Our aim is to maintain good community cohesion when dispersing asylum seekers, and the arrangements for placing asylum seekers within regions are now considered on a regular basis by a range of stakeholders.
I thank the Minister for that answer. We all know that, until April, it was the deliberate policy of the Home Office to ghettoise asylum seekers by means of the regional language list, to the cost of many areas including my own constituency. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the regional language list on assisting failed asylum seekers to avoid deportation?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the language list is no longer in operation. There are 11 dispersal regions around the country and, within those regions, about 60 different dispersal areas. Since 1999, when the Home Secretary took over responsibility for the support of asylum seekers from local authorities, it has become more and more important that decisions about dispersal between the different areas reflect the views of the local authorities in particular, but also of the police, the national health service and voluntary groups. That is exactly why those groups are in place. We will of course keep under review the way in which they work, but they represent a major step forward.
The answer is quite simple: it is important that a range of criteria be taken into account. Since 1999, when the Immigration and Asylum Act was passed, a particular premium was placed on the availability of accommodation, but other issues have to be taken into account, including the presence of other migrant communities and the availability of services. The various interested parties should therefore consider a range of factors when weighing up these decisions.
No matter what difficulties are involved with dispersal, they are as nothing compared with the difficulties that were being stored up before 1999 in places such as Dover, before we had a policy of dispersal. Is it not a fact that, as the number of new asylum seekers is reduced, so are the difficulties of dispersal?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This issue is now much easier to address because the number of asylum applicants last year was 20 per cent. lower than in 1997, and in the first quarter of this year, the number of removals hit a record high. None of that has happened by accident. It has happened because we have pushed the right legislative measures through the House, and put through the right level of resources—both of which were opposed by some Members on different sides of the House.
May I refer my hon. Friend to the case of Mustafa Ismail, as asylum seeker who was convicted of attempted rape and who escaped from custody while being moved from Preston Crown court to a tribunal hearing in Manchester? I do not expect my hon. Friend to comment on the details of the case, but will he cause an inquiry to be held into the circumstances of the escape? Will he specifically ask why 24 hours elapsed before the public were allowed to know that the man, whom the police described as too dangerous to approach, had escaped?
I know that the House will forgive me if I do not comment in detail on the individual case that my hon. Friend has raised. This issue has been flagged up to me, however, and it is a matter of some concern. If my hon. Friend will permit me, I will write back to him with further details, once I am satisfied of them.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, since the phasing out of embarkation controls was undertaken in 1994, it has been difficult to determine precisely how many people have left the country. That is why we have to introduce plans to count everyone in and out of the country, and why we will persist with a tough but fair enforcement of the rules. I know that the Conservatives have either voted against or abstained from voting on key measures that we have put through, although I understand that their Front Bench is now developing a new philosophy on immigration that stands in marked contrast to the one that they put forward in 2005. I hope that they will now support some of the measures that we will propose in the coming months.
The best way to reduce the number of asylum seekers who are dispersed around the country is to ensure that the process of dealing with their applications is as speedy and efficient as possible. Since taking on his new responsibilities, the Minister has said that he wants to improve the situation at the immigration and nationality directorate. Bearing that in mind, will he tell the House what immediate steps he has taken to ensure that those applications are being processed, so that my constituents—and those of other right hon. and hon. Members—do not have to wait months or even years for a reply from the Home Office?
My hon. Friend will know that we have embarked on the roll-out of the new asylum model in many parts of the country, which will dramatically accelerate the pace at which decisions are made. That roll-out will be as rapid as possible, as the model is much more effective. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will have a great deal more to say on that in the coming days.
If and when the Government come forward with sensible proposals on immigration, we would be happy to back them. Sadly, those opportunities have been pretty thin on the ground in recent years. The Minister is trying to evade the problem—as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) said, the Government’s policy until April was to concentrate specific national groups of asylum seekers in certain towns, without proper local consultation. That policy could have been designed to cause unnecessary tension. Can he now assure the House that the new policy will mean genuine dispersal? Any repeat of the previous failure means that he runs the risk of deliberately creating new ghettos, which would be a disaster for both the asylum seekers and the host communities.
I welcome the positive spirit in which the hon. Gentleman has engaged in the debate. As I have said, it is right that decisions on dispersal between the 60-odd areas around the country are informed systematically by the views of local authorities, such as Peterborough city council, which, for example, has decided not to renew its contract for providing support. It is also important that the health service and police have a role in those decisions being taken in the right way.
Will my hon. Friend reconsider the 13-week period within which most asylum seekers think they will have their claims processed? We often get lots of complaints at surgeries, because asylum seekers think that the Government will give them an answer within 13 weeks, when we all know that that does not happen.
My hon. Friend shares a challenge that I have encountered all too frequently in my constituency. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), however, it is vital that we accelerate the decision-making process in asylum cases, and that is exactly what our plans for the immigration and nationality directorate will set out to achieve.
The hon. Gentleman will know that if one cannot count people out of the country, it is theoretically impossible to know how many remain. Although my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is imbued with many qualities, omniscience is not one of them. He might, of course, correct me on that in a few moments.