Statistics, damn statistics and an ambitious pledge to halve the number of refugees

It was at the height of the build-up to military action in Iraq that Tony Blair made his surprise pledge to halve the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain within a year.

He was immediately acc-used of "talking pie in the sky" because the target seemed so ambitious.

But in retrospect - and in keeping with a recurrent Government tactic across Whitehall - he had loaded the dice in his favour by choosing what he knew was a record baseline figure of the 8,900 applications during October 2002.

The resulting target of 4,450 applications a month was already well in sight because of a series of measures to sort out the crisis threatening to engulf the Home Office. They included the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais, which had acted as a magnet for asylum-seekers heading for Britain. Security has also been tightened around the Channel Tunnel, including the introduction of high-tech vehicle screening and UK border controls moved to France.

A new visa regime for Zimbabweans has led to a steep dive in applications from people fleeing the Mugabe regime, while numbers coming from Sri Lanka have fallen because of increasing stability on the island. Numbers fleeing the former Yugoslavia are sliding for the same reason.

The list of "white-list" countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, whose asylum-seekers were automatically returned, has also had an impact on figures.

Restrictions on benefits for refugees who do not claim asylum as soon as they arrive in Britain were introduced in January. The policy is in limbo after being ruled partly illegal by the High Court.

The combined effect has been a sharp dip in numbers - and the downward trend could continue if the situation in Iraq stabilises.

However, Tory critics suspect other factors could be artificially massaging the headline application figures downwards. They believe that the totals could have been offset by a rise in the numbers of work permits that have been issued to refugees or in the total of people clandestinely entering Britain.

The ambiguity over the figures echoes the confusion surrounding the Government's apparent success in delivering on Tony Blair's promise last year to bring street crime in big cities "under control" in six months. But Home Office figures backing up the claim had compared street crime - fuelled by soaring thefts of mobile phones from children - in April 2002 with the following August, when pupils were at home and on holiday and a lot less likely to be attacked.

It also coincided with an initiative by manufacturers to disable stolen mobile phones more easily, thus removing the incentive for a common offence.

Controversy raged around the Labour's 1997 election manifesto to cut the NHS waiting list figures the Government inherited by 100,000.

In March 2000, it was able to announce the target had been met, although they had risen before they dropped back. Critics also claimed that the narrow target ignored the length of time people waited for an appointment, or the wait to join a waiting-list in the first place.

Earlier this month it emerged that Health Department targets to cut queues in accident and emergency departments had been manipulated by hospitals to achieve the desired ends.

Internal departmental documents revealed they drafted extra doctors, nurses and radiographers during the week in which performance tests were conducted in hospitals.

Meanwhile, Labour appears destined to miss Mr Blair's pledge to abolish child poverty by 2020 and cut it by a quarter by next year 2004.

The solution? Charities are worried that Government moves to redefine child poverty - currently set at 60 per cent median income - will magically allow it to trumpet success in its latest target-hitting.

Unravelling the asylum jargon

ASYLUM-SEEKER: Anyone applying to live in Britain under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, claiming they are fleeing persecution at home.

REFUGEE: According to the UN Convention, a refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".

RECEPTION CENTRE: A self-contained centre where asylum seekers will stay for up to six months while their application for asylum is being processed. Inmates will not be detained against their will, but ministers believe they should have little reason to leave. Plans for new centres in rural communities have faced local opposition.

EXCEPTIONAL LEAVE TO REMAIN: A waiver allowing people who have been refused asylum to stay in Britain because of dangerous conditions in their home country. It was replaced last month by two, more limited, categories.

WORK PERMITS: British employers can apply for permission for workers from outside the European Union to take jobs in the UK. The permits apply to skilled workers, sportsmen and women, entertainers and trainees.

SEASONAL AGRICULTURAL WORKERS SCHEME: This allows overseas nationals to enter the UK and work in the farming industry. Another programme for highly skilled migrants allows people with "exceptional personal skills and experience" to seek work in Britain.

WHITE LIST: Roll of 17 countries deemed to be safe by the Government. People from those nations who claim asylum will be automatically sent back.

PROTECTION AREAS: Proposed safe havens set up outside the EU's borders where asylum-seekers' claims could be processed. The idea has been championed by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.