HL Deb 25 March 1999 vol 598 cc1417-22

3.14 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect the computer system in the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office to work satisfactorily, and what interim arrangements are in hand to deal with the backlog and the situation of those whose immigration and asylum status is uncertain.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we regret the recent disruption to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's caseworking operation during the first phase of the casework programme, a private finance initiative partnership with Siemens Business Services. The current plan is for the full computer system to be made available for testing in June and rolled out by early 2000. We have set up a joint team with Siemens Business Services to recover the previous level of service and catch up on the backlog which has developed. The applicant's status is protected where an application is made before expiry of permission to stay.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that at a time when the Immigration and Asylum Bill is being debated in another place we now have a backlog of over 200, 000 cases; the files are stored in garages, which are unsafe and those files cannot be located; people queue at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate from four o'clock in the morning, and applicants are advised that they can apply to their embassy for new passports because theirs cannot be located? Does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need to build up applicants' confidence in the system? Would he therefore undertake to issue regular briefings to the newspapers about the progress made, explain to applicants the procedures for claiming compensation from the Government, and not to take action against those in breach of their immigration status through no fault of their own?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord raises points of validity. The figures I have are not the figures he gave. They are still not good figures, by any stretch of the imagination. On 19th March, which is the most up-to-date material I have for your Lordships, there were 125, 165 cases waiting to be decided. Of those work-in-progress cases, 67, 000 were asylum cases. In the Case Allocation Unit there were almost 10, 000 asylum cases, making a total of 76, 853 asylum cases. So, it is not a good story by any means.

We give regular press briefings which I believe are of assistance. We propose to continue those regularly. As regards compensation, it has always been the practice that we consider ex gratia payments in individual cases if there is full supporting evidence to show actual and necessarily incurred additional costs. As to the third matter raised by the noble Lord, I appreciate that this is a matter of great concern. No applicant should be disadvantaged by the changes we are in the process of making.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the present situation is absolutely deplorable? It is of benefit to those who have no right to asylum in this country, including some villains, but it is awful for genuine, honest asylum seekers who are entitled to asylum under our law and by all the laws of decency of this honourable land. What steps will be taken to deal with the matter even more speedily? Surely, the situation should never have arisen. Now that it has, we are not dealing with it fast enough.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree that the situation should never have been allowed to arise. I have made it brutally plain that I regard it in the same way as noble Lords who have already contributed to this Question. On 15th March we set up a joint taskforce, which I outlined a moment ago, and which is to report by mid-April. This contract was let to Siemens Business Services in April 1996. We are therefore attempting to deal with an inherited situation as promptly and as fairly as we can.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, as the noble Lord has admitted that something ghastly has happened and as it does not matter whether the arrangement was set up by the Tory government or by the present Government, can he please say that the heads of those who made the mistake will roll?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is a novel constitutional doctrine of governmental and ministerial responsibility that it does not matter whose fault it was. I imagine that that might be of some comfort to me in the months to come. A National Audit Office investigation has already gone into this matter with great care. Undoubtedly, mistakes were made, but I do not feel able to point to a single individual who needs his head removed in the way that the noble Earl has suggested.

I think that we both agree that the important point is that this situation should never have been allowed to develop. It is not satisfactory conduct of public administration. We are doing what we can to remedy the situation—I have been as plain as I can be about it—but it will take time, and I am sorry for that.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not a fact that heads rolled massively on 2nd May 1997? Having inherited this situation, does my noble friend agree that speed is clearly of the essence and that the House will be reassured by what the Home Office is doing at present? However, is it not regrettable that it seems to be implied that the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are bogus, but that is not true and the people who are here, awaiting the determination of their cases, are entitled to respect rather than being subject to such inferences?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree absolutely that anyone who is applying for asylum in a foreign jurisdiction is entitled to decent, civil and civilised treatment. It is taking time to put this matter right—I have given the dates. Although we hope to have the computer beginning to work properly by June of this year, it will be the early part of the year 2000 before the scheme is properly rolled out.

