Asylum fiasco: Straw scraps 'fast-track' computer

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The government's promise to deal with the increase inasylum-seekers was seriously undermined yesterday when it admitted it had quietly scrapped a £77m computer system designed to reduce the huge backlog of applications.

The government's promise to deal with the increase inasylum-seekers was seriously undermined yesterday when it admitted it had quietly scrapped a £77m computer system designed to reduce the huge backlog of applications.

The move will be deeply embarrassing to ministers, who are facing pre-election pressure to "fast-track" the applications of the thousands of asylumseekers entering Britain.

It will also raise serious questions about their ability to fulfil recent promises that the number of deportations from Britain will rise from 12,000 this year to 30,000 next year. The backlog of applications stands at 66,000, while promised savings of £110m from implementing the system will never materialise.

Last night, the admission by the Home Office that it had scrapped the computer - which has never properly worked since its installation in 1998 - was widely derided.

The political implications of the move were underlined in exchanges in the Commons yesterday between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. "Doesn't everyone now know the true record of this Government: a record number of applications, a record number of avoidance of deportation and a record amount of deception and failure," William Hague said.

The abandonment of the system means that the Home Office will not be able to deal seamlessly with asylumseekers from initial application through to a decision. Instead, the different parts of the immigration service will still operate on a mostly paper-based system, with files physically moved between offices around the country. A wide-ranging review in the mid-Nineties was intended to computerise the whole department and put its data on a unified database, to streamline the process.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is known to be angry at the failure of the system to meet its targets.

He announced the cancellation in a parliamentary written answer this week.

It is the latest in a string of high-profile government computer projects to fail to meet targets and has led to calls for a fresh audit by the Public Accounts Committee - which has investigated the system already - and the National Audit Office.

The system was to be used by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) to deal with the backlog of asylum applications. Instead, the Government has had to almost double the number of staff in the IND offices, from 5,000 to 9,000, to speed up the processing of asylum requests.

However, the average waiting time for initial decisions by asylum applicants is 11 months. Many applicants wait for years.

Siemens Business Systems, the computer company that in April 1996 won the contract, has been paid bonuses for the apparent increase in productivity. Siemens was also involved in the Passport Agency computerisation fiasco, which culminated in June 1999 with more than 530,000 passport applications waiting to be processed.

Siemens told Computer Weekly magazine the project was in a "programme realignment" and that the decision was "a true example of partnership evolving in real time".

Nigel Griffiths, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, told the magazine that this was "Orwellian newspeak".

He said: "To claim a project running three years late is a good example of operating in real time shows an inability to grasp the real world."

Peter Roberts, of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: "It's a scandal that this money, which could have been spent on hiring new people, has instead gone on bonuses for Siemens. It seems that there is a limitless amount of money for these companies, but never for the staff in the department."

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