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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the matters identified by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, are of great concern to the Home Office. On 21st August last year an inter-departmental committee was set up to deal with many of the issues involved. It may be that the figure to which the noble Lord referred as having been stated erroneously in the press derives from the fact that there are 50,000 cases outstanding of persons still awaiting a decision on their asylum applications. It is a lamentable fact that 12,000 of those date back to 1993 or even earlier.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House when he expects the interdepartmental committee to reach its conclusions? Is it considering an amnesty for those cases which have been outstanding for a large number of years?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we expect the committee to report within a couple of months. We believe that there are grave principled difficulties in relation to an amnesty because it rewards wrongdoing and penalises those who have legitimately gone through the lawful system.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the review will of course include an examination of the arrangements for providing accommodation and support to asylum seekers while their applications are being considered. We want a system which will be fairer, firmer and faster than the present arrangements.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is absolutely intolerable that as many as 12,000 applications should have been outstanding from as long ago as 1993? Does he agree further that when the immigration and nationality directorate takes such an unconscionable time to make up its mind, the applicants are at least entitled to a better explanation of the reasons for the delay than just that the Home Office is continuing its inquiries?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, one of the purposes of the review, which I take it has the general approval of your Lordships' House, is to study what changes are necessary in the light of present and past experience. In the meantime, the Home Office has the duty and responsibility to operate the law as it stands. We want to know what are the facts and how circumstances may be improved.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, in addition to the 14,000 people who have sought asylum and vanished, is the Minister able to put a figure on what I understand to be the many thousands of people who have come to this country--and I include those who have come from my own country of Australia--on a visitor's visa and who have never been seen again? The Minister may have seen the programme on television about an Australian who, having gone to America, was not allowed to return here because he never had any right to be here in the first place. Is the Minister able to put a figure on how many of those over-stayers there may be?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, in the nature of things, I cannot put a precise figure on all those who engage in illegal activities. It surprises me that anyone from Australia would come here with illegitimate intent bearing in mind that many people who went to Australia went from this country for precisely that activity.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I give an assurance to the noble Lord that my noble friend Lady Gardner is not one of those illegal immigrants. She is here for exactly the right reasons. We are very happy that she has come here and we welcome her on our Benches in this House. I take the Minister back to the original Question asked by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. In response, the Minister quoted a figure of some 14,000 while my noble friend quoted a figure which he has seen in the press of some 55,000. I suspect that the two figures are different because they are approaching the issue from a
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I was not suggesting for a moment that the noble Baroness is here as an illegal immigrant because, as I understand it, she is a life Peer. Of course, there may well be hereditary Peers who, by necessary definition, are descended from illegal immigrants. I answered the original Question which was put precisely, as always, by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. He asked what is the estimate and I said that it is approximately 14,000 because I do not pretend to omniscience.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as a lay member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Is the noble Lord aware that cases are now being listed for hearing for October 1999? Is he really surprised that people are disappearing into the population when they have to wait so long for a hearing? Have the people undertaking the review spoken to members of the tribunal, including the chairman and the president?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do know that the study has been subject to very wide consultations. Of course I take precisely the point that has been made. It is intolerable that people should be left in doubt and in limbo for a very long period of time. That is precisely one of the points being addressed by the interdepartmental group which is carrying out the study.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that the Dunblane tragedy was caused by the total failure of the existing police licensing system, one consequence of which has been the payment of over £160 million of taxpayers' money in compensation for all the pistols that have been handed in? Is the Minister aware that the national register, which is required under the Firearms Act, would make less likely another Dunblane or indeed Hungerford? Is he also aware that this was an amendment to the legislation by your Lordships' House which had all-party support, against, I may say, strong briefing from the Home Office? It is now 11 months since the Act has been in force and progress has been painfully slow.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, anyone who read that most valuable report by Lord Cullen on Dunblane would find it difficult to come to the simplistic conclusion that it was entirely attributable to the total failure of the licensing system, to use the noble Lord's phrase. In fact, I respectfully suggest that the noble Lord did a notable public service by insisting, most graciously, that Section 39 of the first Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1997 should become law, and indeed it did. On my understanding, it came into force on 1st October 1997, so, although the delay is regrettable, it is not as great as suggested. The Government see great virtue in such a register. I have indicated--I hope candidly--the necessary steps which need to follow before the register becomes fully operational, which is what the Government wish.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost of setting up a central register is unlikely to exceed half a million pounds, which is peanuts when set against the £160 million mentioned by my noble friend Lord Marlesford? In the light of that fact, will the Government now push ahead urgently with this important requirement?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the figure that has been given is generally accurate. The estimates that I have are between £300,000 and £500,000. As your Lordships know, every time I answer a Home Office question some Member of your Lordships' House will say, "This scheme is only half a million pounds and it is peanuts". However, half a million pounds may be peanuts; but it is a big bag of peanuts by the end of the year.
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