COMMONS

Reforming the UK border and immigration system: report published

29 October 2014

Public Accounts Committee publishes its report into the UK border and immigration system as HC 584.

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"The Home Office scrapped the UK Border Agency in March 2013 partly because its performance in dealing with backlog cases was not good enough.

However, the Department has also failed to get a grip on the long-standing problem of asylum backlogs, with some 29,000 applications dating back to at least 2007 remaining unresolved. In 11,000 of these cases people have not even received an initial decision on their asylum claim.

To make matters worse, the Department is also failing to meet its targets for dealing with newer claims, so it is now creating another backlog for itself. The number of claims awaiting an initial decision was up 70% to 16,273 in the first three months of 2014 compared to the same period last year.

It is deeply worrying that the Home Office is not tracking those people whose applications have been rejected to ensure that they are removed from the UK.

At the end of 2013-14 there were over 175,000 people whose application to stay in the UK had been rejected, and they are placed into a migration refusal pool to await removal.

The number of such cases has not been reduced over time. Some may have left the UK voluntarily, but without exit checks it is almost impossible to know.

It is particularly disturbing to find that, when the Department asked Capita to check over 250,000 case records in 2012 and 2013, Capita had been unable to contact over 50,000 people listed. The Department admitted that they did not know where these 50,000 people were.

The Department should, as a matter of urgency, take more steps to identify people that remain in the UK illegally and speed up their removal.

The failure of major IT projects designed to streamline process not only leaves the Department reliant on archaic systems but may also end up costing the taxpayer up to £1 billion. The cancellation of the Immigration Case Work programme and the e-Borders IT programme could mean a gobsmackingly awful figure being wasted.

The Home Office must put in place skilled, incentivised staff and sort out its data so it can crack the backlog and move people through the system. It must also go back to the drawing board and develop a comprehensive, system-wide IT strategy.

The pressure is on, and the Home Office must take urgent steps to sort out this immigration mess."

Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 20th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from Mark Sedwill, Permanent Secretary, Home Office; Mike Wells, Director of Immigration Operations, UK Visas and Immigration and Mandie Campbell, Director General, Immigration Enforcement, examined reforming the UK border and immigration system.

The Home Office (the Department) acquired direct responsibility for the significant problems faced by the UK Border Agency (the Agency) when it was abolished in March 2013 and its functions were transferred to the Department. While performance in most of the areas transferred has held steady, the Department has failed to deal with long standing backlogs of asylum claims. Many older asylum claims—some over seven years old—remain undecided, while a new backlog of cases awaiting an initial decision is forming. This is partly as a result of a botched attempt by the Agency to downgrade staff that resulted in 120 experienced caseworkers leaving. The Department lacks the data it needs to manage its backlogs and the overall workload effectively. The failure of a number of IT projects has also compromised the Department’s ability to track people through the immigration system and ensure that those with no right to remain are removed from the UK.

Conclusions and recommendations

The decision to break up the Agency was prompted by its troubled history. The Agency’s responsibilities for immigration operations were passed to three directorates within the Department: UK Visas and Immigration decides on applications to visit and stay in the UK; Immigration Enforcement detects and removes those people who break our immigration laws; and Border Force polices the border. These three directorates, which collectively spend some £1.8 billion per year, are responsible for dealing promptly and effectively with over 100 million people that arrive in the UK each year.

The Department has failed to get a grip on the long-standing problem of asylum backlogs with older cases remaining unresolved and the number of newer cases awaiting a decision increasing. The Department has still not resolved some 29,000 asylum applications dating back to at least 2007. In 11,000 of these cases people have not even received an initial decision on their claim, something the Department has now committed to provide by the end of 2014. The Department is also missing its targets on newer asylum claims for how long a caseworker should take to process an application. As a result, the number of claims awaiting an initial decision increased by 70% to 16,273 in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the first quarter of 2013. The Department admitted that one of the reasons for these problems had been “an ill-judged decision” by the Agency, subsequently reversed by the Department, to downgrade the caseworkers in this area which had resulted in 120 experienced asylum caseworkers leaving.

Recommendations: The Department should ensure it has the right number of staff, with the right skills and the right incentives, to resolve outstanding asylum claims promptly and prevent any new backlogs being created.

The Department should report back to us in early 2015 on what progress it has made in communicating decisions to all outstanding pre-2007 applicants.

IT limitations mean the Department cannot track people through the immigration system, or ensure people with no legal right to remain are removed from the UK. At the end of 2013-14 there were over 175,000 people whose application to stay in the UK had been rejected. These cases are placed into a migration refusal pool to await removal. The number of such cases has not been reduced over time. Some applicants may have left voluntarily, but the Department does not know how many have done so because it does not have a system to check departures from the UK. In 2012 the Department employed Capita to confirm the records of the people in the pool. By the end of 2013 Capita had checked over 250,000 case records. It is particularly disturbing that Capita had been unable to contact over 50,000 people listed and the Department admitted that they did not know where these 50,000 people were.

Recommendation: The Department should as a matter of urgency take more steps to identify people that remain in the UK illegally and expedite their removal.

The Department lacks good quality data on cases, preventing it from efficiently managing the backlogs and the overall workload, and hindering effective accountability. The Department’s internal management reports are based on poor quality data that is often stored in old, legacy IT systems. A sample check of data on the Department’s Casework Information Database found that for 84% of cases where people were being removed from the UK the Department did not hold the minimum necessary information, such as the person’s address or postcode, prior to their removal. This is a long-standing issue that the Agency and now the Department have failed to address. The Department claims that new IT projects would have allowed management information to be automatically compiled from data held on individual cases. However, the failure of these projects means the Department has to do extra work to cleanse data and reconcile conflicting datasets in order to produce summary management information that is accurate. This makes it extremely difficult to hold it to account for its performance. For example, in a subsequent note the Department provided covering figures it did not have to hand in the evidence session, it still could not say how many of the asylum claims in the system are not currently being worked on.

Recommendations: The Department should immediately take steps to improve the quality of the data it collects and holds through cleansing and regular sample checks, and improve the presentation and clarity of data.

The failure of major IT projects has prevented the Department from streamlining its work processes and left it reliant on out-of-date IT systems for day-to-day business. The Department has had direct control of the immigration directorates for 18 months, yet it has still not established better processes for dealing with different types of cases. The Department had expected large-scale IT projects like the Immigration Case Work programme to transform its processes and allow it to produce better information and substantial financial savings. However the Department has now cancelled both the case work programme and the e-Borders IT programme, which was intended to provide information on people leaving the UK. Cancelling these two IT projects has meant that close to £1 billion has been spent and wasted. The Department’s revised IT approach is to replace large-scale IT projects with a number of smaller, more flexible contracts, in order to increase flexibility.

Recommendations: As a matter of priority, the Department should identify the future IT capabilities it requires, so it can develop a comprehensive, system-wide IT strategy that will deliver the required capabilities.

We are not convinced that the Department has a robust plan to improve performance and meet its targets with fewer resources. The Department allocated £249 million of savings across the three immigration directorates, to be achieved by the end of 2014-15, and requires them to live within the budgets they are set. However, the Department does not track individual savings or efficiencies or identify whether they have been achieved. Nor does it always know the cost of its activities: for example, it could not tell us the impact on the asylum support budget of delays in meeting its targets. This relaxed approach to financial savings carries risks if the Department is asked to find large efficiencies in the future while improving services, or if another crisis emerges.

Recommendation: The Department should gather accurate data on the costs of all its activities and develop a robust financial plan that sets out how it will achieve both the necessary level of savings and the improved performance required.

Further information

Image: PA

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