HL Deb 28 April 1988 vol 496 cc358-66

5.56 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will explain the failure to open 207,000 letters in the immigration and nationality department of the Home Office for five months.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question arises from the report of the Home Affairs Committee which was published this week. I am aware that that particular part of the duties of the Home Office is not the direct responsibility of the Minister. Nevertheless, the facts which that report revealed shocked many and surprised some—including the Ministen—when I raised it on several occasions in our discussions on the Immigration Bill.

On 4th March at col. 401 of the Official Report, when I stated that I heard that there were 100,000 letters waiting unanswered in Lunar House, the Minister responded:

"My Lords, it does not surprise me. Well, it does surprise me in one respect because that is a lot".

When I described the situation regarding administrative delay in dealing with incoming immigrants' applications, the noble Lord said:

"The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said there was enormous administrative delay in dealing with incoming immigrants and that Lunar House was—I do not know whether he used the word 'disgraceful', but he certainly implied it".— [Official Report, 4/3/88; col. 399.]

By the time that I have told the House the facts that I am going to retail, I think noble Lords will agree that, if I only implied it, I should have said it.

The situation which is described in the report of the Home Affairs Committee is as follows. By 21st December 1987 there was a backlog of 154,000 letters unopened and unacknowledged at Lunar House. By 21st February 1988 the figure had risen to 207,000. That was before I had made any speeches and therefore I cannot be responsible for that rather shocking increase in numbers.

There were 149,000 applications for citizenship, 58,000 for variations of leave and 70,000 for passports which—and I quote the report because I do not quite know what it means, had been held at Lunar House indefinitely". Thus the situation which I raised in the immigration debates was not a figment of my imagination. Indeed, with characteristic modesty, I understated the position.

The situation seems to have arisen for the following reasons. First, Lunar House has been chronically under-staffed. Secondly, administrative delay has been used for some years as a means of immigration control. Thirdly, no lessons were learned from the experience of the past. Fourthly, Home Office forecasting was way out. The actual numbers involved were 300,000 in terms of applicants. The forecast was 90,000 to 200,000 out.

Under-staffing at Lunar House is not a recent phenomenon but it has got worse. To see that this is so one has only to read the CRE report of some years ago. One can talk to organisations such as JCWI, dealing with these matters on a daily basis, which will say that over the past four years the usual time lag in dealing with an application to stay, perhaps on the basis of marriage, was 18 months. The target for some sort of response to an application was that it should occur within six months. That might mean simply that you received a letter asking for more information.

The other reason for the chronic shortage of staff at Lunar House is that it was low on the Home Office list of priorities. The prison service, the manning of Gatwick and Terminal 4 all came before Lunar House. That means that the consumers (in this case a number which eventually totalled 300,000) were simply not taken into account—neither their interests nor their fears, nor their convenience. If I am right, that is the voting membership of about six constituencies. If they had been voters in six constituencies, I suspect that they would have been treated rather more properly.

On other occasions I have mentioned the administrative delay which has been used as a means of immigration control and I do not propose to repeat that argument. However, it is one of the factors that have led to what the report calls "administrative chaos".

The third reason is that the lessons of the past were not learned. In 1982, after the British Nationality Act, the Home Office was caught by surprise when there was an upsurge of applicants. I suggest that the noble Earl looks at the report of the Home Affairs Committee of 1983 and at the evidence submitted by the JCWI. On page 13 of that report, the Home Affairs Committee said: The method by which the calculation", that is to say the forecast, was done gives us little encouragement for the future". How right it was. Even I, reviewing a book in The Times Educational Supplement in 1983, commented on the fact that the Home Office had been caught short in 1982 and said that I hoped that it would not be caught short again in 1987. As for forecasting, as Sir Brian Cubbon admitted to the Committee, it was way out—short by 200,000.

All that having been said—and it is quite a lot—there is a further question that demands answer. Why was action not taken earlier? On 19th October 1987 there was a meeting at Lunar House between the staff and the unions. At that meeting it was pointed out that a crisis was imminent and it was asked what the contingency plans were. Nothing, it appears, was done.

