How many persons in the UK are awaiting decisions on asylum applications; and what the average waiting time was for such decisions in the last 12 months.
At the end of December 2003, the number of asylum applications awaiting an initial decision had fallen to 24,500—the lowest level for a decade. Of those applications, 7,100 were normal work in progress cases, where the application had been outstanding for six months or less. We are determined to reduce the number of applications outstanding to normal work in progress levels and, at current intake and output levels, we expect to do so during the course of this year.
The average time between application and initial decision was 10 months for initial decisions made in 2003, reflecting the fact that we are now working through proportionately more of the longer-standing cases, but that still compares favourably with the average of 20 months in April 1997. Some 80 per cent. of asylum applications received in the period April to September 2003 had initial decisions reached and served within two months.
I thank the Minister for that detailed reply, but is she aware of the concern about the time taken to remove asylum seekers after all their appeals have been rejected? Can she give us any assurance that progress is being made in that direction?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question because he is right to say that removing people at the end of the process is not only important in its own right, but deters people from coming in and making unfounded applications. We saw that with the non-suspensive appeals process, which involved a dramatic reduction in intake as a result of being able to remove people very quickly. Removals are up this year at 17,000—an increase of 23 per cent. on the previous year—but we need to do more. We need to unlock some of the existing barriers, particularly around redocumentation and preventing people from delaying the final stage of the process with successive appeals. I hope that he will be able to persuade some of his Opposition colleagues to support the measures that we have included in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill because they are essential if we are to do what he rightly suggests, which is to remove those barriers and remove more people.
Is it not the case that the pressure on decision making will reduce as the number of new applicants reduces? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of new applicants coming through Dover, for instance, and the south-east has reduced by two thirds or more in the past 12 months, to the extent that the asylum estate has reduced significantly just in the past month, but is she also aware that section 55 still causes some problems on the margin? Will she look again at that problem?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has seen the impact in Dover of the measures that we have successfully taken to reduce the number of unfounded claims. The monthly reduction in intake is now getting on for 60 per cent. That allows us to use the resources that previously had to be invested on large numbers of initial claims on taking decisions on long-standing claims and on dealing with other elements of the system.
I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern about section 55. He will know that, towards the end of last year, the Home Secretary announced a new approach to the section. As a result, the number of grants of support is increasing. However, it is also important that Members accept that we have to take a reasonably tough stance when we think that people are coming here and claiming asylum when they are not genuine refugees and that one of the reasons behind that is that they can be supported through the process.
I made it clear in my statement of
Did my right hon. Friend really say that the average waiting time has fallen from 20 months to two months—a 10-times reduction? Can she tell me who the Home Secretary was in April 1997, and does she agree that everyone on both sides of the House who now supports fighting racist parties and the British National party should put the asylum debate in context and present a balanced case based on the evidence and information rather than scare stories and gimmicks?
In reporting the average time now, I could not give total credence to the progress that we have made. In fact, last year when we were concentrating on newer cases, the average time was six months. It has gone up to 10 months this year because, as I said, we can now invest more resources in going through the longer-standing cases. Therefore, the average has risen temporarily. However, my hon. Friend is right. In April 1997, the number of outstanding cases was 54,500 compared with 24,500 now, and the average waiting time was 20 months, which is getting on for two years, for an initial decision. The Home Secretary at that time was the leader of the Conservative party, Mr. Howard.
Leaving aside the debate about such issues, my hon. Friend is right in his broader point. Unless we are able both within and between our parties to have a sensible debate about migration and unless political parties and politicians do not use this issue as a covert screen for racism and fuelling people's fear about foreign nationals, we will not be able to identify properly for people the enormous benefits that migrants bring to our economy and the social fabric of this society.
Last week, Lord Falconer was forced to admit that, after seven years of this Labour Government, the average time lapse between a Home Office initial decision on asylum and an appeal hearing before an adjudicator is 17 weeks. Who is to blame for that extraordinary delay? Is it not one more example of this Government's sheer inefficiency in managing the asylum system?
Although we want to go further, that 17 weeks has come down considerably from the time that it took under the Conservative Administration. In fact, we have put a great deal more resources into appeals. We can now send 3,500 asylum appeals, 3,000 entry clearance appeals and 600 non-asylum appeals to the adjudicators every single month. That is not only bringing down the number of outstanding cases that the adjudicators need to consider, but bringing down the waiting time, month on month. We will get to the point at which the whole process will take six months or less from the initial claim to the final outcome. That will happen if the Conservative party supports the Government in their efforts to reduce abuse of the appeal system and the way in which people can go back time after time after time to frustrate their removal.