HL Deb 06 July 1998 vol 591 cc951-3

2.43 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the annual cost of dealing with the number of people applying for entry into the United Kingdom and whether any new measures are being considered to combat illegalities.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the total cost of immigration control at the ports is £125 million annually, excluding the self-financing overseas visa operation administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are using measures such as improved intelligence, prevention strategies overseas and harmonisation of inter-agency co-operation as part of the continuous drive to thwart evasion of immigration control.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware of a report which appeared in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago indicating that immigration control now costs £2 billion a year, which is considerably in excess of the figure he gave, and that the list of applicants for entry has increased from 50,000 to 70,000, which is a considerable jump? Can the Minister say whether this rate of increase applies only in the United Kingdom or whether it is also being experienced by our friends in Europe? If it is not being experienced by our friends in Europe, should we not reassess our position on the matter?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, quite often figures of the kind which my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick has quoted are not comparable with a figure given in answer to a specific question. I believe the figure I gave to be accurate. Current outstanding asylum applications stand at 52,000, not 70,000. I dare say that all our colleagues in western Europe have problems of this kind, pressures sometimes developing following particular political upheavals or events.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the problem arises from the fact that, alongside illegal immigrants, there are also those seeking asylum who have every legitimate reason to do so. They include people who have suffered what in some cases amounts to torture in fighting for democracy in their own countries. Is not the difficulty for the Home Office in distinguishing between the illegal immigrants, whom none of us wants to see, and the legitimate asylum seekers, whom we all want to help?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that to be a perfectly valid point, which was well made if I may say so. One perhaps needs to put it into context. There were 80 million passenger arrivals in this country from the European Union last year. From countries outside the European Economic Area there were a further 11 million. Subdivided within that are the different categories and others to which the noble Baroness referred. I believe it is generally felt that our present regime for dealing with illegal immigration and asylum seekers leaves a good deal to be desired, which is why my honourable friend Mr. O'Brien is presently conducting a review of it.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right in her concern? Is it not the case that the queue of asylum seekers seeking to have their applications processed is far too long? There are now 52,000 applicants. How many were there a year ago? How long do they have to wait now, and how long did they have to wait a year ago? Are Her Majesty's Government making progress?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we are making limited progress; but there are still no less than 9,400 outstanding cases pre-1993. That is an indication of how long the queue has become for some people. We try to deport those who are eligible to be deported. We try to prevent illegal entry, which has become something of a criminal ruse for many well-organised gangs. We have to draw a balance between decent consideration of those whose cases may be genuine and requiring people to leave who have no legitimate, lawful ground to be in this country.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the new European style passport is easier to forge than the old blue British passport, and, if so, what steps the Government are taking to combat this aid to illegal entry?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not think it is an aid to illegal entry. Without going into too much detail, which probably would not be requested by your Lordships, I have myself been to Heathrow and I can tell the House that there are extremely sophisticated devices in place to detect forgeries of the kind mentioned by the noble Lord. In fact, people are constantly being found in possession of forged documents, which makes it an easy first step to secure their departure from the jurisdiction.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister agree that visitors make an important contribution to tourism in this country; that in many cases they pay towards the cost of their application by paying a visa fee; and that illegal immigrants are but a very small number compared to the millions of visitors who enter this country legally?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of course I confirm that. That is why I tried to put the figure of 91 million visitors as part of the context. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is right. As I indicated, those who apply for visas participate in a self-financing regime and therefore there is no additional cost to public funds deriving from that.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, can the Minister say whether I am right that an Answer was given in this Chamber some months ago to the effect that the average time taken to deal with an applicant for entry to this country, assuming the case went to appeal, was five years and that during those five years most applicants were supported by finance from this country? Is that not the reason why the figure—whether it is the figure the Minister gave or the one I gave—represents an enormous sum of money? Is not the objective to get the average time taken to deal with an application down below five years, which will then be reflected in a reduced cost?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am certain that I did not give an average figure of five years. Very often the asylum appeal procedure is concluded in much less time than that. However, any delay for people in those circumstances is to be avoided. Last year, 7,000 failed asylum seekers were removed.