What the expected waiting time is for an asylum seeker to hear whether an application has been successful. 
The targets that we set for reducing the time taken for decisions on asylum claims have so far been met, and most new applicants can now expect to receive an initial decision within two months. The latest period for which there are confirmed statistics is April to September 2002, when 76 per cent. of new substantive applications received initial decisions within two months.
That is, indeed, welcome news, but will my hon. Friend consider ways of improving the flow of information to asylum seekers about the progress of their application? I am sure that she is aware that at present many asylum seekers find that their only source of information is their local MP. That puts a heavy burden on many hon. Members, who have a heavy asylum work load.
I am well aware that many asylum seekers want to use their MP—I have signed a large number of such letters today, as 1 do every week. I understand the pressure that that creates on Members of Parliament. There is an issue for some of the representatives and solicitors of asylum seekers, and the commissioner is looking into the effectiveness of all the people who undertake that duty. Some of the solicitors and representatives are not keeping people fully informed. The inspector of prisons raised that issue recently in relation to people in detention. I am actively seeking to ensure that we provide a good flow of information for people in the detained estate.
Does the Minister accept that the best way of ensuring not just a rapid initial application, but a rapid full process, with deportation for those who fail, is by means of an overseas centre? Will she confirm the reply that she appeared to give me four weeks ago, that the kind of overseas centre that the Government have in mind would consider only applications from abroad, and not from the very large numbers of people still arriving in this country?
As I said earlier, we are considering in detail which asylum seekers who claimed in-country should be transported to a transit processing centre abroad. That is one of the potential benefits of the scheme, but it would not necessarily be the most efficient way of processing every single application. We have already made great progress with, for instance, non-suspensive appeals and the safe country list, which have enabled us to deal quickly with people in those categories. It might not make sense to transport those people; it might make sense to keep them in this country, continue to process them quickly and remove them, as we are doing for those categories.The biggest obstacle to making sure that we have an end-to-end view of a cohort of people and how long each stage is taking has been the lack of a good computer system. The hon. Gentleman may remember that the Conservative Government's promise to deliver such a system failed and led to some of the problems that we now face.
Can the Minister help with a particular problem that has emerged? Quite often, a successful asylum applicant's solicitor or representative gets a notice stating that they are to be granted indefinite leave to remain. At that point, the National Asylum Support Service withdraws support and the asylum applicant loses housing benefit and any other financial benefit, yet there seems to be a succession of inordinate delays before the status letter is sent out. Thus, successful asylum applicants end up in penury, awaiting a simple letter that will enable them to get benefits, work and somewhere to live. That is causing enormous hardship to a number of successful applicants. Can the Minister do something about it?
I accept that, as my hon. Friend says, that has been a problem in some cases. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to find ways of speeding up the process in all cases. It is not an overwhelmingly large problem, but I am aware that it has existed, and I agree that in all cases we must be quicker in getting those status letters out.
Does the Minister accept that the time taken to process and notify applicants is a direct function of the number of them? Is the Prime Minister's pledge to halve the number of asylum seekers by September to be believed? If it is, precisely what impact does the Minister expect that to have on the time taken to process and notify applicants? Will she confirm that the last time the number of asylum seekers was half the level at which it was in September—her baseline figure—the cost was barely more than half the present cost? In other words, the Government will be spending close to £1 billion less if they meet the Prime Minister's targets already announced.
First, clearly, the total volume of the intake of new claims is a significant determinant of how we can manage all stages of the process: initial decisions, appeals and the money required to support people during the process. That is why our top priority, in addition to removing people, is to reduce the intake. On the hon. Gentleman's specific question about our commitment to reduce that to half by September, I can tell him that it is to be believed. I have every reason to believe that we will achieve it with what we have put in place already, let alone measures that are to come on line. That will have significant implications on the amount that we must spend on the whole system.