One must ask oneself whether the Minister responsible was unaware of the impending crisis and whether in December he was unaware that there were 154,000 unopened, unacknowledged letters at Lunar House. As far as I can discover, he took no action and indeed he did not go to Lunar House until—as far as I know—12th February 1988. As late as 18th April, when the Home Affairs Committee report was ordered to be printed, the Committee still found it necessary to conclude with these words:

"We consider the Home Office failure to open and acknowledge promptly 207,000 letters lying unopened or unacknowledged on 21st February 1988 to be scandalous and the overall aim of dealing with all applications for registration by December 1989 to be totally unacceptable".

It recommended that the possibility of photographing and returning the passports be urgently reconsidered. It recommended too that the Home Office should make adequate resources available immediately to deal with the backlog of letters and adopt the aim of completing the process of all applications received by the end of 1988.

The Select Committee has achieved quite a lot. It has goaded the Minister responsible—Mr. Renton—into belated action. He has announced in another place and repeated in a letter to The Independent today that 80 per cent. of the applications have now been opened and that part of the task which will take longer is to consider each of the 300,000 applications and issue a certificate of citizenship. What we would like to know is what he means by "take longer". I hope that the noble Earl will be able to answer that.

If that can be done now as a result, one can only conclude, of the report of the Home Affairs Committee, why could it not be done six months ago? I would remind your Lordships that we are not dealing with a statistical exercise; we are dealing with 300,000 human beings and their families. They have been neglected, maltreated and subjected to stress and anxiety. That is absolutely indefensible. I hope that the noble Earl will acknowledge that. I hope that he will give some kind of assurance that such a situation will never recur; that if it does recur some very drastic action is taken; and that the Ministers responsible will act in the way expected of them.

6.9 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, I must apologise to the House for not putting my name down to speak as I had not intended to intervene. However, what we have just heard is quite lamentable. To think that the Government are prepared to place 300,000 people in that kind of position is something of which they ought to be ashamed.

I think we can leave aside the people applying for citizenship. One would not get too worked up waiting to hear whether one has citizenship, because one is living here anyway. However, the people who have applied to have their stay extended will be living under severe stress. Noble Lords will recall that recently we were very busily passing a Bill to make overstaying a continuing offence.

The Minister anxiously told the House how wicked the people were who had overstayed; but some of those people will have overstayed because they have not received a reply to the application for an extension of their stay. In a cavalier fashion, the Government have made them wait. I feel that we need to have a little contrition from the Minister. I hope that when the Minister replies he will show some justified contrition.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, perhaps I may make an immediate apology of a very humble nature to the House for my absence during the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and part of the speech of my noble friend Lord Pitt. The approach of Labour Day and May Day has obviously intensified the speed of the business in this House. I understood that the debate on this Unstarred Question would take place at an hour much later than the present one.

Having apologised, I should like to make a few observations on how the administration in the Home Office appears to the outside world—especially to those very concerned with the applications that are made to the Home Office—to be in a somewhat chaotic condition. My information was that clear warning was given by those representing the administrative staff of the Home Office at Lunar House about the complications of the British Nationality Act. The question of having to apply for registration and the doubts that were cast in the minds of many people in this country as to where they stood on nationality and immigration meant that there would be a whole horde of applications made to the Home Office. It meant that the staff would be quite incapable—as indeed it was—of dealing with them. It appears that that warning was ignored.

The figure of over 200,000 given in the Unstarred Question was, I am informed, correct until literally a few months ago. Further, I am told that after an intensive campaign the number of unopened envelopes has been reduced from around 200,000 to 20,000. That is still a very alarming figure. I ask the Minister whether it is true that 100 new recruits have been promised to the Home Office administration in order to deal with this terrible backlog. Is it correct to say that, even if that promise were made, it may be difficult to fulfil as a result of recruitment difficulties, largely because of the very low wages that are being offered and the accommodation difficulties at Lunar House?

Is it correct that those who administer affairs at the Home Office have been told that, quite apart from this backlog, having regard to all the complexities and difficulties of immigration in this day and age (and indeed of nationality and so on) in future a minimum of 200 recruits are needed to fill posts on a permanent basis? Bluntly, what is the Home Office doing about all this?

6.14 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I think the whole House is glad that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, managed to find his magic carpet to get him here on time. If it is any consolation to him (and I do not think it is very much) it happens to all of us sometimes—or usually.I thought it was going to happen to me this evening, and it was a very disagreeable experience. Fortunately I managed to get here a few minutes in advance of the noble Lord and therefore appeared to be more composed than I was. I admire the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for his composure after having got here at such short notice.

