HL Deb 07 June 2004 vol 662 cc58-60

(1) Initial decisions by the Secretary of State on asylum application shall be made and notified to the applicant within six weeks of the application being made.

(2) Notice of appeal from the decision of the Secretary of State to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ("the Tribunal")—

  1. (a) must be made in writing,
  2. (b) must be lodged with the Tribunal within 14 days of the decision appealed against, and
  3. (c) must list all the grounds on which the appeal is made.

(3) Within 14 days of receipt of the notice of appeal the Tribunal shall hold a direction hearing at which all parties to the appeal shall be present."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have just dealt with the final stages of the decision-making process of asylum applications. This amendment takes us back in the other direction, to the beginning. We are told that one of the objectives of the Bill is to reduce delay. It is well known that one of the biggest causes of delay in the asylum system is the gap between the application for asylum made by an asylum seeker to the Home Office and the decision reached by the Home Office—technically, the Secretary of State. This amendment would insert into the Bill a time constraint requiring the Secretary of State to decide on an asylum application within six weeks of it being made.

It is my submission that the adoption of this amendment would make a far bigger contribution to resolving the problem of delay in the asylum system than the reduction of time available during the appeal process itself, to apply for a review, to a period of five days. That is a minor point in the context of the overall problem of delay in the asylum process and I urge the Government to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I was almost fooled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in that I thought he was rising to speak. If I understand the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, correctly, this amendment is essentially a debating point to put pressure on the Government to ensure that the earlier parts of the process are dealt with expeditiously. We are four-square with the noble Lord on that as a goal of policy. But we could not adopt such an amendment because the consequences would be ones which I suspect neither he nor we would wish to see.

The new clause introduced by this amendment is concerned with both the initial decision stage in asylum cases and the appeal stage. Subsection (1) would require initial decisions on asylum applications to be taken and notified to the applicant within six weeks.

I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, is aware of how far we have moved since 1997. In that year, when we had the pleasure of inheriting the immigration and asylum situation, the average decision-making time was 22 months. By 2002 that figure, including decisions on backlog cases, was provisionally brought down to six months. We have since set ourselves a target to decide 75 per cent of new asylum applications within two months, a target that we look to be on course to beat, as well we should. Recently we have been deciding around 80 per cent of new cases within two months.

We have also made massive inroads into the backlog. From a peak of over 120,000 cases, it is now below 18,100, and falling fast. So we have no difficulty in being open to public scrutiny on our ability to address cases, turn them around and crack the enormous backlog that had built up when we came into government. This is relevant because, as noble Lords know, if the wider world—and in particular traffickers—sense that the pace is slow and the ability to remove difficult, that feeds the business of the traffickers very powerfully indeed. Fast but fair processing is fundamental to providing an effective deterrent.

Having said that, I do not see any merit in placing a rigid requirement in primary legislation stipulating that a decision must be taken within a specified time. In the majority of cases it is possible to decide claims quickly and fairly with efficient procedures, but there will be cases where more time will be needed if they are to be dealt with fairly—such as where medical evidence is considered crucial or further explorations need to be made in, for example, the person's home country to see whether their claim is well founded. Alternatively, a short-term disturbance may arise, making it essential to put a brief hold on decision-making for that country.

Under the constraints imposed by subsection (1) of the proposed new clause, we would be forced to take decisions without having the necessary facts at our disposal. The consequences would be that either we would make decisions without the relevant evidence—and thus would not be acting fairly—or we would fail to make decisions within the time-frame. I am not sure what consequences are implied by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, in that situation. If the Government did not deal with applications within six weeks, would the applicants be granted asylum in all cases? I cannot believe that that is the thrust of his proposal. There are better ways of ensuring that claims are decided promptly than the crude instrument of primary legislation.

Rather than going into more detail at this point, I repeat that I am four-square with the noble Lord on why we have to keep up both the political and managerial pressure to deal expeditiously and fairly with asylum applications. We have made enormous progress over recent years, but there is still further to go. While not welcoming it, I respect the challenge laid down for us to achieve more, but I do not think that this is the way to do so.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's reply. I accept that progress has been made in reducing the time-frame between the application and the decision. I also accept that, at this stage of the passage of the Bill, this amendment is not word perfect. Clearly we would need to introduce a saving clause to deal with situations where a decision within six weeks was not genuinely possible.

On the other hand, the Government argued strongly earlier this afternoon—unsuccessfully, I am pleased to say—that increasing the time available for making applications for judicial review from five days to 10 days would introduce a serious delay to the process. But compared with the kind of delays that we face in the initial stages of the asylum seeker's journey through the statutory system, the delays in the appeal process are trivial. The House has already expressed itself on that point.

I submit that it would be desirable to have on the face of the Bill something along the lines of the amendment I have proposed. I accept that it needs to be more flexible than the straightforward six weeks proposed here, but I shall take the opportunity between now and Third Reading to give the matter more thought. I may reintroduce the amendment at that point. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Lord McNally moved Amendment No. 52C: After Clause 14, insert the following new clause—