- An independent inspector shall be appointed after consultation with relevant organisations—
- (a) to report annually on the quality of decision-making in asylum cases;
- (b) to lay that report before Parliament.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, if the Government were to accept this amendment, it would mean an extraordinary change of heart and philosophy on their part. The amendment seeks to draw attention to what we have criticised throughout the passage of the Bill as the basic error in its philosophy; namely, that the Government seem to think they can best improve the immigration system by a sanction here and a withdrawal of benefit or of the right to appeal there, and a toughening up further down the process. We on these Benches have continually drawn attention to the quite extraordinary failure at the first stage that has produced these large numbers of often successful appeals.
§ In the past we have drawn attention to examples such as Canada, where the issue is approached differently, and there is much better first testing of cases, so that that the subsequent problems that apply in our case do not apply in theirs. We have referred to the junior quality of some of the Home Office officials who appear at first stage, and to the astonishing fact that sometimes there are no such officials at all. We do not have the highest expectations, but we do hope the Minister will use this opportunity to say that the Government recognise that the first stage of asylum applications is a substantial part of the problem this Bill is trying to address. With this amendment we are trying to introduce a suggestion for quality control, which would ensure that the first stage was treated efficiently and properly, and dealt with by a high quality person. We believe if we did, and if we set that as a mark, some of the other measures in this Bill would simply prove unnecessary because the right decisions would be made first time. I beg to move.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, the only observation I was going to make was that my noble friend Lord Attlee reminded us that we are on Third Reading. It would be appropriate to remind your Lordships that the amendment has not actually been moved.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, I wonder if we are in the throes of a coup. The Conservatives seem to be intent on running business today. Perhaps the mood will pass eventually, as it may be several decades before they have the opportunity to do so again.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I apologise for having been half a minute too late to move Amendment No. 2. However, I had been satisfied by correspondence with the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, and I would only have moved it formally.
I wholeheartedly support Amendment No. 3, because throughout the whole of the proceedings on the previous Bill, at the Second Reading of this one, and at one or two stages since then, I have tried to stress the vital importance of the quality of the first decision in all refugee and asylum cases. If this 674 amendment were approved it would be a mechanism for ensuring that we get a better quality of such decisions.
§ The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for reminding the House that at Third Reading a "Thought for the Day" rather than a sermon is appropriate at this stage. However, I think the atmosphere this afternoon indicates a certain amount of creative agnosticism about the details of much of this Bill and whether it is actually necessary. I know that feeling is not shared by the Government, but none the less it resonates in this House. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically on the spirit of the amendment, even if we cannot vote on it. The amendment will send out a signal that there is a safeguard and that the Government are not appearing to be too heavy-handed, especially as some of us think that reducing the number of asylum seekers worldwide is not as necessary as people sometimes make it out to be.
§ Baroness Anelay of St Johns
My Lords, I shall be brief. Of course, like all noble Lords around the House, we have also been concerned about the problem of too low a quality of decision making at first instance. I include the Government in that, because we have all been trying to take the quality further forward; that serves everybody well, and nobody benefits if things go wrong and the whole system gets clogged up as it has done. I was intrigued when I saw the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, appear yesterday and the approach that it takes. I reflected on our Amendment No. 35, which was published last week and will be moved by my noble friend Lord Kingsland later—I am tempted to say rather much later—today. That amendment adopts a different approach, but with the same objective of trying to ensure that the Home Office is held to account to improve both decision making and the timeframe within which the decisions are made. I am going to reserve our firepower until we get to our preferred mode of approach at Amendment No. 35.
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, I am not the bringer of joy and good tidings. I was not here before 2001, but I often wonder what the debates were like when I was struggling with my constituency before 1997, when there was no decision at all, let alone a high or low quality decision, and the system was in chaos. I sometimes think there is an underlying resentment of the fact that these days almost 80 per cent of first decisions are made within two months. To have no decision, or to have them dragged out for months and years, served the racketeers and vested interests out there that ran the industry. There has been a dramatic change in the past few years in getting speedy decisions for people. They are not all perfect; nobody denies that. Nor do we resent the fact—indeed, we are quite happy—that at various stages we have external monitors.
