I shall do my best to assist. The hon. Gentleman will know of existing targets: the two plus four process featured prominently in debates on the 1999 Bill. I placed the percentage achievements on the record earlier. Currently, about 50 per cent. of applications had initial decisions served within two months. The target was 60 per cent. and we achieved almost 50 per cent. About 45 per cent. of appeals now get through both tiers of the Immigration Appellate Authority in four months. That is the other element in the two plus four process—hence the six-month period.
One of the key objectives will be to increase the number of appeals that can be dealt with in the six-month period. However, we shall want to assess the trials and consider the potential for increasing speed and effectiveness. We will also have the new induction centres and the reporting requirements for those who are dispersed and not in accommodation centres, and we will pay close attention to whether we can increase the speed and efficiency of the asylum process. Once the trials are complete, we will be in a better position to consider how to tighten the two plus four targets. We will also be open about that.
In the past few years, processing times have significantly improved, despite a huge increase in the number of claims for asylum. In April 1997, the average length of time between application and initial decision was 20 months. In December 2001—the last date for which we have audited figures—that was down to 13 months, which includes the backlog. When a backlog case is resolved, the average time goes up, as the case has been around for some time. I ask hon. Members to consider that. That is an improvement, despite the fact that, between 1996 and 2001, there was a 142 per cent. increase in asylum applications. The number of initial decisions has increased from 38,960 in 1996 to 118,195 by 2001—a 203 per cent. increase in four years. Appeals have increased by 101 per cent. from 22,985 in 1996 to 46,190 in 2000. Removals of asylum seekers have increased by 93 per cent. from 4,820 in 1996 to 9,285 in 2001. Those latest figures are significantly higher, despite the fact that there have been many more asylum claims.
I am the first to recognise that we still have much to achieve in our handling of individual cases. I want the Committee to recognise that many people are working hard under difficult circumstances, and have effected improvements. That does not mean that every case is dealt with as effectively and efficiently as it could be. Members of the Committee see many of the cases that are not dealt with in the most effective and appropriate way. However, some are dealt with effectively and appropriately, and we will continue to try to improve our methods for dealing with cases by legislative change and to slim down the appeal processes.
Simon Hughes: I accept and am grateful for that. I pay tribute to those who deal with Members' hotline cases, especially staff in the Minister's offices who are always courteous and helpful, as are many others in the immigration and nationality directorate. Will the Minister add one last statistic, so that we can pool all the statistics in one debate? How many caseworkers and those dealing with appeals were employed in 1997, and how many are employed now? I know that the numbers have increased. Do the Government plan to recruit more? It always seems to be a failure of the system that there are insufficient numbers of people to do the work.