§ 2. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab)
If he will make a statement on the backlog in processing applications for asylum. 
§ The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration(Beverley Hughes)
We continue to make good progress. At the end of September 2003, the latest date for which published data are available, the number of asylum applications awaiting an initial decision had fallen to 29,100—the lowest for a decade—and I anticipate that the asylum statistics that are to be published tomorrow will demonstrate further progress. We are determined to reduce the number of outstanding applications to normal work-in-progress levels and, at current intake and output levels, we expect to do so during the course of this year.
§ John Robertson
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the three asylum seekers in Glasgow who stitched up their mouths and went on hunger strike. Their applications for asylum were rejected, yet they have still not been sent back to Iran. These are not the first cases of that type, so what does my right hon. Friend intend to do about such people?
§ Beverley Hughes
I am aware of the case that my hon. Friend raises. Of course, like him. I very much regret the action that the men have taken. He will understand, however, that if a person's claim has been refused and, as in this case, subsequently refused at independent appeal, they are not eligible to remain in the UK and must return home. Clearly, there are difficulties in returning people forcibly to some countries, Iran being one of them, although that does not mean that they cannot go home voluntarily. We are working hard to open up returns agreements with several countries, 4 including Iran—indeed, we are the only country so far to have returns agreements with India, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka—and we are making very good progress.
§ David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
While we welcome the Minister's announcement of the reduction in the asylum backlog, does it not result partly from a Government policy of deliberately ignoring illegal immigrants who would otherwise claim asylum? Is she aware of reports in the national press last year that stated that an immigration service directive was in operation, calling on officials to soft-pedal on investigations into illegal immigrants?
An immigration officer told one newspaper:The message from senior bosses was that we should not 'look for illegals'. When we asked why, we were told that once they were detained, they would simply ask for asylum and we would be making their job easier.Can the Minister state categorically that she is confident that such a memo does not exist?
§ Mr. Speaker
Before the Minister replies, I should stress that although I am reluctant to say this to Front-Bench Members, I have often told Ministers to he brief in their responses. I also expect brief questions.
§ Beverley Hughes
I am glad that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) acknowledges that the figure of 29,000—I am sure that it will be lower by tomorrow—is much lower than 54,500, which represented the Conservative party's backlog in 1997. I categorically reject the assertion that we have asked staff to soft-pedal on illegal immigration to protect the asylum target. If the right hon. Gentleman had done his homework more thoroughly, he would realise that the evidence does not support that claim.
Non-asylum removals have increased from 3,500 in 1997 to more than 8,000 in 2002—the latest date for published figures. Operation Reflex is co-ordinating operations against organised criminal activity and immigration and has disrupted 60 criminal groups. The number of staff in immigration enforcement and removal has increased from 1,670 to 2,500 and the budget has increased by £40 million. The question that the right hon. Gentleman has to answer is whether he can commit the necessary resources—
§ David Davis
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. You will have noticed that I did not get an answer—long or short—to my question. In view of that, let me ask the Minister another. After the Morecambe tragedy, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) called for an inquiry into inaccurate and misleading information that the Home Office had given her. Will the right hon. Lady authorise that inquiry? Furthermore, will she empower it to determine whether the memos that I cited earlier exist? She did not answer my question about them. Are there any other policies of soft-pedalling action on illegal immigration?
§ Beverley Hughes
There is already an investigation, which I have authorised, into allegations about the information. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the 5 Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) for accepting that I faithfully reported to her the information that I was given. However, we will check for any disparity.
Again, I reject the allegation that there has been any ministerial instruction to soft-pedal on illegal immigration. Such an instruction would be completely counterproductive. Clearly, the way in which operational managers choose to deploy resources and make operational decisions about where need is greatest is for them. However, the overall picture shows that resources, operations and removals of illegal immigrants have increased. That is more than the right hon. Gentleman can say for the Conservative Government's record.
§ Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)
My right hon. Friend will know that many Zimbabweans are seeking asylum in this country. Is she aware of the concern that some of them, who have travelled here on South African passports, are being fast-tracked back to South Africa, where they are clearly not safe because of the Zimbabwean intelligence at work there? Will she assure us that no Zimbabwean will be sent back to either Zimbabwe or South Africa?
§ Beverley Hughes
No, I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance. Clearly, if someone claims asylum here as a Zimbabwean but does so falsely on a false passport and is really South African, that person should be returned to South Africa.[Interruption]I am afraid that that is happening in some cases. Conservative Members like to talk tough to the media about asylum and what they would do, but at every opportunity during the passage of legislation on undocumented and inadequately documented passengers that we want to introduce, they fail to support such measures. Indeed, all they have done is try to dilute them.
§ Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)
May I suggest that the processes for dealing with people who arrive unexpectedly in our country leave something to be desired? Is the Minister aware of the front page of the Brighton evening edition of The Argus, which℄[Laughter.] Well, she ought to be, because it reported on two stowaways who arrived at Newhaven port in my constituency and were apprehended by the police and handed to immigration. The immigration service, apparently because it did not have enough staff, took the stowaways to Newhaven Harbour station and invited them to get on the train to Gatwick, changing at Lewes. Surprise, surprise—they are now anywhere but at Gatwick. Will the Minister look into that incident and find out why levels of immigration staff are so low at Newhaven, and why two people who were apprehended by the police were urged to escape into the country?
§ Beverley Hughes
On the face of what the hon. Gentleman has said, that incident appears unacceptable. However, I shall qualify that. Despite the substantial additional resources that we have put in, which I have just outlined and which mean that the immigration service can take on a large number of additional operations and is now removing more people than ever before, the service must also make decisions on the effective distribution of those resources between 6 competing priorities. I do not know whether, at the time of that particular case, another operation was going on that was likely to yield many more illegal immigrants than those two. The immigration service has to make such operational decisions. However, I shall investigate the case that the hon. Gentleman raises and write to him on it.