» Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Beverley Hughes/Immigration

Asked if the Prime Minister had spoken to Beverley Hughes recently, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware. Asked if he felt that she was in full control of her department, the PMOS said yes. He also believed, as we had said consistently, that she was doing a difficult job well. If he was being asked about today’s Daily Mail story, it was important to be clear what it had been referring to. It had not been about asylum or immigration per se. Rather, it had focussed on citizenship applications for people already living in the UK without immigration restrictions. As the Home Office had made clear both last night and this morning, they did not accept the suggestion that people had been ‘nodded through’ without any checks being made on them. Only one element of case consideration had been suspended. All the key checks, such as police criminal records checks, standard immigration checks and, where necessary, further security checks, had been carried out. It was also important to recognise that there had been an element of discretion regarding residency checks for some time.

Put to him that a backlog of 29,000 citizenship applications created suspicions about the problems with asylum, the PMOS said he was not going to pretend that these issues were easily dealt with. They were complex and challenging. As the Government had indicated, we were putting in place end-to-end reforms of the asylum system to ensure that we were able reduce the number of applicants and also speed up removals. We acknowledged that the appeals system for asylum applications was not one that commanded much confidence because people could appeal endlessly against individual elements of their asylum application, even if they had been turned down repeatedly. Cleary that was something we needed to address. Concerns had been raised in the Lords regarding the right for a judicial review. The Government had said that we would look at the issue again. However, there was no point in simply wishing the ends without putting in place the means. These were big challenges for the Government and we would continue to address all the issues. An investigation by the IND into what had happened at Sheffield was continuing. In respect of the situation in Liverpool, a risk assessment had shown that in 100% of the cases sampled, the decision had been the same without the additional check being made. He repeated that this ‘story’ was not about asylum.

Put to him that Beverley Hughes had denied that she had had any knowledge of any secretive practices that had been taking place, the PMOS said that it had been decided not to highlight the discretionary element publicly so that new applicants would not mistakenly view it as a relaxation of standard requirements. Specific reduction measures to deal with backlogs were not unusual. There had always been an element of discretion in relation to passport checks. In order to uphold the integrity of the process, a risk assessment had been made for those who had not been subjected to passport checks to ensure that the result was the same – and indeed that had been the situation in 100% of the cases. In terms of the 9,000 cases that had been decided from the backlog, he would point out that just over 8,000 had been granted, 820 had been refused and 8 had been renounced. Pressed repeatedly as to whether Ms Hughes had told the full truth to the Commons when she had said she wasn’t aware of certain practices, the PMOS said that there were two completely different issues to consider here. In terms of the situation in Sheffield, it was important to be clear that a decision had been taken there without reference to senior management or ministers being aware. In the Liverpool case regarding citizenship, only one element of case consideration had been suspended – with the full knowledge of ministers and without any impact in terms of the overall result. Put to him that discretion was one thing for a handful of applications but not for several thousand, the PMOS said if it was the case that 29,000 people had been waved through without any checks, then that would be a valid criticism. The point he was making was that passport checks were only one element of the system. We would argue that they were not as important as character checks, hence the element of discretion. However, in order to ensure that the result would be the same, a risk assessment had been put in place by officials. In every single case where they had referred back to the passport checks, the result was the same. Put to him that the large numbers of sham marriages, bogus students and travelling businessmen was evidence that the problem was wider than the Government was admitting, the PMOS said that if it was being suggested that large numbers of people applying for UK residency were being waved through, that was simply not the case. If large numbers of people were being granted citizenship without any checks, that was not the case. It was important to focus on the facts of the story.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news

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