Parliament: Refugees - Asylum backlog may get worse, admits Irvine

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The Independent Online
THE LORD Chancellor accepted yesterday that the asylum backlog could get worse and declared that only a "brave man" would predict when the Government would fulfil its pledge to speed up the asylum system. Lord Irvine of Lairg said that the number of asylum cases waiting to be dealt with had risen to 85,000, with 40,000 appeals being made, and said he could not promise the problem would not worsen.

Appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee, Lord Irvine refused to state whether all asylum applications would be processed within six months even though he was employing 63 extra part-time adjudicators to hear appeals and was recruiting another 50 in addition to full-time adjudicators. The Home Secretary has set a target of April 2001 for speeding the process so that all initial decisions are made within two months and all appeals resolved within a further four.

Challenged over when this would be met, Lord Irvine said: "I would be a very brave man if I answered that." He also defended the present system of judicial appointments despite recent criticism that it amounted to an "old boys' network". He said the system of so-called secret soundings was the "beauty" of the present process because applicants' references were so wide-ranging.

Instead of having to rely on the comments of a few referees nominated by the job applicant as in other systems, legal appointments were based on comprehensive surveys among colleagues and leaders of the profession. However, Lord Irvine stressed that he was keeping an open mind on the need for reform ahead of the long-awaited publication of Sir Leonard Peach's report on the judicial appointments system. The Lord Chancellor, who commissioned the report during the summer to end bias in the judicial system, did not rule out the appointment of an ombudsman to ensure monitoring of the selection process and to provide a complaints procedure for aggrieved applicants.

Lord Irvine said: "I do not want to pre-judge Sir Leonard's report but I devote a very great amount of time personally to ensure that there is no unfairness or discrimination in the system." But secret soundings were one of the "best things" about the current system, Lord Irvine said, criticising the decision of the Law Society to boycott the process in protest at what its members claim is a closed and potentially discriminatory system.

He added: "You have to take references with a pinch of salt. The most important thing about references is that someone who wants to get the job has nominated the referee.

"The beauty of this system is that it's so wide ranging and across so many people that the risk of discrimination or prejudice or the pushing of a particular candidate by one group is reduced considerably."

He said that everybody knew who was being consulted and that the number of people involved guarded against the risk of "empire building" by certain factions or people trying to promote their proteges.

At present, the judiciary is overwhelmingly male, public school, Oxbridge- educated and drawn from the Bar. All 12 law lords are male, and only 42 out of the country's 534 judges are female. There are no black or Asian High Court judges.