HL Deb 29 March 1999 vol 599 cc4-7

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Brigstocke asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to improve the situation for those students and others whose passports are held at the Immigration Centre in Croydon.

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

My Lords, the reorganisation of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) in Croydon, which began in December 1998, is designed to produce a much quicker service to all applicants. However, in the short term the reorganisation is causing significant disruption to our service. Recognising this, the Home Office and Siemens Business Services have set up a joint project team to plan and deliver the measures necessary to ensure the early recovery of previous levels of service. The project team has been asked to report by mid-April.

Baroness Brigstocke

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer which gives one a certain amount of comfort. I understand that 22,000 passports are locked up in Croydon and that students experience tremendous delays in receiving their passports. Will the Government consider recompensing students who miss perhaps the first term of a course for which they have paid because they are unable to obtain the necessary visas?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right, the IND is dealing with about 22,000 applications where passports have been submitted. In 1998, there were approximately 46,000 decisions on student applications. Of those, 32,000 were granted, 14,000 were refused, 21,000 were decided "on the day" and the rest were done in case-work groups where the average waiting time was three months.

As regards compensation, I must repeat the Answer which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, last week, that we consider ex gratia compensation where there is sufficient evidence to justify payment.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this concerns not, only students? Perhaps I may draw his attention to the fact that last week I wrote to his honourable friend Mr. O'Brien about one of my academic colleagues who is a specialist in middle eastern archaeology and who is unable to discharge his duties without travelling. Does the Minister think that it is fair to responsible citizens, or their employers, to prevent them from discharging the duties for which they are paid?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, last week I said on this very point that the service provided is not satisfactory. I do not believe that I have ever tried to duck that. I gave the figures on students specifically because that was the main interest of the noble Baroness. Of course, others have suffered. I know that because a number of your Lordships have been good enough to tell ire about individual cases.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I must declare an interest as a solicitor who from time to time has to deal with the IND on behalf of clients. Is the Minister aware that delays affect not only students and asylum seekers, but also those applying for naturalisation? In April 1998, the advice to those who had paid the not insubstantial fee for naturalisation was that their applications would take at least 12 months. In November 1998, those who inquired were told that the department was still dealing with applications lodged in May 1997 and that they would have to wait at least another 12 months. Does the Minister think that that is an appropriate way to deal with those who apply to and pay a fee to a government department?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not, and I am happy to repeat that. In fact, last week I used the words of the Home Secretary and of my honourable friend Mr. O'Brien when I said that, in terms of what the noble Lord has identified, we inherited a "shambles". That is why we are seeking to try to reorganise the system. I repeat my regret that things are taking longer than we had at first anticipated and hoped.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, on the matter of inheritance, the Minister confirmed last week that it was the relocation to Croydon, which was decided after the election, which was the primary cause of the loss of the passports, not the Siemens contract, although that has obviously also gone wrong. Can the Minister tell the House whether those who need to acquire a new passport either from the United Kingdom authorities or, if they are foreigners, from their own embassies, in replacement for one lost will be compensated at least to the extent of the extra fees as well as for any other loss, such as has already been referred to?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, any neutral or objective observer cannot be in any doubt about the fact that we did inherit a shambles. The relocation caused problems, as did the computer. As regards compensation, I repeat again what I have already said on two occasions: applications for an ex gratia payment will be considered, if properly supported with evidence.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister consider granting ex gratia compensation to an Algerian whose case was approved last August as a refugee, whose wife and six children then entered, but who was unable to obtain benefit for them until late February, and whose case I have taken up with the Minister, Mike O'Brien?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, every case is judged on its own merits, according to the criteria that I set out earlier.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, as regards the ex gratia applications, have those who are entitled to make them. because passports are lost for any other reason, been told that they are in a position to make such applications?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not know whether everyone has been told specifically, but those who are careful students of Hansard will know, at least since last Wednesday, that that is the position.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, may I ask the Minister about an answer that he gave last week which has concerned a number of us? I refer to the fact that there was no penalty clause in the Siemens contract. Given the fact that there have clearly been failures by Siemens, can the Minister give an undertaking that in any future PFI contracts in which the Home Office is involved there will be penalty clauses?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not think that it is necessarily appropriate to have a penalty clause in every contract. The guidance given by the National Audit Office pointed clearly to the need to learn lessons. Undoubtedly, the problem which the noble Lord identifies is one of those matters that must be taken carefully into account.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Minister said that he inherited a shambles from the previous government, but does he recall that when the previous government tried to speed up immigration procedures in 1994, or whenever it was, there were howls of protest from the then Opposition—I am sure that the noble Lord joined in—saying that it was not fair?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I did, because it was not!