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Asylum Seekers: New Asylum Model

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have improved the quality of their initial decisions on asylum seekers through the new asylum model.

My Lords, in cases processed under detained fast-track arrangements between 1 April 2006 and 31 March 2007, 800 appeals were determined, of which 781 were dismissed. The new asylum model became fully operational in March 2007, so meaningful data on decision quality for non-detained routes are not expected to be available before the autumn. Up to 20 per cent of all decisions will be assessed against criteria designed with the UNHCR.

My Lords, I fully accept that, as the noble Baroness, says, it is too early to judge the NAM. But the question for me is whether the NAM is prejudging asylum seekers. From what I hear, case workers are still inadequately trained and underinformed. Does she agree that the cards are stacking up against genuine asylum seekers? I include here the merits test and the lack of provision for legal aid. Some asylum seekers even go into hearings without any representation.

My Lords, I do not accept that the odds are stacking up against asylum seekers. The whole point of introducing the new model is to heighten and improve the quality of the decision-making. On a number of occasions, the noble Earl has rightly highlighted that quality is the important thing. The quality of the decision will be better. The training now comprises a 55-day foundation training programme. Higher executive officers will be responsible for making the decisions. They will track those decisions right the way through and have ownership. We believe that that is a much better system, which will develop high quality. Legal assistance is available.

My Lords, will the Minister describe how these new provisions will help young people who have been admitted to this country as unaccompanied minors and then find themselves waiting months for decisions, which can blight their future because they can lose university places or other opportunities? Could she describe how this new model will help those young people?

My Lords, the importance of the asylum model is that, from the moment a person makes an application, they will have the fullest opportunity to disclose all the information on which an informed decision will be made. The quality of the person making the decision will be greatly enhanced, because they will be better trained and at a higher level, and there will be continuity from beginning to end. The noble Baroness will know that one of the challenges has been that the procedures have been passed from one body to another. Continuity is a matter of real importance, and this model delivers it.

My Lords, do immigration staff have access to in-country reports when trying to make the initial decision? If so, what advice is being offered on asylum seekers and refugees from Darfur and Zimbabwe? In light of the recent court decision on Libya, do the Government intend to review their Memorandum of Understanding with that country?

My Lords, I will deal with the last issue first. The noble Lord may not be aware that those matters are being appealed, so I can say nothing at all about them. In relation to in-country reports, the answer is yes. As I said earlier, one of the very important things about making sure that the training is greatly improved and enhanced is to enable those who come to make the decisions—the case owners—to do so on an informed and intelligent basis that is intelligible not only to them but to anyone else who may review the efficacy of the decision.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Strangers into Citizens campaign? Do the Government support that campaign, which proposes that failed asylum seekers may be offered an amnesty if they qualify in terms of language and duration of stay?

My Lords, I am not aware of the precise details of that campaign. Noble Lords will remember that we had an amnesty, which we indicated was a once-and-for-all amnesty. The whole point of our new procedure is that it will be fast, fair and accurate. It will do two things. First, it will allow those who have genuine claims to be speedily accepted and, secondly, it will enable those who do not have bona fide claims to be dealt with appropriately.

My Lords, does the new asylum model include a reference to those who have made contributions to British efforts overseas? We were given what many of us considered a very unsatisfactory answer the other day about the possible asylum applications of people who had served as interpreters or drivers with forces in Iraq. Is there room in the new asylum model to pay particular attention to those whose lives may have been placed in danger by their assistance to British troops and others in difficult circumstances?

My Lords, the important thing is for each case to be looked at on its facts and for a proper determination to be made about whether it would be safe and satisfactory for that person to return. If it is claimed that, as a result of services rendered, there is a greater risk, the court and the process can take those factors into account in making an informed decision.

My Lords, this Question concerns asylum seekers and the new asylum model, on which the Government should be congratulated. What worries people are illegal immigrants in this country. Will the Minister touch on that particular concern of the people?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for offering his congratulations. This model is materially better than the model that we had before. The process has improved. In 1997, we used to take about 20 to 22 months to deal with applications; we are now dealing with most of them within seven months and some, under the new model, within two. That makes a major contribution for those who are validly applying for asylum and, equally, for those who have no right to asylum and should be properly removed, which is, as my noble friend said, a concern for many.