“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations providing for—
(a) a six month time limit for determining applications for asylum; and
(b) an officer of Director level or above to be required to write to the Home Secretary a letter of explanation on a quarterly basis in the event of any failure to meet the six month time limit.
(2) The Secretary of State must report to Parliament any failure to meet the six month time limit.”—
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This new clause could be a silver bullet to solve a lot of the ills in the immigration and asylum system. We believe that, were it to be adopted, it would have many beneficial social and financial effects. It would obviate the need for some of the other clauses we have proposed, such as lifting the ban on working. The new clause would undo a host of negative consequences that arise because of the current endemic delays in the asylum system, which are creating huge social and financial costs.
During the course of this Committee, we have heard testimony from people trapped inside the system for years. We have heard about the toll on mental health and the re-traumatising of people who have fled abuse and torture. We have heard about the way in which being trapped in limbo prevents integration and how being banned from working enforces poverty. None of these negative effects would exist if our six-month time limit for processing cases were adopted. Furthermore, costs to the taxpayer, such as those currently spent on long-term accommodation and subsistence benefits, would all be hugely reduced.
Let us not be under any illusion: the current asylum system is broken. According to the House of Commons Library, as of June 2021 the total “work in progress” asylum case load consisted of 125,000 cases—57,000 of those were awaiting an initial decision at the end of 2020.
I was in Dover yesterday, where I spoke to people from Border Force about the situation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with them, and with me, that one big issue putting pressure on the system is that tens of thousands of illegal economic migrants are crossing the English channel right now? That is leading to our having to speed up and process people as quickly as possible, while not having the facilities available in detention centres. We are therefore having to use hotels, which is taking up a huge amount of taxpayers’ money. That is where the real strain is. This Bill, which Border Force backs, will go a long way towards helping, as we are going to a six-month process with a one-time appeal, rather than multiple appeals, which are currently being exploited by certain lawyers.
There is so much to respond to in that. I question the hon. Gentleman’s facts first of all, but clearly we are talking about the situation as it is now, which has been built up over the past decade, and not as he would like it to be. In any event, I disagree about what this Bill does. It does not solve the problem; it keeps people here for longer.
As I was saying, what is masked by these numbers are the hundreds of people who have waited nearly 10 years or more for a decision on their asylum claims, left in limbo while they wait for an answer. In August, a freedom of information request from The Independent newspaper revealed that there were more than 1,200 asylum seekers in the system who had been waiting more than five years for a decision, with 399 people who had been waiting more than a decade. Separate figures obtained by the Refugee Council through an FOI request earlier this year revealed that the number of applicants waiting for more than a year for an initial decision, not including appeals, increased almost tenfold between 2010 and 2020, from 3,588 to 33,016. More than 250 people had been waiting for five years or more for an initial decision on their case, with dozens of children among them. As of December 2020, 36,725 asylum seekers had been waiting more than a year for a decision.
Those kinds of figures just smack of a broken system. Having tens of thousands of people waiting for more than a year for an initial decision is just totally unacceptable. I am sure that most MPs can think of asylum cases they have been dealing with that have stretched on and on, sometimes for years. I can cite the case of a constituent—I shall call them F—who came to the UK from Afghanistan as a child and applied for asylum in August 2013. It took seven and a half years, and my involvement as his MP, for the matter to be resolved in February this year. It really should not take an MP’s involvement to reach such a conclusion.
The human cost to people’s mental health and the cost to the taxpayer of these endemic delays in the system is high. We know that people in the asylum system become increasingly mentally unwell as the years of uncertainty, trauma and demonisation erode their mental and physical health. The Refugee Council reported earlier this year that this has led to an increase in the numbers of individuals self-harming and reporting suicidal thoughts. The Children’s Society report “Distress Signals” also outlined serious concerns about the damage done to children’s mental health in those conditions— this is damage done at a formative age that will last a lifetime.
Beyond the human cost of these delays is the financial cost. The backlog adds considerably to the overall cost of the asylum process. The Refugee Council has calculated that for every month of delay the additional cost to the Home Office per person is at least £730.41, equating to £8,765 per year. The delays make absolutely no financial sense. Not only that, but on the Home Office’s own figures more people are being employed but they are processing fewer cases. Paying more for less productivity is not acceptable. If this was a business, it would go bust.
A commitment to a six-month target as set out in the new clause would therefore save a huge amount of money to the Treasury and taxpayers, improve the mental health of those caught in the system, and help with integration.
I have been clear throughout Committee proceedings that the Government are committed to overhauling the current asylum system, which is obviously broken and in critical need of reform. The number of non-straightforward cases awaiting a decision has grown rapidly, meaning that in October 2018 it became clear to us that the service standard of six months from the date of claim no longer best served those who used our services. For those reasons, former Ministers agreed that we should move away from the service standard.
Although I cannot accept the new clause, as we consider it too restrictive, Members will have detected from what I have said throughout the proceedings that we want to see the faster processing of cases. I entirely recognise the shadow Minister’s point on the financial costs of delay, and the impact on individuals of delay. That is why I and my ministerial colleagues want cases to be dealt with more speedily. That is, of course, the right objective to be working towards. We are working to reintroduce a service standard that will align with changes brought about by the new plan for immigration. I encourage the shadow Minister to withdraw the new clause.