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The BBC's Norman Smith
"The new system was designed to get rid of paperwork"
 real 56k

Shadow Home Secretary Anne Widdecombe
"Was this introduced in the wisest possible way?"
 real 28k

Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes
"It's happening again and again"
 real 28k

Thursday, 15 February, 2001, 19:52 GMT
Computer row fuels asylum issue
Asylum seekers
There is a backlog of 66,000 asylum applications
The government has come under renewed fire over asylum after part-abandoning a multi-million pound computer system designed to speed up the processing of applications.

Computer system
Cost 80m
Meant to save 100m
Designed by Germany's Siemens Business Services
Contract awarded 1996 under Private Finance Initiative
Installation started 1998
The Conservative Party said the move proved the government's asylum policies had failed - but have themselves been blamed by ministers for ordering the "over-complex" system in the first place.

The project was intended to help reduce the backlog of asylum applications, currently standing at 66,000, but has been dogged by problems since its installation in 1998.

Home Secretary Jack Straw admitted the system would not become "fully operational" in a Commons written reply.

But it is understood that systems already in place would continue and the contract with German computer giant Siemens could run on as planned to 2003, although negotiations with the government are underway.

'Record deception'

On Wednesday, Tory leader William Hague accused the government of a "record amount of deception and failure" over the whole asylum issue.

It is now almost certain to remain a key political battleground in the run-up to the general election expected within the next three months.

The computer system was designed to be used by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) to replace much of the time-consuming paperwork involved in asylum cases.

But instead the IND has had to take on thousands of extra staff to deal with the applications.

'Over-complex'

Mr Straw said full implementation of the system was being abandoned because it was "over-complex and out of touch with current working practices".

Last year a report by the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, said the deal offered benefits to the Home Office and to the taxpayer.

But it expressed concerns about delays and warned that an interim system had caused "serious disruption" to the IND.

The Tories have described the situation as shambolic and accused the government of failing to get a grip on the growing backlog of cases.

Ann Widdecombe
Ann Widdecombe: 'Ministers can't cope'
Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe accused the government of giving the computer system the "least possible chance" with, for example, the timing of a Home Office relocation.

She said since the 1997 general election the government had been claiming it was getting the asylum system under control.

"They could have blamed us much earlier. Why suddenly four years later say: 'Actually, despite all our promises, we can't cope'?"

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said: "It is a very miserable story."

Governments' 'incompetence'

A spokesman from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants criticised the "incompetence" of successive governments for failing to bring down the waiting time for asylum applications.

Immigration and Asylum Minister Barbara Roche refused to confirm reports that the cancellation could cost taxpayers 80m but said the government was in negotiations with the computer company involved.

"The Tories brought in the system, they announced at the time that it would do everything but make the tea," she told the BBC.

Barbara Roche
Barbara Roche: Blamed the Conservatives
"They said massive savings would come from it and then when asylum applications were actually rising in Britain under them they earmarked the voluntary redundancy of about 1,200 staff.

"What we've had to do is to recruit hundreds and hundreds of extra caseworkers, support staff and immigration officers in order to put this right."

A spokesman for Siemens said the company's contract with the government had not been cancelled.

"Siemens Business Services wishes to clarify it will continue to work in partnership with the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.

"The computer system has been used by 3,500 of its staff and they have processed 110,000 decisions during the last year.

"The system has been instrumental in achieving a record number of decisions."

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