In the first quarter of 2003, we received a total of 16,000 asylum applications—a third fewer than in the previous quarter. During the same period, nearly 20,800 initial decisions were made on asylum applications, which is 6 per cent. more than in the previous quarter, and 24,600 appeals were decided—24 per cent. more than in the last quarter of 2002.
I thank the Minister for that reply. She will be aware that asylum applications made at Stranraer and Cairnryan in my constituency have spiralled tenfold in the last two years, yet there are still no permanent Home Office staff in place, in port, to deal with those applications from vulnerable asylum seekers who need help. Will she commit herself to looking once more at the opportunity provided by the combination of Stena Line and P&O in one port facility to put in place the infrastructure so that these asylum seekers are dealt with quickly and timeously and their applications progressed much more quickly than at present?
I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but I can tell him that it would not be an effective use of resources to have a permanent, fixed immigration post in small ports such as that to which he refers, which deal only with a common travel area. What is more effective is what we are doing: working jointly with the local police service and the Association of Chief Police Officers to have an intelligence-led approach.
The hon. Gentleman said that asylum applications have spiralled. Since January to March this year, four asylum applications have come through that port, which is a result of the measures that the Government have taken more generally to reduce asylum applications, not only in-country but at designated ports of entry throughout the UK.
Will my hon. Friend help me? I am truly bewildered about why the thousands of applicants for refugee or asylum status still awaiting a determination—after years not months—cannot be employed. It is a fact that all those people are working in what is known as the black economy. It would be much better if they were given conditional opportunities to work and pay tax rather than being a burden on the state and/or being under enormous financial pressure with their families. Why cannot they work while they are here?
As I think my hon. Friend knows, those people who made a claim before July last year, when we changed the rules on employment, can work. It is those who have claimed since July 2002 who cannot work unless their claim takes longer than six months. That is because it is clear, in terms of the number of unfounded applications that we have been getting, that many people are coming here and claiming asylum when what they really want to do is work. That is a significant pull factor. That is why we have taken away the right to work for new applicants.
I thought that I had Mr. Hughes down on the list. Perhaps I will get him some other time.
It is not often that we see a tongue-tied Liberal. Is the Minister still committed to the Prime Minister's pledge to look at our international obligations under the treaties that we have signed on asylum or is she committed to more qualified majority voting on asylum and immigration matters? Surely she cannot have both.
We have been round this course several times previously with the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends. What we have said on the treaties is clear: if that were to be necessary, we would do it. We do not think that it will be necessary, however, and we have made other proposals, which, on a multilateral basis, with other European countries, we think will be more effective. As for QMV, we have also made it clear that when it is in our interests to support that, we will do so, and asylum and immigration are matters on which it can help us achieve a better common policy across Europe, which is in our interests.
Is my hon. Friend aware that when the Home Affairs Committee visited the port of Dover last month we were hard-pressed to find a single asylum seeker to whom to speak? To what degree have asylum applications fallen in Dover and other Kent ports? To what does she attribute that dramatic reduction? Will she lend a word of praise to hard-working immigration officers on this side of the channel and in Calais who are helping to keep the numbers down?
I will write to my hon. Friend with the exact figures for Dover. As I said earlier, right across the board, in relation to both in-country claims and those at designated ports of entry, comparing the figures for March with last October, we have seen a 50 per cent. reduction in asylum claims. In respect of Dover, he is right that that is in no small measure due to the hard work of immigration officials on both sides of the channel. Indeed, from January to March this year, almost 1,400 people have been stopped from coming to the UK as a result of the detection equipment in Calais. I might say that we are trying to build on those measures by bringing forward powers to enable police and immigration officers to exercise immigration control on French soil. It is astonishing that when that was debated in Committee a fortnight ago, Conservative Members divided the Committee and voted against a practical measure that will succeed in bringing the figures down even more.
While the rapid processing of asylum claims is much to be welcomed, so too would we welcome the speedy removal of people whose applications for asylum have failed. It is estimated that since the Government came to power, some 250,000 failed asylum seekers who should have been removed have, in fact, remained here illegally. Will the Minister confirm that the Government actually intend to remove those failed asylum seekers? Does she believe that they will ever do that and, if so, when?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the Front Bench—it is a pleasure to see him there. As he well knows, while reducing the number of claims is an important priority, removing people who have come to the end of the road is equally important. The number of people we are removing is rising month on month. In March, 1,500 people were removed, which was an all-time high. Our policy of firm contact management—of retaining contact with people throughout the process, requiring them to report weekly and issuing asylum seekers with cards on which their fingerprints are marked—is part of our strategy to ensure that we remove more and more people. As he well knows, our figures are already much higher than those achieved by the Conservative Government in 1996, when 5,000 people were removed.
Does my hon. Friend accept that although speedy decision making for fresh asylum seekers is welcome, many people have been in the country for several years on whom no decision, let alone an initial decision, has yet been taken? What steps will she take to speed up those people's applications?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. He will know that there was an all-time high backlog of 120,000 applications several years ago. That figure has been reduced to 35,000, which is not much higher than the figure for work in progress, but it needs to be reduced further. Of course, as we reduce the number of claims every month, we are investing more resources to remove the backlog. I expect that the backlog will be no more than a reasonable number of cases representing work in progress by the end of the year.