Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I support my hon. Friend's point. Does she accept that, in addition to making decisions swiftly, it is equally important to make those decisions accurately and thereby reduce the excessive number of cases that go to appeal as a result of basic non-compliance? There is an argument for saying that we want to proceed quickly, but let us not tie ourselves down, as we must ensure that decisions are right first time.

Angela Eagle: Yes, we must act as quickly as possible in each case, and we must do so efficiently. By that I mean that we must make good first-tier decisions that are upheld on appeal in a way that does not compromise the fairness of the hearing for the individual.

My hon. Friend is right about the technical issues relating to the statement of evidence form in 2000, in that many people were technically failed on their first-tier hearing because they did not return the form in

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time. However, she will be glad to know that an administrative change in the casework directorate, which was as simple as establishing a PO box, massively reduced the number of technical failures. It ensured that, when returned, statement of evidence forms were properly attached to files.

We are therefore considering the merits of cases, rather than striking them out and sending them to appeal simply because the forms seem not to be there, but are in fact in a pile of post. Those matters involve administrative coherence, and I assure the Committee that we are doing our best to make a great deal of progress in that regard.

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Mrs. Gillan: What the Minister says seems eminently reasonable in one way. However, as we seek to limit the legislation to protect the position of asylum seekers, did she consider during drafting the inclusion of a limit and the use of secondary legislation or another mechanism to set out the circumstances in which the flexibility that she seeks may be encompassed? We would thereby have the safeguard that we seek and she would have the flexibility that she quite reasonably wants for exceptional circumstances.

Angela Eagle: I am not sure that the two go together, simply because the Conservative amendment would set the limit at three months and our experience of complex cases shows that that is far too short. We all want to be able to do everything that quickly, but some cases are very complicated.

Let us suppose that the Bill included such a provision. For many people in accommodation centres, the three-month limit would pass and they would have to be removed from the centres wholesale and placed elsewhere. That would require a lot of administrative concentration and funding, and the organisation that was supposed to be running the system would be moving people around it rather than dealing with appeals and the rest of the process. Purely for the sake of administrative coherence, I am reluctant to have such a limit in the Bill. However, we do not want accommodation centres indefinitely to house people waiting for asylum decisions. We would regard six months or so as long enough.

Mrs. Gillan: I understand what the Minister says, but the Immigration Advisory Service recommended six months. In a way, the more she deploys the argument about needing to put more time into the slot, the less her argument about the need to resist a time limit in the Bill holds water. I therefore ask her again to examine the possibility, before consideration on Report and Third Reading, of including some safeguard while allowing for flexibility through another mechanism. We would take some comfort if we felt that the Government had examined that possibility. It may be rejected, but it would be reassuring to know that it had been considered once more.

Angela Eagle: I reassure the hon. Lady that we have considered that possibility. However, we are reluctant to have a limit in the Bill, for the reasons that I gave. There are often circumstances that we cannot anticipate in which a limit would unintentionally

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create administrative chaos in a system that is already under stress and strain.

It is an odd example, but the Child Support Agency springs to mind, because of the requirement in the original legislation that every assessment had to be revisited every two years. That created a huge administrative blockage that detracted from the organisation's ability to do its day-to-day work. That is the sort of nightmare scenario I want to avoid, but I openly tell the Committee that, give or take the odd day or week or two, we do not intend to keep individuals in accommodation centres longer than six months. If it looks like a case is nowhere near solved, we shall attempt to establish case by case whether a more appropriate place can be found.

Simon Hughes: No one doubts the intentions of the Home Secretary or the Minister. In this policy area, however, the Government have failed to deliver again and again. What defence does the Committee have when confronted by failure after failure? People might say that an opportunity to prescribe a limit was missed by Parliament, so there is no protection against someone being left in an accommodation centre for seven to 10 or 11 months. How can we ensure that the Government's intention will be delivered if six months passes and individuals are still based in accommodation centres? What can we do then?

Angela Eagle: I hope that individual cases and times will be examined administratively and, as the six-month period approaches, that a decision will be taken on whether it is more appropriate for individuals to remain in current accommodation or to be moved elsewhere through dispersal and putting them in a cluster area.

We should also remember that accommodation centres are designed to be supportive environments, not horrible places, and some people might be quite happy to remain beyond the limit. We do not intend people to stay in such centres for years and years. If a case drags on or an appeal clogs up, people should have the prospect of moving elsewhere if that is deemed appropriate and it is what they want.

I hope that accommodation centres prove to be supportive environments and that services are developed on site to facilitate asylum claims, making it easier to deal with them faster. That should result in a lower percentage of people with clogged up claims, even if they are difficult ones. As a Minister, I shall not talk of legislation that will fail and be hopeless. The Committee wants it to be effective and we must plan for that. I understand the scepticism of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. These issues are never easy to solve administratively. In fact, no other country has solved them any more effectively than we have.

I hope that I have clarified the Government's intentions, without the need for an amendment. We intend to deliver on our intentions.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): The Minister will recall that on Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) spoke about constituency MPs' frustration over the lack of adequate and quick responses to claims. If the

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provisions cannot be amended, will the Department consider producing a specific guideline to help us to advise constituents and their families on how long individuals are likely to be kept in accommodation centres?

Angela Eagle: The Home Secretary could not have made that much clearer on the Floor of the House and I could not make it much clearer in Committee, short of accepting amendments that would create inflexibilities and lead to absurdity or administrative difficulty. We do not intend to leave people in accommodation centres for years and years. We are trialling them to see whether we can speed the process up. I hope that the trial proves successful and that we speed up the process. Building statutory limits into the Bill, however, is not an effective way to ensure that what a Minister says in Committee actually happens.

Mr. Dhanda: I am not talking about amending the Bill, but could we not have some guideline from the Department, outside legislation, closer to when the Bill comes into force? I do not expect any detail now, but is the Department willing to consider issuing guidelines, which would be particularly supportive and helpful to constituency MPs?

Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend knows that procedural statutory instruments often accompany a Bill. It may be possible to use such instruments to establish procedures, but here there will be no statutory limits in either primary or secondary legislation. Policy guidelines for those running the system will be published and made available. They will replicate the assumption that I have laid before the Committee today—on the whole, we do not want to force people to stay in accommodation centres for longer than six months when their claims have not been dealt with as quickly as we would hope. That is the most flexible way to proceed. In the trials, we can see whether a speedier process results from the new arrangements that bring services to accommodation centres and from a closer administrative approach. Those arrangements should assist individual asylum claimants and make the system more efficient so that hearings can be conducted in an effective and timely way. I suspect that big speed and efficiency gains will result. Time will tell with the trials.

Simon Hughes: I am well aware of how the Home Office operates and have been since long before the Minister took office, so I understand her reluctance to have her hands tied. I acknowledge that the Government would feel at risk if they committed themselves on a policy area where they have failed to deliver, to the detriment of everyone, for a long time. Rather than rehearse that debate, I shall ask her some final questions relating to a matter that is not expressly featured in the Bill—the time scale for processing applications and appeals.

For the record, what are the Government's current intentions on the period in which an initial application is processed? What is current Government policy on the time limit for appeals? What changes are envisaged as targets for achievement in the near future? I understand that the process is being trialled, so it

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may be months if not years before the specific targets are in place. As the Minister rightly says, the aim is to achieve speedier decisions, but the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), other Members and I are grappling with the problem in our offices every day. What is the current policy, and what is the speediest estimate of target time limits for the two processes?

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