FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE UPDATE
TO FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE REPORTS
FOURTH REPORT: ENTRY CLEARANCE OPERATIONS
WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO ISLAMABAD AND NEW DELHI
The Committee requested a progress report on dealing
with the difficulties identified in the report in Islamabad and
11. The management of the entry clearance
operation has changed radically with the creation of the Joint
Entry Clearance Unit (JECU) by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
and the Home Office in June 2000, staffed by personnel from both
parent departments. This joined up unit has two central objectives:
to use entry clearance to welcome legitimate travellers to the
UK and to prevent the entry of those who do not qualify under
the Immigration Rules. One of the JECU's main functions is to
explore ways to develop the integration of pre-entry controls
with other parts of the immigration control. The Unit will also
seek to improve performance and service delivery in a cost-effective
12. There have also been changes to the
pre-entry control procedures, to make entry clearance processes
fairer, faster and firmer. In October 2000 a new standard visa
was introduced which, on issue, confers leave to enter the UK
and allows for multiple entries during the validity of the visa.
It also means that the procedures on arrival at a UK port of entry
can be simplified and streamlined. In addition, the right of appeal
has been reintroduced for those applicants refused a visa to visit
a family member in the UK.
13. The Committee will be aware that Mr
Keith Vaz MP is now the FCO Minister with responsibility for Entry
Clearance and represents the FCO on JECU's Joint Ministerial Committee.
He takes a very close interest in improving the service JECU offers.
Among other initiatives he has established visa surgeries for
Members who wish to raise entry clearance issues and is currently
holding a series of visa fora around the UK with ethnic minority
Progress report on dealing with the difficulties
identified in the report in Islamabad and New Delhi.
14. The Government is satisfied that the
entry clearance operation in New Delhi is running smoothly. The
Post is now the second largest of all our visa issuing offices
(after Bombay) and at present is delivering a service which meets
all Best Practice and Public Service Agreement targets. New Delhi
issues 100 per cent of successful visit visa applications within
24 hours (in practice on the day of application); currently 83
per cent of all such applications are successful. There are no
queues for visit visas; there is no settlement visa queue for
applicants with the right of abode nor for dependent relatives
over the age of 65; and queues for other settlement categories
are well within target times.
15. Improvements have also been made in
meeting service delivery targets in Islamabad. New reception arrangements
have been put in place which allow the Visa Section to receive
450 callers a day compared with the 1998 average of 250. Entry
Clearance Section is up to full strength, with 31 Entry Clearance
Officers (ECOs), four Entry Clearance Managers (ECMs) and two
senior ECMs under the management of a very experienced First Secretary
Head of Section. There has been a further review by a team of
three independent reviewers; their recommendations have been accepted
in principle and are being taken forward. The new High Commissioner
is taking a very close personal interest in the operation of the
16. Islamabad made considerable progress
early in 2000: all queue times met the targets set out in Best
Practice. From the beginning of the summer, however, the gradual
growth of applications earlier in the year became a rush. Over
50 per cent more applications were received in June, July and
August than in the corresponding period of 1999. By the end of
September, growth (in the year to date) had exceeded 24 per cent.
Despite reinforcement in the summer, this unforeseen increase
(which has also affected the operations of other Embassies and
High commissions in Islamabad) meant the queue for non-straightforward
visit-visa interviews extended to over 40 days (against a target
of 10 days). There is a risk that settlement queues may lengthen
again, but this has not yet happened and Post are confident that
were this to occur, it would only be temporary. The Post are processing
more applications each day, postponing field trips and delaying
the completion of appeal statements to deal with the increase
in demand. JECU are sending five more ECOs to help reduce the
Discussions at both Posts revealed that entry
clearance work appeared to be unpopular with Diplomatic Service
staff. It was typically a first posting at DS9 level, and many
staff seemed to regard it as a phase in their career that had
to be endured, rather than a matter of choice. Baroness Symons
had already indicated to the Sub-Committee that the Government
was now trying to counter the impression that entry clearance
was a "Cinderella posting" away from the mainstream
of the real work of the Foreign Office and the Chief Clerk has
written round FCO staff saying that a period in entry clearance
would be a positive asset to their careers. We agree that entry
clearance work is an important FCO function. If, however, the
perception among staff is to change, FCO management will need
to demonstrate that a successful period of entry clearance work
really does enhance career prospects. We look forward to hearing
how the FCO proposes to achieve this. (Paragraph 38)
What progress is being made?
17. The Government's response noted the
measures being taken to improve staff attitudes towards entry
clearance. These measures have made a difference with Heads of
Mission becoming much more involved in the work of their visa
18. We have had difficulty in attracting
enough B3 (formerly DS9) FCO officers into entry clearance work.
This has affected our capacity to fill entry clearance jobs satisfactorily.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the FCO and the Home Office
setting up the JECU lays down that jobs in the JECU and overseas
will be filled 50:50 by FCO/Home Office staff. This gives us a
wider pool of candidates to fill jobs, as well as additional expertise.
In addition, JECU and the FCO Personnel Command are discussing
what more they can do to encourage staff to recognise the value
of entry clearance work; and to ensure that the competences entry
clearance work develops are given due credit when staff subsequently
bid for jobs in other parts of the FCO.
We recommend that FCO Personnel and Security
Command takes every step necessary to ensure adequate levels of
staffing in entry clearance sections, having regard both to seasonal
fluctuations in demand, career progression and other calls on
manpower. It is clear that some of the difficulties in Islamabad
last year would have been avoided if staffing levels had not been
allowed to fall in the Entry Clearance Section. We hope that the
financial arrangements which have been introduced this year will
ensure that financial constraints do not lead to under-staffing
of entry clearance sections. (Paragraph 43)
What progress is being made on staffing levels?