Unfortunately he missed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, in which he drew attention to a matter of considerable and legitimate concern. If I may say so, I thought he enjoyed doing it. He had seen the rabbit and therefore went after it. I do not blame him for that. He knows full well that it is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs for there to be 207,000 unopened letters in a government department. The noble Lord, Lord Pitt, asked for a little contrition from me. He will have it. Of course that situation is wholly unacceptable. The fact that it happened has caused considerable anxiety both within the Government and without.

There are reasons this happened. I shall rehearse them to your Lordships this evening and try to explain the action we have taken. But it is not the result of a cavalier, uncaring or incompetent attitude; nor is it a deliberate means, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, suggested, of restricting immigration. It is the result of an unexpected state of affairs. I am glad to be able to say that all the 207,000 letters referred to have now been opened. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, seems to find this funny, but his noble friend accused the Government of not having opened the letters for five months. I told the noble Lord that they have now been opened. I am glad that he finds that extremely funny.

The recent publicity about the figure of 207,000 has arisen following the publication on Monday 25th April of the Home Affairs Committee's report. On 24th February 1988 Sir Brian Cubbon, who was then the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee and said that there were, at that time, 207,000 items of unopened—or opened but unacknowledged—mail. Of these, 149,000 were applications for citizenship and 58,000 related to immigration work. These were mainly variations of leave.

Sir Brian Cubbon also explained that the Home Office was dealing with the problem by redeploying 160 staff and by using extensive overtime working at Lunar House. As a result of this, the position now is that the 149,000 applications for citizenship which had been received before the deadline of 31st December 1987 will all have been opened and acknowledged and all passports which were included with them will have been returned by tomorrow evening. The application forms for citizenship had made clear that passports should not be sent with the applications. This did not, though, deter applicants from so doing. The remainder of the 207,000 letters—58,000 other unopened items of mail as at mid-February—have also all now been opened and acknowledged.

There are at the moment 20,000 unopened items of mail relating to immigration cases. All of these were received in April and will be opened in a matter of days. Mail which contains passports for variations of leave is now being opened and acknowledged within a few days of receipt. I should make it clear that the immigration status of these correspondents remains unchanged in every respect while the cases are being considered. No one becomes an overstayer, no matter how long it takes to resolve his application, if the application to extend the stay is made while he has current leave to be here. In those cases the existing leave is automatically extended until 28 days after a decision is taken on the application. So no one will become an overstayer and break the law accidentally.

The question—

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, it is most kind of the noble Earl to give way. How does the department know that people have made applications and are not overstayers if their applications have not been opened?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have spent the last few minutes trying to explain that the applications have been opened. However, there was a concern that they might have been overstayers. I am telling the noble Lord that they are not overstayers under those circumstances.

The question to which noble Lords seek an answer is this. How did the immigration and nationality department get into a situation where it had 207,000 unopened letters in mid-February? The starting point is the British Nationality Act 1981 to which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, quite rightly referred. Under that Act Parliament decided that Commonwealth and Irish citizens who had been living here since 1973 should be entitled to register as British citizens up to the end of last year. Thereafter they would lose that entitlement.

Registration is a means of acquiring British citizenship. It does not bring any fresh advantages in terms of right of abode, of social security benefits or of voting. Nor are people prevented from becoming British citizens. Thereafter they can still apply for naturalisation if they have not applied to register as a British citizen.

Since the British Nationality Act came into force, there has been a steady flow of applications for registration. We launched a publicity campaign in the middle of 1986 in order specifically to remind people of their entitlement and of the closing date for their applications. That campaign continued in 1987. We had envisaged this time last year that there would be 90,000 applications for British citizenship in the financial year 1987–88. The majority would be likely to arrive before the end of December, when the eligibility for these groups ceased.

I should remind your Lordships that the deadline for registration as British citizens was announced in 1982. It was extensively publicised. Very many people, nevertheless, left their applications until the last few weeks of 1987. We expected 90,000 in the whole year and in fact received 300,000. We received 100,000 applications in December alone—and that of course included the build up and the aftermath of Christmas.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, blamed us for being wrong in our estimate of 90,000. He is entitled to that view. With hindsight the estimate was clearly wrong. We were partly a victim of our own publicity. This resulted in a large number of naturalisation applications coming from people who did not in fact need to apply but who felt prompted to do so by the advertisements.

