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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right; that would be highly desirable. It is exactly the objective towards which the Home Office is striving. It should be remembered that the Home Office receives approximately 1 million items of correspondence in any given year. While that is not an excuse for poor performance, it does begin to explain the strain on its correspondence system.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, while the Minister is looking at the way in which the Home Office handles correspondence, will he see what he can do to end the infuriating practice of "pass the parcel"? A letter that I wrote to the Home Office on 12th December was, for some reason or other, shunted to the Lord Chancellor's Department. The officials there decided that they did not like the look of it and it has now gone to the Department for Transport.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not surprised that it has been "shunted" towards the Department for Transport. I apologise for the pun. The department responsible for that particular aspect of a public service will end up dealing with the noble Lord's letter. It is true that some correspondence may have gone incorrectly to a particular department where a departmental responsibility had changed. That may have happened in the instance referred to by the noble Lord.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in early December I wrote a letter to one of his colleagues complaining on behalf of a prisoner who had allegedly been badly treated in prison? I received a letter about six weeks later informing me that the correspondence had been lost. I wrote again and a month after that I at last received a reply. Is it not

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rather shocking that in a case like that, through sheer inefficiency—I do not say on behalf of Ministers, but on behalf of someone—it has taken two and a half months to deal with the matter? Will the Government try to improve on that?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is a very serious matter. It is something that we should highlight and focus upon. I shall be more than happy to take up that particular case outside your Lordships' House and ensure that responses to the noble Lord are more prompt in future.

On a more practical note, one of the reasons the computer-based correspondence tracking system has been introduced is to stop the physical movement of correspondence around the department. All correspondence which comes into the department will be electronically scanned and therefore the process of tracking correspondence and ensuring that there are proper and appropriate follow-up replies will be aided and eased. It is to be hoped that the kind of instances described by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will not happen in the future.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, while it was tolerable for Ministers to ask parliamentarians to write to officials rather than to themselves because they were at one stage over-pressed, it was less tolerable that one received letters describing the decision taken in the case nine months after the event—or, indeed, as other noble Lords have said, the papers were lost altogether. Has the pressure on Ministers now eased sufficiently to enable them to absorb the correspondence themselves and not let it disappear into the general maw of the Home Office?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I described the volume of the problem for the Home Office: it receives somewhere in the region of 1 million letters per annum. That is a fantastic volume of correspondence. One would like to imagine that pressures on Ministers have eased, but no doubt those pressures are still there. However, that does not excuse any department from producing timely and courteous replies and ensuring that cases are properly followed up. That is the course that the Home Office and all other government departments wish to follow.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, matters are improving slightly. When I started out in the law, a reply came from the taxes office which began:

    "Reverting to yours of some date in 1937"!

Does the Minister agree that substance rather than speed is important when replying to correspondence? It is not uncommon these days to have a series of holding letters and to find that several people are dealing with the same issue—for one knows not what reasons.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is hard for me to speculate on each individual item of correspondence. I do not know the noble Lord's view, but I believe that

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it is courteous to send at least an acknowledgement of correspondence. One wants to know where the communication is and who is dealing with it. A particular matter may be complex and may require the attention of different parts of a department. In such a case it would be right for the correspondence to be moved around a department. I described a computer-based correspondence tracking system which will enable and aid that process and make it more speedy. There are many examples across government where correspondence is efficiently and effectively dealt with and there are many success stories. I cite the example of the Passport Office, where response is now very swift; indeed, it is a tip-top service.

Asylum Judgment: Home Secretary's Remarks

3.1 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the criticism by the Home Secretary of Mr Justice Collins's ruling regarding the policy of denying social security benefits to asylum seekers who fail to claim asylum as soon as possible after they arrive breaches the constitutional relationship between the executive and the judiciary in the United Kingdom.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, no. We live in a pluralist democracy. Therefore, the Home Secretary was perfectly entitled to give his view about the judgment of Mr Justice Collins and to appeal that decision. I understand that the appeal will be heard by the Court of Appeal next Monday. Equally, I stress as emphatically as I can that the Government have an absolute commitment to the rule of law and to the maintenance of the essential independence of the judiciary.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. I noted that, yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, accepted the judgment on the Gurkhas' pension case. This time round, the somewhat intemperate outburst by the Home Secretary was disproportionate. In confirming that the Government are committed to the rule of law, does the Minister agree that it is the prime duty of the Lord Chancellor to uphold the independence of the judiciary? So far, he has remained silent. Should he not immediately have admonished his Cabinet colleague for an excess of language?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, time without number to my certain knowledge, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has endorsed the principle that I enunciated a moment or two ago. He has done it in this Chamber and in public lectures and speeches. The noble Lord speaks of an "intemperate"

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response. What the Home Secretary said in one of his newspaper articles was this:

    "I respect the role of our judges to interpret the law. But there has to be a balance between interpreting the law and completely rewriting a law that has been debated and voted for in our democratic Parliament".

That seems to me a classic statement of constitutional principle with which we can all agree.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, if the Government pass laws such as the Human Rights Act, they are asking for judicial interpretation. What the Home Secretary did in commenting in that way was to complain about what the judges were doing—or that is how it appeared to most people who read the article. Surely, if the Government pass such laws they should live up to the consequences of their action.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is exactly what the Home Secretary is doing. He is abiding by the rule of law if he is seeking the view of the Court of Appeal, which will sit as rapidly as next Monday. It is always useful to read and inwardly digest what Mr Blunkett has said. Perhaps I may give a further citation—from Rachel Sylvester's interview published in the Daily Telegraph. Mr. Blunkett said:

    "I understand the role of the judiciary in seeking to reflect the interests of individuals against the state . . . I merely ask that alongside of that there should be a recognition of the role of government in establishing public policy".

What on earth is wrong with that?

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