Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Improving the Speed and Quality of Asylum Decisions (HC 837-I)

Public Accounts Committee 30 Jun 2004

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Evidence given by: Mr John Gieve CB, Permanent Under Secretary of State and Departmental Accounting Officer, Mr Bill Jeffrey, Director General, Immigration and Nationality Directorate, Home Office, Mr Ian Magee CB, Chief Executive Operations and Second Permanent Secretary and Mr Martin John, Director of Tribunal Operations, Department for Constitution Affairs.

Q18 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Figure 4 on page 13. Clearly the UK had the largest number of asylum seekers between 1999 and 2003, about 450,000. Why do they prefer to come to this country rather than, say, Italy or Spain? Why does nobody want to go to Portugal? We have a situation where half the population of Britain is trying to buy properties in Spain and no refugee wants to go there. Why is that?

Mr Gieve: First of all, as you will see, Italy does not count its asylum seekers in quite the same way as the rest. We have been attractive. I think there is a number of factors in that. Firstly, our economy has been doing extremely well, so there has been the prospect of work, especially in the South of England, which has not been true in many European countries. Secondly, there is the English language. Thirdly, we are a highly diverse international community.

Q19 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Benefits?

Mr Gieve: Possibly, lastly, because our asylum system has been a slow system. It is a very generous system and people have used it to stay during the process. I should say that since then, we have seen the biggest reduction of anywhere in Europe in the number of asylum claims, that is in the last year between 2003 and 2004.

Q20 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I would hope so. So many were applying to come in the first place. Why is Russia classed as unsafe now?

Mr Jeffrey: I do not know that Russia is classed as unsafe.

Q21 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): People are applying for political asylum.

Mr Jeffrey: The fact that people are applying from a country does not mean we regard it as unsafe. What I would say is that Figure 4 is very much a picture of the past; it is a picture of the period of years when entry into this country was at its absolute highest. What we have done in the last 12 or 18 months is to reduce the intake greatly through doing all sorts of things.

Q22 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The point I am trying to make is that we are accepting asylum applications from countries which clearly do not appear to be unsafe in the first place. Turkey wants to join the EU, does it not?

Mr Jeffrey: Yes.

Q23 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So why is it unsafe to live in Turkey?

Mr Jeffrey: I repeat what I said. The fact that we entertain applications does not mean that we regard the country as unsafe.

Q24 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): But we accept political asylum seekers from these countries. Why?

Mr Jeffrey: We have an obligation under the 1951 Convention on Refugees to consider claims of asylum which are put to us. Clearly some from nationals of some countries are weaker than others.

Q25 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So if somebody from France could apply for political asylum you would have to look at it.

Mr Jeffrey: Theoretically, but in relation to European Union countries there is a different set of processes.

Mr Gieve: We are not giving all these people political asylum. We are giving a very small proportion political asylum. The point you are making is that they are claiming asylum.

Q26 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Can I claim political asylum somewhere else?

Mr Gieve: Yes.

Q27 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): In Scotland? I cannot think who would want to go to Scotland, could you? I am surprised they do not come here looking for political asylum themselves. If you read this report, frankly the theme the Chairman was making is quite a reasonable theme. When I read the report it just seemed that there was a total lack of planning and anticipation and all you were doing was reacting all the time. You were just reacting to the situation. There was a huge rise in applications from 1999 and over 50% appealed against the original decision. Why does it appear that you were caught out in Figure 12 on page 26? Clearly you were just caught out in 2000 and 2001, were you not? Because you were caught out, the number of appeals determined then dropped dramatically. Why were you caught out? Why were you not prepared?

Mr Gieve: Actually this shows the number of appeals increased from year to year but, you are right, there were several factors in 1999. This Committee has done two reports about what happened in 1999. At that stage we were introducing a new IT system, which did not work as expected. We ran down our staff on the basis that it would.

Q28 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You expected IT to work? You were clearly a very optimistic man, were you not?

