Asylum cases fall by the biggest amount since 1997

The Government's asylum and immigration policies will receive an important boost today when the number of asylum cases is expected to fall by its biggest amount since Labour came to office.

The total number of cases outstanding, including the backlog, is likely to drop below the 100,000 barrier after a record month of activity by the Home Office's immigration and nationality department.

With the Tories making asylum and immigration a key issue of their campaign for the local elections across England and Wales on 4 May, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is keen to claim that his plans for a 'faster, fairer and firmer' asylum system are now producing results.

More than 10,000 cases were cleared in March as up to 7,000 new cases were submitted, allowing the backlog to be cut by about 3,000 for the month. The fall will represent the biggest decrease in overall numbers since 1997. The asylum application backlog of almost 105,000 fell for the first time in two years last month, with faster processing reducing the total by 1,700 cases.

The backlog for February stood at 103,095, down on January's 104,890, but the March figure is understood to be around 99,000, The Independent understands.

By the beginning of this year, the backlog had doubled from the 50,000 level Labour inherited from the Tories after the general election in May 1997, to nearly 105,000 at the start of 2000.

But Mr Straw has ordered a radical overhaul of the department and has installed more than 300 new case-workers in recent months.

The 10,000 level of processed claims in March is the highest on record, four times the monthly average cleared during the last few months of 1999.

The Government also claims that it has made inroads into the average time taken to reach an asylum decision.

In April 1997, the Home Office was taking 20 months to make an asylum decision, but by December 1999 that had fallen to 13 months.

Mr Straw has promised that by April next year asylum applications and appeals with be dealt with in six months.