The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal did accrue a sizeable backlog between April and October 2005, which has caused delays in some appeals. We expect all those appeals to have been heard by the end of the year.
I thank the Minister for her answer, and for a letter that she sent me earlier in the week. Does she agree that part of the problem lies outside the AIT—in some embassies’ delays in sending information and in the quality of judgment elsewhere, which the Court of Appeal then reverses? What steps can she take to ensure that information is given to the tribunal speedily so that it can set a date, and also to ensure that decisions made elsewhere do not necessitate the hearing of appeals?
I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I can tell him two things. First, last month we began trying to streamline the entry clearance process. We hope that that will reduce the period that elapses between bundles being received and being sent out by seven weeks, which I believe would make a substantial difference. Secondly, it is expected that 100 new judges will be recruited this year. That will also help to reduce waiting times.
I intend to visit some of our high commissions to see what problems entry clearance officers face, and to establish whether we can take direct action to improve their procedures.
I appreciate the enormous efforts that the Minister has made personally to deal with the backlog at the AIT, but the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) is right. Part of the problem is the decision-making process in posts abroad—I welcome the Minister’s proposed visit to the subcontinent—but there is also the fact that documents are being lodged at Loughborough and Leicester, photocopied, sent back to the posts abroad and then returned. That means a 56-day period at the beginning of the process which adds to the delay.
Will the Minister undertake to examine the appeal process and ensure that it is revised so that cases, once lodged, can be dealt with as quickly as possible? Then constituents of ours who want to attend weddings here will be able to do so, and the appeal process will not be taking place when the wedding has already happened.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment to the Privy Council. He is right, in that the system he describes has existed in the past; but we are trying to persuade posts abroad to stop engaging in the lengthy photocopying procedure and to use slightly more modern techniques such as e-mail so that the information reaches us more quickly. The listing times for entry clearance and family visitor appeals currently average 11 weeks across the AIT, which is down from the 16 weeks that it was earlier this year.
The Minister’s replies to the previous two questions were helpful, but if appeals are submitted at foreign missions, they can take only six weeks—and that is good. Can she direct that such times should also be achieved if appeals are submitted here in London? On some occasions, the tribunal has allowed entry clearance officers to take 11 weeks or even up to 17 weeks just to get their papers ready. That means that the service can be up to three times worse. If an appeal is successful, but the Home Office wants to challenge it, can it be required to do so promptly, not six or nine months later? That sort of delay is disgraceful.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and I understand the problem as I, too, have many constituents making such appeals. We are continually looking for ways to reduce the time taken, and he will know that I have held forums with MPs to discuss some ideas, many of which have now been incorporated in the system. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality will visit the tribunal here in Britain and I hope that, through co-operation, we will be able to achieve a better standard across the piece.