Mr Gieve: I am talking about the department rather than me, but nonetheless the department was caught out on a major IT case handling programme. At the same time, because of the Kosovo conflict, the number of asylum claims went up very, very rapidly. You are quite right, we had not seen that coming. You are saying that if an event happens we should have foreseen it. We try to foresee as many events as we can, we do lots of planning, but we were caught out on this occasion.

Q29 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): All right, you were caught out. Then if we turn the page to Figure 13, you set up courts to hear the appeals but again it just was not planned right, was it? You got it wrong again. Here you were, with 26 courts in Hatton Cross, but in North Shields you only had 10 courts.

Mr Gieve: What you are saying to me is that we should have the capacity to handle a surge of cases; we should have spare capacity.

Q30 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Yes. What I am saying is that you had spare capacity.

Mr Gieve: Now you are saying that we should not have spare capacity in North Shields.

Q31 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): No, I am not saying that at all. I am sorry, that is a typical civil servant. What I am saying is that you have spare capacity which is not being used, why do you not use that spare capacity. I have no objection at all to you having spare capacity, but then do not just sit on your backside and not use it.

Mr Magee: That is a matter for me to be responsible for rather than John. Actually the capacity is running overall at 83%. That compares favourably with a lot of the other jurisdictions which there are in the UK. The National Audit Office has drawn attention to four courts in particular and has said we should do better. The good news is that we are actually doing better and that, if you take the updated figures right to the middle of this year, we are now talking, for example in North Shields, about 67% usage rather than 50%, in Bradford 73%, Stoke 68% and Manchester 91%. How are we doing that? Partly learning lessons from elsewhere, partly by looking to combine jurisdictions, so for example in North Shields, the County Court work, which is quite different work, is being housed in the building which takes the asylum appeals. We are looking, on the contrary, to make the very best use of the capacity we have.

Q32 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I hope so. We are told in the report that there were 63,700 cases outstanding at the appeal stage: 15,500 awaiting an adjudicator; 11,700 awaiting determination by a tribunal. Here we are again with a lack of planning, because you must have envisaged this happening, but you have not done anything about it. When you do something about it, what happens? We read on the BBC News over the weekend - I just happened to be browsing - that about 25,000 properties rented by the government to house asylum seekers are empty because of lack of tenants which is costing us - it does not say, but it was quite a considerable amount I understand. So here you are, you get on top of a problem but then you have not planned for when you are getting on top of a problem because you have made ridiculous contracts with the people who own the properties. You still have to pay them even though the properties are empty. Lack of planning again, or are you a victim of your own success?

Mr Magee: There are two issues there. I shall deal with the first one, which is about the court room capacity and planning. As John Gieve said, in answer to a different question, some things were foreseen; with the best will in the world other increases which have caused problems for the system over the last few years people would have struggled to foresee, the impact of a Kosovo or whatever. On the contrary, with the expansion of court room capacity, the expansion of judiciary to deal with the appeals, the expansion by well over 100% of numbers of interpreters needed, a tribute needs to be paid to Martin John and his staff for the way they have dealt with what was a crisis at one time and the way they have tried to plan forward for the future.

Q33 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What about the houses?

Mr Gieve: When we set up NAS at the beginning in 2001, we were facing a crisis in housing people. We wanted to get them out of Dover and London and the South East. We were desperate for housing and we had to go on the open market and get it where we could. In negotiation, we obviously at that time had to choose between how much we paid on the spot market, like we do per bed for emergency accommodation, and how far we offered people the assurance of an income for several years, when you get it cheaper because they can count on it for a few years. At the moment we are a victim of our own success and we have reduced the asylum intake and backlogs by more than anyone expected a few years ago, but we are now working on re-negotiating those contracts in order to minimise the cost.

Q34 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): A victim of your success.

Mr Gieve: Do you think it is a success or not that asylum applications have come down? When the Prime Minister told us we had to halve the number of unfounded asylum applications, I thought that was a pretty stiff target and I think that I indeed did extremely well to do it.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Congratulations.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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