19. As a whole, Posts are adequately staffed
for the anticipated level of visa demand. There will always be
cases, as in Pakistan this year, where unforeseen changes in demand
may cause Sections to be temporarily understaffed. In these circumstances,
the JECU has set up, and will deploy, a permanent squad of six
ECOs who can be sent at short notice. The squad is about to be
brought up to eight by the addition of two more ECOs. In addition,
since the establishment of JECU, the Home Office have agreed to
make available 10 officers for emergency deployments.
20. Since the Committee's Report was published,
the overall number of staff available for full time entry clearance
work has been increased. In the financial year 1999-2000, an additional
18.5 jobs were created. This represented an increase of 7.5 per
cent in staff during a period when the demand grew by 3.6 per
cent. In the financial year 2000-01, 18 new full time slots have
been created, an increase of 6.7 per cent. The growth in demand
to the end of July 2000, compared with the same period in 1999,
was 7 per cent, but we expect the full year's figures to be lower.
21. We have also increased the seasonal
relief given to Posts. In 1999, the equivalent of 32.5 staff years'
additional resources were provided; in 2000 the figure was 34.5
years. These compare with the 1998 figure of 27 years. The Government
is therefore maintaining staffing levels to enable us to provide
a fair, fast and firm service to applicants.
Baroness Symons also saw a role for greater
training both for ECOs and ECMs. We agree. In particular, this
should focus on the circumstances, and in particular, the culture
in which they will be operating. In both Islamabad and New Delhi,
the contribution made in this respect by locally-engaged staff
was emphasised. We recommend consideration of more formalised
and greater in-post training for UK-based entry clearance staff
in post-specific factors relevant to their work. (Paragraph 44)
What progress is being made on training?
22. The Committee's Report prompted a re-examination
of the UK training programme. We have made changes: the focus
of the visa operation is now on customer service, and more training
is given on racial awareness, equal opportunities and dealing
with aggression. More recently, there has been a global training
programme on the Human Rights Act. Courses have been delivered
in eight regional centres throughout the world with a further
three courses in London attended by overseas staff, and a learning
pack has been sent to all Posts.
23. General training for staff in Posts
remains the responsibility of local managers. New staff are expected
to receive both formal and informal induction training, covering
both the professional as well as cultural aspects of the job and
the country in which they are operating. We are encouraging Posts
to use their locally engaged staff to brief new UK based staff
on local customs etc.
We recommend that particular care is taken
over staff selection for posts such as New Delhi and Islamabad,
that pre-posting training include appropriate preparation for
stress management and that appropriate advice and counselling
is offered to single women at the time they are offered the posting.
Consideration should also be given to the possibility of shorter
postings, to reduce the burden on staff. (Paragraph 46)
What progress is being made?
24. Shorter tour lengths in difficult Posts
have already been introduced through the recommendations of the
Hornby review of allowances. Several ECOs in the Indian Sub-Continent
have recently asked to extend their tours of duty; (including
a single female officer in Islamabad).
We recommend a trial of tape recording of
interviews at Tiers 3 and 4 in a large entry clearance section
such as Islamabad. (Paragraph 49)
What developments have there been in the use
25. A trial has taken place in Bombay of
the tape recording of interviews. (Islamabad has been under such
pressure that we did not want to add to the work involved in running
a pilot scheme). The outcome of the trial was mixed. Staff were
trained, and enthusiastic, but there were technical problems with
microphones picking up too much background noise. The trial will
be resumed with modified microphones. The Government continues
to believe that tape recording of interviews will lead to greater
efficiency. We are also exploring the option of recording digital
audio files of visa interviews.
There has been at least one case dealt with
at Islamabad where the intervention of a Member played a key part
in the issue of a settlement visa to the spouse of a reluctant
sponsor. We cannot believe that any of our colleagues would knowingly
wish to play a part in forcing a couple together in this way.
This is a very difficult area for all concerned, but we urge our
colleagues to be aware of the fact that on occasion there is a
risk that they may unwittingly be party to bringing about such
a situation. (Paragraph 56)
What steps have been taken to afford better
protection to reluctant spouses?
26. The issue of reluctant spouses remains
a sensitive one. JECU still receive correspondence from Members
of Parliament who are asked to intervene in applications where,
unknown to the Member, the sponsor is reluctant, reluctance JECU
normally speak directly to the Member to explain the circumstances,
and the Member does not usually press the issue once the full
circumstances are known.
27. The Committee will be aware of the Action
Plan agreed by FCO and Home Office Ministers to tackle the overseas
dimension of forced marriages. The main objective of the plan
is to assist young people whose fundamental human rights are at
risk from the threat of a forced marriage. In cases where there
is clear evidence of reluctance on the part of the sponsor, we
will use every lawful means to avoid issuing a visa.
We are struck by the fact that no evidence
has been submitted on how effectively the entry clearance system
overseas meets the objectives of immigration policy. Without such
information, it is difficult to judge how effective the entry
clearance operation is. We recommend that research be commissioned
in this area, in order that the entry clearance operation can
be focused as effectively as possible. (Paragraph 58)
Does better analysis promised in the response
now allow a better assessment of effectiveness?
28. JECU, FCO and Home Office are considering
further ways of testing the effectiveness of the entry clearance
operation, for example by monitoring the numbers of visa holders
who claim asylum or overstay. The Government already monitors
the number of visa holders who are subsequently refused entry
by Immigration Officers at UK Ports of Entry: the target (that
no more than 0.04 per cent of such arrivals should be refused)
is being achieved. In numerical terms, this represented 542 refusals
in 1999 of the 1.33 million visas issued.