I can go through the training programmes of the people making the decisions, if need be. We do not take them off the streets and put them to work making 675 decisions straightaway; far from it. However, we are making decisions. It serves the interests of justice, and of the whole asylum system, to have speedy decisions. In some ways, that little catalogue read out at the beginning by the noble Lord, Lord McNally—"a bit of this, a bit of that"—yes; collectively, that approach has halved asylum applications. I am not saying that is a very sophisticated answer, but the fact of the matter is that it has sent the right signal, the various changes reacting proportionately to events as we found them.
This is not the first time the matter of decision making has been raised, and I am certainly not claiming that all decisions are perfect. Clearly, the appeals process shows they are not. In terms of seeking the appointment of an independent inspector to assess the quality of initial decision making, I assure the House that we are committed to making high quality decisions.
We have introduced a range of measures to improve further the quality of the decisions we take. These cover, for example, work on identifying the right candidates for asylum casework—we do not take anyone looking at additional ways of strengthening our training and development of caseworkers, having samples of asylum decisions quality assured by senior caseworkers and external assessors, extending the feedback we obtain from appeal decisions and doing further work on the country information products and instructions that we issue.
While we consider the quality of initial decisions to be good, we accept that more could be done and we are taking active steps in this area. In taking forward this work, we are keen to involve outside help as appropriate, as we are doing, for example, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In some fields of immigration work we have seen the merits of having an independent body or person appointed to provide recommendations to the Secretary of State. For example, we have a monitor for entry clearance work and we recently appointed an independent monitor to see how the non-suspensive appeal powers in the 2002 Act are being used. We have also established the independent Advisory Panel on Country Information to help us to ensure that we produce information of the highest standard about various countries.
So where appropriate, we will consider appointing external people to oversee that work in the Home Office. On the wider issue of quality decision making, we consider that the work we have in hand to build on the existing good level of decision making is the right way forward. We do not think it necessary or desirable to appoint an inspector as proposed in this amendment.
I happily re-state the Government's commitment to high quality decision making. It does not serve anyone if there is poor quality decision making by people who are untrained, unskilled and whose work is not even quality assessed—and that is not the case. The existence of published targets on producing "fully effective" decision letters and the involvement of outside bodies to aid our training programmes and 676 assist in the assessment of our performance shows that we are not afraid to have an external light shone on what we do. But in this case we do not see that an independent monitor would add any value.
The second part of the amendment is misconceived—first, because we are satisfied that the quality of decision making is of a good standard already, although it is capable of improvement; and, secondly, because the new appeal structure set out in the Bill will provide an independent robust means for challenging adverse decisions. The implication seems to be that the appeal structure provided for in the Bill will not be suitable for dealing with the current portfolio of asylum appeals coming its way. There is no basis for that implication and it is not one we can accept.
We have travelled an enormous distance in the past few years in improving the quality of both the people working on asylum casework and the speed of the decisions. That is important. However, they have to be fair and good decisions. Speed is not the over-riding factor, but it was the case when no decisions were being taken. I used to say to my constituents, "Don't ask me to chase them up. Let sleeping dogs lie". They could continue for three or four years. The system was in absolute chaos. That is no way to run a fair system and it was exploited and abused, certainly by advisers who had a vested interest in spinning things out. So improving the speed is fine. We can certainly improve the quality, but at this point in time we do not need an external independent assessor on this part of the process. However, I accept that there is independent monitoring in other parts of the immigration and asylum process, so we are not opposed to that per se.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, it is always a delight to hear a Rooker reply because it is always in three movements. The noble Lord comes out swinging punches at anyone who is available. Then he attacks the Tories. After that the noble Lord feels much better and then gives us some facts to chew over. That response was a perfect example.
I have watched the progress of this issue since I entered the House nearly 10 years ago and I have seen Ministers from both sides trying to grapple with the Rubic cube that is immigration and asylum policy. I am sure that when the day comes—which is perhaps not far off—"that a Liberal Democrat is at that Dispatch Box, he or she will be agonising over the same problem. The main point is that whatever has happened in the past the message is that we must do better: we must raise quality and look at best practice in other countries; for example, if the Canadians have a system that seems to work better than ours, we should have a look at it to see if could be applied here.
However, I appreciate the constructive nature of the Minister's third movement and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.677
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ After Clause 8, insert the following new clause—