Naturalisation applications are normally around 35,000 per year. Last year the figure went from 35,000 to 113,000. This huge rise was completely unexpected, and it added enormously to the workload of Lunar House. The mistaken estimate was also partly due to the actual difficulty of estimating what percentage of people who could apply would apply. It has to be a reasoned guess. We estimated that about 50 per cent. of those who were eligible to apply would do so. We may have assumed too readily that people who had lived here for 15 years or more and who had not exercised their right to become British citizens would not now, at the last minute, choose to do so. We were wrong. We knew that there would be an increase in applications last year, and plans were made to deal with the 90,000 which we had estimated. But those plans proved to be inadequate to deal with the actual number of applications which were in the event received.

While it is easy to blame the Government for not having provided enough staff to deal with the work, we could easily have been blamed with equal or possibly greater force if we had overreacted and had diverted additional staff in the expectation of more applications than had in fact materialised. Once the full extent of the influx of applications was known—and I repeat 100,000 arrived in December alone—we realised that we had to cope vigorously and quickly. Lunar House was becoming snowed up.

Our first step was to divert about 160 staff from a significant element of their normal duties and to use extensive overtime in order to do the basic work of processing the envelopes, cashing the cheques, acknowledging the applications, and returning the passports where they have been sent in. This has now been done. The scrutiny of the applications and the completion of registration have to be done at the same time as the existing work in the nationality division of the Home Office. This takes on average about 18 months.

In the case of the backlog of registration applications which were received before the December deadline, our aim is to complete all these registrations in the next two years. The majority will be completed well before then. The immigration status of the applicant is unchanged in any respect regardless of the outcome of his or her application. The resources are there to do this without detriment to the other work in the immigration and nationality department. For the immigration and nationality department as a whole the 1988–89 budget provided for an extra 100-plus staff, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred. Since the backlog has developed we have decided to divert other Home Office funds so that we can provide at least another 100 extra staff—and possibly more.

The problem does not end as simply as that. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, touched upon this. There is a recruitment problem in Croydon. Relative pay rates will always be a major difficulty, but we have new ideas for local recruitment which might ease the problem. There are also accommodation problems in Croydon. Lunar House just is not big enough to absorb all the additional staff in the numbers which are required.

For all these reasons it is likely to make sense to try to carry out some of the work of processing applications for registration outside London—preferably in a region where there is high unemployment. There are already Home Office offices in Merseyside—for example, at Bootle—and we are considering with a degree of urgency how we might expand them to handle this work. We shall have to see whether it will prove possible to use our existing centres of staff, together with the new staff, to deal with the backlog. The recent computerisation of our nationality work facilitates the use of provincial locations in a way which would have been quite impossible a few years ago. Officials from the immigration and nationality department are in discussion with the Property Services Agency—indeed they are in Liverpool today—in order to discuss accommodation. A further announcement will be made as soon as an office has been located.

The problem has not been easy to deal with. The workload has been enormous—way above anything which was anticipated. I realise that many people have been inconvenienced, and to them I apologise. I am also grateful to the staff at Lunar House for the way in which they have coped with an almost superhuman problem. I cannot pretend that the difficulties are over. What I contend is that we are doing everything we reasonably can to overcome these within the constraints of the staff and accommodation which exist.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he accept, certainly from me, that if the Home Office ever has to make an excuse and to apologise it could not have a more acceptable representative to make the apology? Having said that, does he realise that firm warnings were given by the Civil Service union of what was likely to occur by way of this backlog? No steps were taken until the deluge occurred. Does the noble Earl also realise that the Home Office has presented an unacceptable face of inefficiency and inhumanity as a result?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not sure whether that was an intervention or almost another speech. The noble Lord kindly prefaced his words with "Before the Minister sits down", by which time I had already sat down. As soon as the noble Lord came out with those mellifluous phrases, for which I am deeply appreciative, I knew there would be a sting in the tail. That is the noble Lord's custom.

I do not accept all that the noble Lord has said. We are not wholly irresponsible in the Home Office. Officials take great pride in what is done there and obviously they try to make a reasonable assessment. Nobody could know, not even the unions to which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred, what the final result would be. Nobody could know that 100,000 letters would appear in the last weeks of December. I do not accept the stricture which the noble Lord, in his usual courteous way, put to me. We are aware of the problem and we are doing the best we can.