Lord Meston

My Lords, can the Minister say how many children are affected by this problem and whether steps are being taken to give priority to cases involving children?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot do that, but I can give the figure for general and settlement cases: there are 15, 000 work-in-progress cases and 13, 500 in case allocation, making a total of 28, 500 general and settlement cases. I believe that that gives part of the answer which the noble Lord is seeking. If I can obtain further material on this, I shall send it immediately to the noble Lord and place a copy of my letter in the Library.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as a lay member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. I have two questions for the Minister. First, was there a penalty clause in the contract with Siemens and, if so, will it be invoked? Secondly, I understand that as the new computers will not be working until early next year, there may be problems with the existing computer system and the millennium bug. Can the Minister give us some assurances on that because we seem to have lost enough cases already?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the computer system will be year 2000-compatible. To answer the first question from the noble Countess, the contract which was let in April 1996 does not include penalty clauses for late delivery or failure of the system to meet specifications. There is a provision for financial penalties if Siemens is unable to maintain satisfactory levels of service. However, in respect of the distinct question put to me by the noble Countess, there was no penalty clause for late delivery.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, is it not a fact that the Government's promise of a fairer, firmer and faster asylum policy is in tatters, with the combination of a huge backlog of cases and the unworkable voucher system? It is a bureaucratic mess which is unfair on applicants, more expensive than it need be for taxpayers, and mean towards destitute asylum seekers. Will the Government change their mind on the Immigration and Asylum Bill which incorporates some of the worst features of the existing system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Immigration and Asylum Bill has not yet become law. The Government's policy is not in tatters. The White Paper was generally well received as a long-overdue, fundamental review of a system which is presently a shambles. We want to be firmer, fairer and faster. I believe that when that Bill passes through your Lordships' House—to general acclaim, I dare say—we shall have an asylum and immigration system which is capable of working fairly, firmly and efficiently.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, with reference to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, can the Minister remind the House what percentage of applicants are found to deserve the right of asylum, what percentage are found to deserve the right of exceptional leave to remain and therefore, by subtraction, what numbers of applications are at best unfounded and at worst simply bogus?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not have those figures to hand—

Noble Lords


Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, perhaps I may continue. I have given those figures on previous occasions. I shall write again to the noble Lord so that he may have the satisfaction of making such point as has merit.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, is it not the case that although the Minister was accurate in what he said about the penalty clause in response to the question from the noble Countess, Lady Mar, Siemens will be paid mainly by reference to the savings to the department in question, when those savings are made? As well as the computer problems to which reference has already been made, are there not also simultaneous and enormous problems arising from the decision, which incidentally was taken after the election, I believe, to move some hundreds of thousands of files to Croydon, many of which were lost on the way, which is why documents relating not only to asylum seekers, but to businessmen and other visitors—I refer to their passports—have been lost somewhere between Lunar House and another building in Croydon?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, Siemens Business Services has certainly incurred higher costs as a consequence of what happened with regard to the computer programme delivery and it has received less income than would otherwise have been the case. The noble Lord is right that the problems are not limited only to asylum cases. I tried to subdivide the figures earlier to make it plain that there is no such limitation. The noble Lord is also right that about 1, 000 staff and 150, 000 files were subsequently physically relocated. In conjunction with the computer problems, I say again (for perhaps the fourth or fifth time) that that relocation caused serious problems which should never have been allowed to come about.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that asylum seekers who, through no fault of their own, are awaiting determination will not be left destitute in the meantime?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, no applicant will be disadvantaged by the changes that we are in the process of making. I made that plain in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. Any asylum seeker, or anyone who has a right to the assistance of the state, will continue to benefit, irrespective of the problems that I have described.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Government publish a comprehensive reply to the report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General? In the meantime, have they anything to say about the recommendation that the Government should consider whether awarding such very large contracts in one lump (amounting to £77 million, I think) is a sensible policy, and whether the department had sufficient resources to manage a project of that magnitude? As so many large contracts entered into by government for the provision of computer services come unstuck—this is the latest of about five such instances—does not the noble Lord think that that recommendation should be taken particularly seriously?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, speaking for myself and for the department, I believe that any comments, criticisms or recommendations made by the National Audit Office should be given the most careful and scrupulous attention. Indeed, the great benefit of that report was that it sought to draw out lessons for future private finance initiatives. I believe that there are lessons to be learned. It is foolish to pretend the opposite. I hope that we shall endeavour to learn those lessons.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, as a matter of clarification of the second question that my noble friend Lady Mar asked, is the existing system millennium-proof or not? Did the Minister indicate that the future system would be millennium-proof?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I said that the computer system, which is to be in existence when the millennium is upon us, is 2000 compatible.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, is it the Government's intention to move more hearings for asylum seekers outside London and, if so, will that not cause many problems for legal advisers and the asylum seekers themselves? Will it not slow up the whole process?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it should not slow up the process. If one looks at the way it works at the moment, on some occasions the lists may be overfull in the London area, but with spare adjudication capacity outside London. If one has spare capacity and one wants speedy, efficient and fair determination, one ought to use that spare capacity.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, may I assist the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, by asking whether he is aware that, if my memory holds correct—and it may well not—of 100 applicants for asylum only about 17 are shown to be proper and appropriate applications and not the majority, as his noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis suggested?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, bearing in mind the consistently cordial relationship that the noble Earl and I have, I know that he was intending to be helpful. I know that his memory is infallible and therefore he may well be right. However, I do not have the figures in front of me and it would be wrong of me to pretend that I have them.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, in considering the National Audit Office report, should not noble Lords bear in mind that it found that the procurement was managed in a businesslike way at the start and that the contract still offers high net benefits?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is what the National Audit Office said, subject to satisfactory delivery.