§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Lord Brougham and Vaux asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ By what means the number of asylum applications is to be reduced by half by September.
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, we have put in place a comprehensive and radical reform package set out in the White Paper and legislated for in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act. These measures are complemented by our achievements in securing the Channel Tunnel, closing the Sangatte camp and moving immigration controls to the French coast.
All those measures, and others that we have announced recently, are now starting to take effect, and we are monitoring closely their cumulative impact to build over the coming months. We will continue to review whether further measures are needed to produce the reduction in asylum applications that we are seeking.
§ Lord Brougham and Vaux
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Can he confirm that, last year, about 82,000 asylum seekers who were granted refugee status simply disappeared from view? Can he tell us how many of those were unaccompanied children? Does the Home Secretary agree with the Prime Minister's statement that the goal of reducing asylum applications by half by September is achievable?
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, that was three questions in one hit. It is certainly not the case that 82,000 asylum seekers disappeared last year. From recollection—although I shall check and write to the noble Lord—something of that order applied, but that number did not disappear. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are absolutely at one with regard to our goals for reducing the number of asylum applications. They could not be clearer or more committed to seeking by any proper means to reduce the numbers applying to one half by September. We are straining every sinew in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to achieve that goal. I should be delighted, if required, to set out the mechanisms by which we are doing that.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, can the Minister give us any good news as to progress on reducing the applications backlog and on improving the quality of first decisions—two subjects which we discussed at length during passage of the recent Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill?
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, the progress which is most impressive is the increasing speed with which initial decisions on new applications are being made. For good reason, the central focus is on that. We are seeking to deal with the initial application of those coming into the country by whatever means and making an asylum claim, and to give them an initial determination within two months at the maximum. 671 When I last looked at the figures, well over 75 per cent of all such cases were given an initial decision within two months. The speed of appeals has also been improving significantly as resources have been strengthened in the immigration appeal authority. It is crucial to deal rapidly with applications so that those found not to have a valid claim can be removed at the earliest opportunity.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord is going to refer at all to the target of reducing applications by one half to which my noble friend's original Question refers.
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, this is the second time in two weeks that I thought I had answered a question but the answer appears not to have been heard. I made it absolutely clear that both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are at one in seeking to achieve that goal.
I take this opportunity to set out in more detail what we are doing to achieve the goal. First, we are looking at a whole range of measures to harden entry. The Channel port of Calais has now been hardened so that it is much more difficult for clandestines to enter. Since December 2002, we have had the capability for 100 per cent freight screening at Calais. From April 2003, we are putting heartbeat-detection equipment at other high-risk ports. From May 2003, we will put heartbeat-detection at medium-risk ports. From February 2003, we will have Passive Millimetric Wave Imager—would you believe it—rolled out at high-risk ports. Consequently, we are already seeing a significant reduction in the number of clandestines found at Dover. We have also signed a memorandum of undertaking with the Belgian authorities to strengthen entry controls at the Belgian ports. We are in early discussions with the Dutch about implementing a similar process. We have put in place a whole range of measures to reduce the attractiveness of this country, including providing for the fast-track removal of those with no valid claim who have come from a safe authority.
I apologise to the House for the length of that answer, but I thought it important to put those matters on the record.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, does not the Minister realise that he has still ducked the Question? Do the Government still aim to reduce the number of asylum applications by half by September?
§ Lord Rotherwick
My Lords, does the noble Lord expect that some of these asylum applications will end up as work permits? How many more work permits does he expect to be issued in the coming year?
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, any asylum seeker coming in will not qualify for a work permit. If he were found to be qualified as an asylum seeker and was granted the tight of entry—in other words, ELR and ILR—he would have the right to work. Others, such as those from Poland or 672 other accession countries, would be able to enter from accession. Others, on seasonal migration work, would be able to get work permits. There would be no point in their applying for asylum if they got here under work permit mechanisms to get work.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the degree of scepticism around the Chamber derives from the fact that the Home Secretary is uncertain about whether the goal can be achieved whereas the Prime Minister has pledged that it will be achieved? Will the Minister give the House an assurance today that there will be no redefinition of "asylum seeking", as there was when Sangatte was closed and asylum seekers were no longer asylum seekers but were simply given permits to work in this country?
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, I think that our record on not changing definitions or statistics to massage the result is good and clean and bears comparison with any other government on whom I would care to reflect. As for the position between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, I am not being obtuse. I do not think that the position could be clearer. Reaching the target of a reduction by one half by September will be challenging, but there is a commitment by both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to do everything we possibly can to get there, and so there should be.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I should declare an interest since my wife is an immigration and asylum adjudicator. However, I speak for myself rather than what she tells me about her experience. Does the Minister agree that two practical issues need to be addressed in addition to attempts to control the quantity of asylum seekers as he has indicated? First, as the noble Lord. Lord Hylton, said, is it not important not only that there be speedy initial interviews and determinations, but that those interviews are of the highest quality so that one does not simply pass the problem up the chain to the appeals system? Secondly, when an adjudicator has made what are often difficult, life and death decisions, is it not also important that those who fail as asylum seekers really are removed from the country?
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on those points. I regret that I did not answer the second question from the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. He is also right that the quality of initial decisions is absolutely crucial. That is one of the issues that IND has in its work programme to strengthen—as we said when we discussed the Bill—the quality of those initial decisions. These issues will interconnect if we are to succeed, as we intend to do, in very substantially reducing the numbers. It allows the organisation more capacity to manage its processes and to get on top of them, which is very much to be desired. That would include, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, signals, much greater success in removing those with no right to remain here. We are making progress in this respect. The numbers are significantly higher this year, but we want to go much further. That is essential for deterrence.