Blair's asylum-seeker target to be missed

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Britain's immigration system has "not come close" to meeting Tony Blair's target for throwing failed asylum-seekers out of the country, public spending watchdogs have warned.

In a highly critical report, the National Audit Office (NAO) said around 283,500 failed asylum-seekers may still be in the country.

Auditors highlighted a string of problems at the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). They warned that it would find it hard to hit Mr Blair's end of year target to reduce the number of failed asylum-seekers still resident in the country by deporting more each month than the number of new applications they reject.

One senior NAO official said: "They are not there yet. In order to get there, relying just on being able to arrest and detain more people prior to removal is not going in itself to achieve the target". Conservatives said it was "shocking" that the directorate had no solid estimate for the number of failed asylum-seekers, but the Home Office said that it was speeding up efforts to deport people with no right to stay.

The report said efforts to increase the number of places in detention centres would only produce 40 per cent of the extra deportations needed to meet Mr Blair's targets and warned further action was needed to increase voluntary removals and eliminate "bottlenecks" in the system.

The NAO report warned that the numbers of failed asylum-seekers either leaving the country voluntarily or being removed last year was only half the average number of asylum applications being turned down each month.

The report said: "The directorate has increased its removal capacity but the number of people removed or returning voluntarily each month (an average of 1,000 applicants per month in 2004-5, excluding dependants) is still less than the number of unsuccessful cases in the same period (an average of 2,150 per month, excluding dependants)." Auditors said the IND was doing too little to encourage people to take up financial help to return voluntarily to their country of origin, even though the voluntary route cost £1,100, compared with £11,000 for forced deportations.

The report said the directorate had difficulty estimating the number of failed asylum-seekers awaiting removal and has "no system" for assessing the scale of the problem.

Auditors said that the directorate had been "slow" to remove newly failed asylum-seekers; on average people were deported 403 days after their appeals were completed.

Edward Leigh, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: "Despite a massive increase in expenditure on immigration enforcement - to £300m a year - IND has not yet come close to meeting this target and while the number of removals may be higher than it was five years ago, it has fallen compared to last year. "There is no target for dealing with the backlog of cases. It is shocking that IND cannot give a solid estimate of how many failed applicants are still in the UK, but the NAO tells us it could have been as many as 283,000 in May 2004 - which means an even higher number today."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "The massive backlog of cases is clearly eating up resources which could be spent on improving a failing system.

"The Government must look at creative new solutions to encourage failed asylum-seekers to leave the UK, using carrots as well as sticks. The report makes a powerful case for giving individuals incentives to return, including free plane tickets and help with education and training."

But Tony McNulty, the Immigration Minister, said: "We have significantly reduced asylum applications and have increased the proportion of failed asylum- seekers we return.

"While progress has been made, we know there is more to do - which is why measures to increase and speed up removals are at the heart of our five-year strategy on asylum and immigration, published in February."