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, although I believe that the issuing department in that instance was the Foreign Office. I hope that administrative mistakes will be avoided wherever possible, but the Croydon office has a massive amount of work. It receives 1,000 visits every day from people wanting to change the conditions of their stay in this country. That work alone—5,000 personal visits a week and many thousands of telephone calls in addition—represents a huge administrative task.

Mr. Favell

Are the British Government and the other Governments of western Europe ready for the huge wave of immigration that is bound to emanate from Russia? At present, the border between Poland and Russia is manned only by Russian border guards and there are plans to remove even them. Poland expects that millions of Russian emigrants will not remain in Poland, but will head across Europe.

Mr. Baker

There are movements of population across the world—and particularly across Europe—that we have not experienced, literally, for centuries. There is a strong movement of people from the Maghreb across the Mediterranean to southern Europe and the potential of a large movement from Russia in particular. At a conference that I attended recently, a Russian Minister said that 6 million or 7 million Russians will want to move to Europe once they get passports. He said that the Helsinki accord, with its concept of open frontiers, will allow them to do so. I pointed out to him that open frontiers allow people to move to and fro, but do not entitle them to settle in the countries to which they move. We and the rest of Europe will have to address that major problem during the next decade.

Mr. Hattersley

Although the Home Office is refusing entry applications more quickly then ever, appeals against such refusals are taking longer to process than in the past. That is often a result of the Home Office's initial statement of refusal taking six months to prepare. Can the Home Secretary do something to speed that up?

Mr. Baker

As I said, I will bring before the House proposals to deal specifically with political asylum, applications for which are currently running at several hundred a week. In addition, we have secured from the Treasury in the Public Expenditure Survey Committee settlement an additional £10 million for 1991–92 which will bring the budget for that part of the Home Office up to £108 million. That will allow for the recruitment of another 200 civil servants to deal with normal immigration work.

Mr. Janman

Does my right hon. Friend share the widespread concern among Conservative Members about the massive increase in applications for political asylum in the United Kingdom, given that the vast majority of those cases—although not all—are bogus? Does he agree that it would be useful to streamline the application procedure, so that they can be turned round much more quickly and a message sent abroad that Britain is not a soft touch?

Mr. Baker

Yes, Sir. My hon. Friend touches on an important matter. The number of applications for political asylum used to be in the region of 2,000 to 3,000 a year, but last year the figure was nearer 25,000. Although we must always provide a refuge for those who flee their countries because of a well–founded fear of persecution, many who apply for political asylum are nothing more than economic migrants who would prefer to live in western Europe or in our country rather than their own. That was not the intention behind the refugee convention.

TV Licences

6. Mr. Cryer

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the level of television licence fees for people of pensionable age.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

Most pensioners pay the same as other people: £71 for a colour licence and £24 for a black and white licence. My right hon. Friend announced on 14 January that we would hold the next increase 3 per cent. below the retail prices index figure that is used to set state pensions.

Mr. Cryer

Most pensioners believe that the rules introduced in May 1988 discriminate unfairly between pensioners, most of whom enjoy nowhere near the level of income of those who receive wages and salaries. Would not it be better to sweep away the bureaucratic and nonsensical rules and introduce a standard flat fee of, say, £5? Many pensioners feel that they have been discarded and forgotten by the Government in many ways. Many of them fought for this country in the 1939–45 war and they feel that they have been very unjustly dealt with.

Mr. Lloyd

The cost of giving pensioners free television licences, or of charging them only £5, would be very large. It would need to be met by the rest of the licence payers, many of whom are much poorer than some pensioners, so that would hardly be fair. The hon. Gentleman should listen to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who speaks for the Opposition on such matters, and who suggested that any assistance to pensioners should, at the very least, be selective. That hon. Gentleman is on the right lines, but he should go further and agree that if extra resources are available, they should be directed at pensioners most in need to spend as they wish. That is what the Government did a year ago when they provided £200 million extra in the pension element of income support rates. That is the best way to help, where help is most needed.

Dame Jill Knight

Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that if the principle is ever established that the tax payer should pay for the pleasures of all persons over a certain age, no matter how rich the pensioner or how poor the taxpayer, we should indeed be on a slippery slope?

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend is right. If we ever did that, we should have slipped a long way down the slope by that time.

Mr. Corbett

We know that the Government do not agree with us about exempting pensioner households from the television licence, but does the Minister acknowledge the resentment that the present concessionary scheme causes between pensioner neighbours? Is he aware, for example, that if one flat in a block of 50 is sold to someone under pensionable age, the elderly council tenants resident in the other 49 flats will lose their concession? Will heat least do something to put that right?

Mr. Lloyd

If a scheme falls within the concession, it is foolish of the council to sell one of the houses. [HoN. MEMBERS: "It is the right to buy."] No, it is not the right to buy. The characteristic of such dwellings is that they are available for those over 60, and that they provide services appropriate to that age group, so the situation that the hon. Gentleman suggests does not happen. Since the new rules were introduced—after the Kirklees judgment, which obliged us to bring in a set of rules which were justifiable in court—the number of pensioners who benefit from the concession has gone up rather than down. It is about 100,000 more now than it was then, which shows that local authorities can manage to organise their housing for the elderly to take advantage of the concession.

Mr. Evennett

Does my hon. Friend agree that not all pensioners are poor and that, under this Government, pensioners are better off than they have ever been, but that they are many low-income families who feel that the television licence is unfair and should be scrapped?

Mr. Lloyd

I well understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, as does my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. That is why my right hon. Friend is requiring the BBC to make do with a licence fee increase which is less than the inflation rate at present.

Forward to