HL Deb 27 April 1998 vol 589 cc5-7

2.46 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have plans to improve the system of screening applications for asylum, in consultation with other governments, and plans to consider expeditiously the cases of applicants who have been waiting in the United Kingdom for decisions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we are committed to delivering a faster, fairer and firmer asylum process than the one we inherited. Reducing delays and backlogs within the asylum system will play an important role in discharging that commitment. Consultation with other governments on asylum issues is a continuing feature of intergovernmental co-operation both within the European Union and more generally.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. I would welcome progress in discussions with the Belgian and French authorities. Are the press reports correct that sea ferries in future will receive government help on the same scale as Eurotunnel now does since the ferry companies cannot refuse to carry passengers whose documents are in order? Bogus asylum seekers often destroy their documents during the journey before they land.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, any company is entitled to carry or not carry people, as it chooses. As I said in answer to a question a few weeks ago, it is essentially a commercial decision. I take the noble Lord's point that, unfortunately, a device often used by bogus entrants is to destroy documents wilfully because that makes it difficult then to return such people to the appropriate country of origin.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how many people are at the moment awaiting the hearing of their asylum cases and how many were waiting a year ago? Is there the same proportion waiting now in London as there was? Most of the support organisations for those people are in London. I have been told that many cases are being shifted outside London, thereby causing grave hardship.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is a backlog of around 50,000 people altogether waiting. As I said on an earlier occasion, 10,000 of those cases, lamentably, pre-date 1993. I simply cannot say whether the proportion of those in London has gone down. I shall research the figures and write to the noble Lord. It is true that some asylum seekers and immigrants have been placed outside the London area, but the placing authority retains the financial obligation of their upkeep.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in relation to those who have been waiting for a long time, can the Minister say whether the asylum directorate instruction is still in force? That provides that where a person has been waiting for more than seven years from the date of his or her initial application, exceptional leave to remain may be granted. Is it the practice invariably to give exceptional leave to remain where people have been here for seven years? In order to reduce the backlog, will the Government consider as an interim measure reducing the period to six years? Six years is long enough for anybody to wait for a first decision.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the policy to which the noble Lord refers is still in being; that is, after seven years exceptional leave to remain will be granted. It will be possible to have an arbitrary reduction of that period from seven years to six. However, it is premature to come to a conclusion on that, bearing in mind the overall wide-ranging review of these topics which is being conducted and considered.

Lord Renton

My Lords, can the Minister say what proportion of the cases that have been dealt with within the past 12 months have been found to be bogus asylum seekers? Is he aware that any strengthening of the policy which the Government introduce will receive wide support in this country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, a significant majority were found to be ineligible. I welcome the noble Lord's support, which he has propounded on earlier occasions. There are a number of deficiencies in the system. One is delay, which means unjustified expense and uncertainty and also—the critical point—the fact that bogus asylum seekers are doing a serious disservice to those who are genuine claimants.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, can the Government not introduce a system whereby there is no appeals process when there has been a unanimous initial consideration?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I would always be reluctant to contemplate any regime where there is no appeal in any circumstance. I have never met any judicial or even quasi-judicial body which is free of all possibility of error. However, that is one aspect of the review that is presently being considered.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I must declare an interest in that I am a lay member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. The Minister has already said that a large number of applications are found to be bogus. Is it correct that only a tiny proportion of those bogus applicants are removed from this country when their cases have gone right through the appeals system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is not true that only a tiny proportion are removed. My recollection is that 7,000 were removed last year. That is a significant number.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I welcome the use of the word "bogus" by the noble Lord; it is a word that was used vociferously by his colleagues on these Benches when they were in opposition. It is true that a large proportion of applicants are bogus asylum seekers, and I welcome the fact that the noble Lord now accepts that. The Minister does not possess specific figures. But will he make available to the House information as to whether there is any increase or decrease in the backlog? How many of the cases that preceded 1993 have been dealt with during the course of this year?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the last questions are legitimate questions and I shall research the figures, transmit them to the noble Baroness and place them in the Library. It is a matter of genuine public interest. However, I do not believe that I was ever guilty of complaining about the use of the word "bogus". It is a well-known English term with which I am familiar.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the Minister said that 7,000 people who were unlucky in their appeals were returned to their country of origin. Have any of those attempted to re-enter this country on another bogus excuse?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is not a question I am capable of answering. If people are removed, they may well attempt to come back with bogus documents.