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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe that to be a perfectly valid point, which was well made if I may say so. One perhaps needs to put it into context. There were 80 million passenger arrivals in this country from the European Union last year. From countries outside the European Economic Area there were a further 11 million. Subdivided within that are the different categories and others to which the noble Baroness referred. I believe it is generally felt that our present regime for dealing with illegal immigration and asylum seekers leaves a good deal to be desired, which is why my honourable friend Mr. O'Brien is presently conducting a review of it.
Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right in her concern? Is it not the case that the queue of asylum seekers seeking to have their applications processed is far too long? There are now 52,000 applicants. How many were there a year ago? How long do they have to wait now, and how long did they have to wait a year ago? Are Her Majesty's Government making progress?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we are making limited progress; but there are still no less than 9,400 outstanding cases pre-1993. That is an indication of how long the queue has become for some people. We try to deport those who are eligible to be deported. We try to prevent illegal entry, which has become something of a criminal ruse for many well-organised gangs. We have to draw a balance between decent consideration of those whose cases may be genuine and requiring people to leave who have no legitimate, lawful ground to be in this country.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not think it is an aid to illegal entry. Without going into too much detail, which probably would not be requested by your Lordships, I have myself been to Heathrow and I can tell the House that there are extremely sophisticated devices in place to detect forgeries of the kind mentioned by the noble Lord. In fact, people are constantly being found in possession of forged documents, which makes it an easy first step to secure their departure from the jurisdiction.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister agree that visitors make an important contribution to tourism in this country; that in many cases they pay towards the cost of their application by paying a visa fee; and that illegal immigrants are but a very small number compared to the millions of visitors who enter this country legally?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, of course I confirm that. That is why I tried to put the figure of 91 million visitors as part of the context. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is right. As I indicated, those who apply for visas participate in a self-financing regime and therefore there is no additional cost to public funds deriving from that.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, can the Minister say whether I am right that an Answer was given in this Chamber some months ago to the effect that the average time taken to deal with an applicant for entry to this country, assuming the case went to appeal, was five years and that during those five years most applicants were supported by finance from this country? Is that not the reason why the figure--whether it is the figure the Minister gave or the one I gave--represents an enormous sum of money? Is not the objective to get the average time taken to deal with an application down below five years, which will then be reflected in a reduced cost?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am certain that I did not give an average figure of five years. Very often the asylum appeal procedure is concluded in much less time than that. However, any delay for people in those circumstances is to be avoided. Last year, 7,000 failed asylum seekers were removed.
Lord Bridges: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for replying in such detail to the Question, of which I sent her some particulars, though she has not answered it in quite such a positively negative manner as I would have hoped.
Does the Minister realise that in the case about which I wrote to her considerable commercial pressure is being brought to bear on the local authority by the developer to determine the case within the 16-week period laid down by the department's rules? What steps are the Government taking to inform the local authorities of their policy, to which local planning authorities do not seem to be paying much attention? Does the Minister feel that this case falls within the rules of the department set for prematurity?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I understand the anxieties of the noble Lord in relation to that application; indeed, I read the debate which took place in your Lordships' House two years ago in that regard. It contained another good example of an oxymoron, I seem to remember; that of a charm offensive.
It is a matter of concern expressed both in the context of the current planning application and the policies proposed for the site in the Suffolk coastal local plan, first alteration, about which an inquiry is due to take place in November 1998. The Government Office for the Region, which has a responsibility to monitor the progress of certain planning applications, will do so carefully in this case. If necessary, my right honourable friend can call in the application or issue a holding direction to prevent the local planning authority from issuing a decision without his authority. As the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, pointed out, in some cases it may be justifiable for a local authority to refuse planning permission on the basis of prematurity.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, in response to the noble Lord's final point, the policy regarding call-ins is to be selective and in the main to allow local determination of these issues. However, as I said earlier, I understand the anxieties. We are dealing with an area of outstanding natural beauty and a presumption against major development that exists in all such areas. That is the reason the Government Office will be monitoring carefully the progress of the current planning application and advising the Secretary of State accordingly.
I note what the noble Lord said about the need for housing rather than employment in that area. There has been a chequered history surrounding the site and the closure of the US Air Force base took a large chunk out of the local economy. That is of concern, given that, in addition to being an area of outstanding natural beauty, it is also a rural development area.
The Earl of Cranbrook: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one point she has not mentioned is that the planning application is also outside the Suffolk county structure plan for airports, which specifically states that any airport that is to replace Ipswich airport should not be within an AONB? That departure was advertised by the district council. Does she also agree that so far the district council appears to be proceeding along the right lines? It made the right advertisements. A number of questions need to be answered in relation to the application. I hope that the Minister can assure me that she will be putting pressure on the district council to come to the right decision, which is clearly one that takes account of the extreme environmental sensitivity and the general unsuitability of a large airport on that site; and the fact that it is generally desirable that such a decision should be made locally.
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