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However, I wish to draw attention to a substantive point which arises from a letter to The Times on 28th October from Professor Goodwin-Gill, professor of international refugee law at the University of Oxford. He made important points about the procedure for handling asylum applications and, secondly, about the size of the backlog. It seems that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate has hardly changed its methods over the past 25 years, since a time when applications were far fewer and the backlog was tiny by today's standards. Asylum seekers are still interviewed and their cases are then considered largely on paper. It is difficult to assess credibility on paper and the applicant often has no opportunity to clear up inconsistencies or to remove doubts until the case reaches appeal. The success rate at appeal shows that time and resources are being wasted.
On Second Reading I asked for better quality decisions and I now urge the Government to improve the system to achieve that end. Improvements should allow for advice and representation at the earliest possible stage.
Not long ago, the backlog of asylum cases stood at 78,000. It may now have risen to 90,000. Whatever the precise figure, it is surely something of a national disgrace, particularly after 2½ years of a new and reforming Government. What should be done? I suggest that the oldest asylum applications should be examined and that one or two years' worth of them should be given full refugee status or exceptional leave to remain, unless they have criminal records, charges outstanding against them or can be shown to be security risks.
The next block of applications up to say 1st January 1999 should then be examined. If those cases conform with the three principles that I explained at Second Reading, those people should immediately be admitted, subject to the safeguards I have just mentioned. I remind your Lordships that the three principles are: family reunion with close relatives already here, a good knowledge of English, and the support of an existing ethnic, religious or linguistic community. Cases not having any of those three kinds of support would remain to be dealt with in the usual way.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I consider this an important Bill, one of the most important that the Government have introduced since they came to power. I want to congratulate the Attorney-General and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, for the way in which they have piloted the Bill. The subject is confusing and we have dealt with it in far too detailed a way. One realises the pressures that the Government have had to face.
Over many generations we in our country have prided ourselves on the welcome we have given to people who have come from countries where they have been oppressed. However, in recent years the numbers of immigrants--especially asylum seekers but also others--have grown so much that the problems have increased due to the sheer weight of numbers. I have collected a number of relevant statistics, but I shall spare your Lordships as they are all ascertainable. However, I mention that in the past 12 months the number of immigrants, including refugees, has increased by more than 80,000. That is the size of a big town. In addition, even if we have no further immigration, we are told that in the next quarter of a century we have to build another million houses. We are told that in the south of England we shall need the equivalent of five cities the size of Southampton and that they will take up much more of our green and pleasant land.
Our first duty as parliamentarians is to the people who are already here, the native people and those whom we have welcomed and who have now become thoroughly absorbed. They nearly all live in crowded areas. It will not help them if we allow the pressure to increase by too free an admission of people from abroad. For that reason the Government deserve full support for introducing the Bill and in enforcing it. Enforcement will be difficult because the number of asylum seekers, genuine and bogus, whose cases have not yet been decided is now, we are told, 100,000. I trust that the Government will be strong-minded about this matter when increasing the facilities for hearing the cases. That must be done. I am sure that the manpower can be found. The alternative is to relax control, to allow unjustified asylum seekers to remain, and to add to our social problems.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I take one minute of your Lordships' time and I apologise for that. There are three groups of people we should have thanked. They are not only the Minister but the civil servants who assisted him in a number of the meetings that we had. The meetings have been extremely helpful. There are two bodies
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to those of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and those expressed by others during the course of this brief debate. We have just been told by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that perhaps as many as 100,000 cases are still outstanding. The Government have said that the target should be to speed things up radically. But the average waiting time at the moment is about 20 months. That is about 10 times the Government target.
For me there is a real sense of deja vu. I listened to the end of the debate in another place four years ago when I served on the standing committee that looked at the previous asylum Bill. I realise, and I regret, that many of the remedies offered by the previous administration are now contained in this legislation as well. The real challenge is to reduce that backlog, which will only be done by providing resources and personnel. We have made a huge error by putting resources into creating things such as the voucher system which, I suspect, we shall have to revisit again in another two or three years with yet another asylum and immigration Bill.
That said, it would be churlish not to pay tribute to those who have given so much of their time and have been patient and generous in dealing with the many points raised during the progress of this Bill. I am personally grateful to Ministers such as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and the noble and learned Lord the Attorney General for the very patient way in which they have deal with the issues raised by my noble friend on the Cross-Benches and myself.
Lord Hacking: My Lords, during the passage of this Bill through the House I have concentrated on a small but, I believe, important area; namely, the relationship between the Immigration Service and the port operators. The sadness, as this Bill has gathered pace through your Lordships' House, is that the consultation process has, alas, been neglected.
However, during the latter stages after returning from the Summer Recess, my noble friend has been of considerable assistance. He has assisted us, for example, in understanding the basic service that port operators wish to know about and which is offered by the Immigration Service.
I had the opportunity to see the document only after Report stage. It was distributed on 15th October and did not reach me by the Report stage on 18th October. I have now had the opportunity to read it. I ask my noble friend to ask his officials to revisit the document. It is written in rather complex language and sets off on entirely the wrong foot. Paragraph 2 reads,
The first reaction to that rather long and verbose statement is, phew! But much more basic is the fact that it is not focusing on what the basic service is. It is essential that the Immigration Service itself should operate efficiently so that it can scrutinise, as is necessary, those who are seeking entry into our country. At the same time it should operate in such a way that all arrivals into the United Kingdom, whether UK or European Union citizens, are processed efficiently and fairly with reasonable promptness. That is entirely absent from the statement I read. I should therefore be grateful if my noble friend could visit this. I notice that at the beginning of the document it is described as a draft document representing the views of officials and that it has not been cleared by Ministers. Perhaps it could now have the eye of my noble friend and his colleagues.
My noble friend kindly wrote to me on the other point I raised and I shall just briefly identify it again; I take the hint about briefness. I suggested that there should be an efficient dispute resolution process. My noble friend said that the matter was still under consideration. It can be efficiently set up in a way that is satisfactory to the Secretary of State and the airport operators and I hope that attention will be focused on that. Again, this is an area where, alas, there has been a lack of consultation. With that, I wish the Bill a happy journey.
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