My Lords, all members of staff who make decisions in asylum cases, whether on temporary contracts or otherwise, receive the same level of training. This includes a dedicated five-week foundation training programme that includes training on international and domestic law and safeguarding issues.
My Lords, the decisions that people dealing with asylum applications have to take are very sensitive and complex. Would the Minister agree that they require skills such as critical analysis, sensitivity and maturity? Is it appropriate for young people—by definition students, as referred to in the Observer article—to be taking such decisions? Is there likely to be an extra cost to the Government from incorrect decisions being taken by people who do not have those attributes?
I can understand the concern, because these are very sensitive issues that people are being asked to deal with. But I can reassure the noble Baroness that out of the 290 decision-makers currently looking at cases, two are undergraduates in law. Under this scheme we have often looked in particular at people who have an interest in law—perhaps with the possibility of their coming in to become decision-makers in future—who might get some experience doing that. They have their induction course with all of that but, crucially, they also have mentoring. An experienced person must sign off on all decisions taken by that individual. That is a very important safeguard which I hope will reassure noble Lords.
My Lords, as a teacher of Islamic law in Strasbourg, I can tell noble Lords that even post-doctoral students take a very long time to understand the complexities of notions such as rights, entitlement, duty and obligations, which are very different from current secular or Christian laws. I am not sure that five weeks is quite enough for people to grasp that knowledge, as well as having the social abilities to know what the facilities are. It is multi-tasking.
The short answer, of course, is that it is not enough—and, of course, that five weeks is then followed up by a period of at least six months when they receive close mentoring and all their decisions are checked. Also, in the cases that the noble Baroness mentioned, when there are areas of particular sensitivity, when people have been victims of torture or violence, or where there are LGBTI issues, there is also the provision of a second pair of eyes, which means that, even when an experienced person has done the evaluation, another experienced person will look at it. Of course, in the extreme situation that that person disagrees with the finding of the decision-making officer, they and their legal advisers will have the opportunity to appeal.
What is the position regarding the phone helplines that we discussed with regard to the Immigration Bill this week? Is the same type of education or training given to people whatever phone line they work on—health or immigration? How qualified are they? Are they like insurance companies, which have a list of answers, and if you ask a question outside the list they have no answer? I do not think that we got an answer on that from the Minister the other day.
I am trying to remember the immigration phone line to which the noble Baroness refers. I assume that she means the right-to-rent checks, for which there is a helpline charged at local rates. That is simply just to check immigration status. It is almost a binary issue of whether the person is legally entitled to be here or not. We think that it can probably be dealt with at that level.
My Lords, I understand that students may well be able to carry out clerical functions connected with processing, but will the Minister assure the House that they are never in a position to conduct the substantive interviews on which essential decisions depend?
If they have the qualifications and the mentoring in place, they can undertake those interviews. It is very important to say that their work is overseen by the independent chief inspector. When he looked at this, he found that the decision-makers were professional and dedicated and demonstrated commitment to fairness. Perhaps it might also be of interest to noble Lords to visit the office in Croydon—I can arrange that—to see the type of people who are undertaking these very important decisions.
My Lords, this department is not the only one which is employing temporary staff to deal with complex problems. The subject of this Question is not a problem that is going to go away quickly. Who knows how many years it will be before the number of asylum seekers declines seriously? It is appalling that we have this situation. It is similar in HMRC with temporary staff. It is quite disgraceful. There has to be some reason why the Government are doing this rather than establishing posts.
The reason we are doing it is to ensure that people get crucial decisions as quickly as possible. When we inherited this system, we had a backlog of 400,000 pre-2007 cases. Everyone was rightly expressing concern about that. That was why we needed to bring in people who could work through that backlog. The backlog has gone. We now have professional standards of six months for simple cases and one year for more complex cases. This is not like other areas where you get a seasonal flow, such as with passports or student visas. Because of events in Syria, there is currently a 29% increase in the level of applications. So it is very difficult to manage, and the people who are doing it are doing it in a very professional, effective and sensitive way.
There we go; saved by the bell.