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Letter: Fast forward on asylum cases

From Ms Ann Widdecombe

Sir: May I clear up the confusion apparent in the report "Howard names 'white list' " (24 November) by Heather Mills? The short procedure we have been piloting since May simply involves giving asylum applicants an early interview and a deadline for submitting any additional representations. We aim to decide the claim normally within five weeks, compared with the current average of over eight months for a new claim.

We are expanding our capacity to handle cases in this way, and the range of nationalities included. In due course we envisage applying the short procedure to most straightforward asylum claims. In developing the procedure, we have acted openly throughout.

The short procedure does not require legislation or affect appeal rights. Designation of countries where there is, in general, no serious risk of persecution will require new powers, which we shall bring forward under the Asylum and Immigration Bill. There will, in effect, be a rebuttable presumption against claims from designated countries, although they will still be considered and asylum granted in exceptional cases. An accelerated appeal procedure will apply. Designation orders will have to be laid before Parliament. The Home Secretary will announce likely candidates for designation at an early stage during the Bill's passage.

The distinction between designation and the short procedure was clearly signalled in the Home Office letter from which Ms Mills selectively quoted. The short procedure will not be limited to designated countries.

It is vital that we take action to stem the growing number of undeserving asylum seekers coming to this country, who are currently costing the taxpayer over pounds 200m per year in benefits alone. Any government that dodged this issue would surely not be worth its salt.

Yours faithfully,

Ann Widdecombe

Minister of State

Home Office

London, SW1

27 November