HL Deb 20 January 1998 vol 584 cc1372-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their estimate of the number of asylum seekers who have entered the United Kingdom from abroad and who cannot now be accounted for or traced.

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

My Lords, approximately 14,000 asylum applicants are currently recorded as having breached the conditions of their temporary admission, temporary release or restriction order, or having lost contact with the Home Office. The available information relates only to those asylum seekers who made their application at the port of entry, and those in-country applicants against whom enforcement action has been initiated. No equivalent information is available on in-country applicants who have not been subject to enforcement action, some of whom may also be found to have lost contact with the Home Office.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his reply which helps to clarify the situation in view of the press report that the figure was about 55,000. Together with illegal immigrants who have managed to slip into the United Kingdom undetected. are not all those persons concealed in the community providing business for the underground industry which supplies false identities and documents for activating social security benefits and false addresses?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the matters identified by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, are of great concern to the Home Office. On 21st August last year an inter-departmental committee was set up to deal with many of the issues involved. It may be that the figure to which the noble Lord referred as having been stated erroneously in the press derives from the fact that there are 50,000 cases outstanding of persons still awaiting a decision on their asylum applications. It is a lamentable fact that 12,000 of those date back to 1993 or even earlier.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House when he expects the interdepartmental committee to reach its conclusions? Is it considering an amnesty for those cases which have been outstanding for a large number of years?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we expect the committee to report within a couple of months. We believe that there are grave principled difficulties in relation to an amnesty because it rewards wrongdoing and penalises those who have legitimately gone through the lawful system.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, when the Government publish their report in two months, will it include information on the benefits available to genuine asylum seekers so that this country may again provide decent asylum for people who are entitled to it in accordance with our very worthy tradition?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the review will of course include an examination of the arrangements for providing accommodation and support to asylum seekers while their applications are being considered. We want a system which will be fairer, firmer and faster than the present arrangements.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is absolutely intolerable that as many as 12,000 applications should have been outstanding from as long ago as 1993? Does he agree further that when the immigration and nationality directorate takes such an unconscionable time to make up its mind, the applicants are at least entitled to a better explanation of the reasons for the delay than just that the Home Office is continuing its inquiries?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, one of the purposes of the review, which I take it has the general approval of your Lordships' House, is to study what changes are necessary in the light of present and past experience. In the meantime, the Home Office has the duty and responsibility to operate the law as it stands. We want to know what are the facts and how circumstances may be improved.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in addition to the 14,000 people who have sought asylum and vanished, is the Minister able to put a figure on what I understand to be the many thousands of people who have come to this country—and I include those who have come from my own country of Australia—on a visitor's visa and who have never been seen again? The Minister may have seen the programme on television about an Australian who, having gone to America, was not allowed to return here because he never had any right to be here in the first place. Is the Minister able to put a figure on how many of those over-stayers there may be?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in the nature of things, I cannot put a precise figure on all those who engage in illegal activities. It surprises me that anyone from Australia would come here with illegitimate intent bearing in mind that many people who went to Australia went from this country for precisely that activity.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I give an assurance to the noble Lord that my noble friend Lady Gardner is not one of those illegal immigrants. She is here for exactly the right reasons. We are very happy that she has come here and we welcome her on our Benches in this House. I take the Minister back to the original Question asked by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. In response, the Minister quoted a figure of some 14,000 while my noble friend quoted a figure which he has seen in the press of some 55,000. I suspect that the two figures are different because they are approaching the issue from a different angle. Will the Minister address the original Question? What is the estimate of the number of asylum seekers of whom the Home Office have lost track and of those who have come in without the Home Office even knowing about them? Perhaps the noble Lord will address that Question.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was not suggesting for a moment that the noble Baroness is here as an illegal immigrant because, as I understand it, she is a life Peer. Of course, there may well be hereditary Peers who, by necessary definition, are descended from illegal immigrants. I answered the original Question which was put precisely, as always, by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. He asked what is the estimate and I said that it is approximately 14,000 because I do not pretend to omniscience.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as a lay member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Is the noble Lord aware that cases are now being listed for hearing for October 1999? Is he really surprised that people are disappearing into the population when they have to wait so long for a hearing? Have the people undertaking the review spoken to members of the tribunal, including the chairman and the president?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do know that the study has been subject to very wide consultations. Of course I take precisely the point that has been made. It is intolerable that people should be left in doubt and in limbo for a very long period of time. That is precisely one of the points being addressed by the interdepartmental group which is carrying out the study.