HC Deb 17 December 2001 vol 377 cc10-2
6. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall):

What plans he has to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the asylum system. [21149]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)

Measures to increase the efficiency of the asylum system were announced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his statement to the House on 29 October. Further details will be published in the forthcoming White Paper.

Mr. Khabra

As the Member of Parliament whose constituency has the largest increase in case work in the country, I have noticed that the Home Office can take between four and six months to make a simple response. What steps will it take to reduce waiting times?

Angela Eagle

I have to agree with my hon. Friend that our current performance is not good enough. We are working hard to improve it, but I would be the first to say that we still have a long way to go. The immigration and nationality directorate has a strategy for putting more resources into this area and ensuring that we can provide a better service. I hope to return to the House in a few months with our targets met. This is a difficult issue at present, and we recognise that we are not doing as well as we should.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Will the Minister confirm that there are almost 100,000 asylum seekers either waiting for the initial decision to be made on their case or waiting for their appeal to be heard? Will she also confirm that whereas the Home Secretary originally hoped that this year 30,000 failed asylum seekers would be removed from the country, the number now is likely to be only 10,000? Can she give the House any indication when the minimum number of 30,000 will be reached?

Angela Eagle

The current backlog of outstanding asylum applications stands at 43,000. There was a 155 per cent. increase in the number of first-year decisions last year, and a 13 per cent. increase in removals. I can confirm that we are on course to reach the 30,000 figure by the financial year 2002–03

The hon. Gentleman needs to realise that people cannot simply be sent back. We have to get papers for them and arrange their passage back to the country of origin. That is not simple. However, as I have said, we have increased the number of removals by 13 per cent., and because we are now bringing the new detention estate into being, we have three new sites that provide a further 1,500 detention places. That will enable us to ensure that we get removals working more effectively.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will my hon. Friend ensure that any strategy that she has for increasing the resources for asylum seekers" applications will not have an adverse effect on the section dealing with student visa renewals, which are now taking 12 weeks instead of the advertised three weeks? This is having an adverse effect on some of my constituents, who, having bought their air tickets, will not be able to get home in time for Christmas because their passports are locked up in the Home Office.

Angela Eagle

My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. We are concerned about those delays, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has taken immediate action to put in more resources to ensure that we can avoid the inconvenience and disruption that she spoke about.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the hon. Lady go to Holland—[Interruption.]—but only for a short time? Will she look at the extremely efficient and effective way in which the Dutch handle such matters, which turns asylum seekers round quickly? Will she also make sure that the immigration people, who do a good job under difficult conditions, are reinforced when pressures build up? At the moment, Air Zimbabwe flights are a source of great anxiety to them. When pinch points occur, will the hon. Lady ensure that they are reinforced?

Angela Eagle

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have visited Holland; in the European Union, we all have to learn from one another what works and what is effective. The Dutch do a good job, but not always as good as they claim. The difficulties with asylum and immigration claims are not simple, or they would have been solved a long time ago. As always, I am willing to learn from other countries what works.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about pinch points: people traffickers finding new ways in, or the situation in a particular country may lead to a particular problem or worry. I can assure him that the immigration service is geared up and quickly applies extra resources when those pinch points occur. One example is the work that we have been doing with the Czech authorities in Prague. We always bear the problem in mind and, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, monitor patterns of arrival.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

I welcome the proposed improvements to our asylum system and the retention of the dispersal system, which has eased things greatly in Dover and the rest of Kent. However, is the Minister aware of the high number of unaccompanied minors resident in Kent? Is she aware, for instance, that we look after, care for and protect more unaccompanied minors than any other county—and five times more than any London borough? Will she consider those matters, sit down with my local authority and find practical ways of sharing the responsibility across the country?

Angela Eagle

We are working closely with the Local Government Association to see what can be done about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Authorities such as Kent have borne a great burden in the past, but they can now send those children to other authorities. For example, I have come across cases in which Kent has paid for accommodation for children in and around Manchester. Work is therefore already going on, but we need to get a grip on the way in which local authorities that are dealing with the interim scheme, rather than dispersal, are handling the number of children in their charge. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we are working closely with the LGA to see what can be done to bring about more co-ordination.