Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Simon Hughes: I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's argument and the amendment, which deals with a live issue to people outside the House. I have visited entry clearance officers at work in Bangladesh, Calcutta, Abuja in Nigeria and in Freetown in Sierra Leone, where I went last year. Those officers work well and very hard, and I have no criticism of them. They are often under-resourced. However, I must highlight the amount of effort and time involved in chasing the system. I could tell the Minister about a pile of cases in which I have had to write to the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Having to send Ministers' communications between London and Addis Ababa and every other capital city and outpost of the FCO is nonsense.

The hon. Gentleman's proposal would provide exactly the discipline for which the Minister argued earlier. I hope that the Government will accept that, if we are to have a disciplined and streamlined system, they must be disciplined and streamlined, too. The Government should do as they would be done by. We should not ask applicants and appellants to comply with dates and deadlines when the Government do not give themselves dates and deadlines. I hope that the amendment receives support. The hon. Gentleman and I will want to return to the issue if we do not see satisfactory movement. Colleagues on both sides of the House and people throughout the country have made the case for improving this part of the system.

Ms Winterton: The Government do not claim that everything was perfect in the cases that have been outlined, and we are certainly considering how there can be better co-ordination between the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Immigration Appellate Authority. Obviously, that relates to entry

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clearance officers. We are aware of the concerns that have been raised, but we feel that we must improve our administrative systems. In fact, early in our discussions, Opposition Members said that it was important to ensure that we got administrative processes right before leaping to legislation. I hope that hon. Members are reassured to know that we are considering how to improve those processes to overcome some of the problems.

With regard to the amendment, time limits for the appeals process and other procedural matters of that nature will be set out in the procedure rules to be made by the Lord Chancellor under clause 84. Comprehensive reasons for refusal are given in many cases before any appeal is lodged. We do not feel that there is a need for an explanatory statement to be given after the appeal is lodged, because it would be a waste of time and resources.

Under the one-stop system, the lodging of the appeal could bring additional grounds for application, which would need to be investigated and decided before the appeal papers could be finalised. How long that takes would depend on the appellant's co-operation in other matters. Putting a time limit on that would be difficult. It is unclear what would be the final effect of preventing the respondent from presenting a case if the deadline for sending an explanatory statement were not met. It would not prevent the appeal from going ahead for determination, which would place the adjudicator in a difficult position. The appeal would still have to be fairly determined on the facts, although he would not have any assistance in testing the appellant's evidence, and that could be unfair to the appellant.

It is unclear why, as the amendment suggests, an explanatory statement should be sent to the appellant and his representative within a time limit, but there is no mention of sending the papers to the appellate authority. The appellant and representative will already have received reasons for refusal with the decision notice by virtue of the regulations to be made under clause 83 ''Notice of immigration decision''. There is no advantage to the Secretary of State or the entry clearance officer in delaying sending the papers to the appellate authority. We are considering how we can improve the administrative process, but there is not necessarily any advantage.

Simon Hughes: I understand that there may be a technical problem with the drafting of the amendment, and that reference should be made to the Immigration Appellate Authority, but the decision notice is normally one sentence. It is rarely more than that. I have watched the process at the other end, where the assessment of the case is much longer and notes are made of all the points put by the applicant. It is not something that anyone can work on to prepare their appeals. In cases that require urgency for compassionate reasons, it is unacceptable not to have tough deadlines and to know the reasons. People cannot put the case otherwise. I like the Minister personally, but her argument is hopeless. It really is not adequate

Ms Winterton: As I recall, we are looking into cases in which there may be a need for urgency. I take on

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board the hon. Gentleman's points about that. I can only reiterate that we do not feel that putting a time limit in those cases would be advantageous to the process, especially because of the limitations that it could put on the appeal process, which may not be in the best interests of the appellant. I reiterate that we are looking at what can be done to improve the situation administratively, which is the best way to tackle the issue.

Mr. Malins: The Minister has twice said that the Government are looking into ways of tackling the problem. What ways is she considering, and how long has she has been considering them?

Ms Winterton: As I said, we are looking into the administrative processes. I can set out in writing some of the details we are considering, but at present we must analyse where the difficulties occur to see what can be done to improve the situation. We are not rushing to judgment, because it is important to obtain evidence about the difficulties and then to put together an approach that will solve the problems in the longer term. We do not want to make quick proposals that do not address the real problems. The way to tackle them is to use the approach that we have adopted. I hope the hon. Gentlemen are reassured that we are aware of the difficulties and want to tackle them, but the amendments are not the way forward.

Simon Hughes: I shall be happy to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Woking if he decides to divide the Committee on the proposal.

I appreciate that both Ministers have only been in post since the general election, but I do not sense any urgency in their approach. The Government accepted that 18 months waiting for a routine operation was not good enough, and they are reducing it to 12 months. There must also be some delivery on the issue that we are discussing.

I hope that Ministers will leave the Committee having accepted that hundreds and thousands of our constituents face a nightmare scenario of grief and more grief, which is entirely the responsibility of the system for which the Government are accountable. The hon. Member for Leicester, South said, from experience, that anyone who has significant dealings with the problem knows that it is the bane of our lives as Members of Parliament and agents, and of the lives of real people in real situations who have such a hard time.

The Minister alluded to the urgency of the situation. If a Member of Parliament, an applicant or anyone else were able identify an urgent case and there was a streamline system to deal with it, that might alleviate some of the pain and grief. I give the example of a constituent, a woman from Sierra Leone who lived near the Elephant and Castle. She was dying and wanted to see her son, who had had to leave Sierra Leone and was living in the Gambia, but he was not able to get here before his mother died. Of course, such things happen occasionally, but it was not acceptable in that case as there was plenty of time for him to get here. The system must work better than that. The

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man's mother died at Easter last year, but the appeal still has not been heard, which is awful. It is a year later and he has still not been able to see his father and to pay his respects to his mother.

I regularly deal with similar cases, which may involve a bereavement or an illness, a wedding, a christening or a graduation. The system is not compassionate, and the promise on the Home Office logo of firmness, fairness and justice is not being delivered.

One line on the notice gives a summary of the reasons for the decision, but people need to see the explanatory statement as soon as possible, as it gives the record of the interview and sets out the matters that may be agreed. There are often disputes about facts and misrepresentation. Sometimes there are linguistic problems: people may say that they speak good English, but do not. They may be on their own, and have not made their case well. There may have been some misunderstanding about the whereabouts of their family or children, how long they have lived somewhere, or whether they own their house. I understand how decisions have been arrived at technically, but an understanding of the situation may have resulted in an appeal being allowed, as it has in other cases. Instead, we wait for days, weeks, months and sometimes years.

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I shall leave my vote in the hands of the hon. Member for Woking, but I want to return to the issue on Report if we are not satisfied in Committee. The Ministers will deal with the anger in the House if they return on Report with clear proposals for deadlines such as those we have proposed. I give them notice that we must have deadlines before the Bill leaves this place. They must be tough with their officials so that they can deliver for asylum seekers as they do for other people.

This is indirect, albeit unintentional, discrimination against immigrants and families in our minority communities. If I wanted my brother to return from living in Cyprus or working in Portugal, he could do so as he is a British citizen. The provision does not apply to me as a UK-born, white Briton, but it does to my Sierra Leonean, Ghanaian, Bangladeshi, Cypriot and Somali constituents. The Government must get a grip on the issue.

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