Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
40. What is the view of IND on those cases where
there is some inconsistency between the date on the letter that
accompanied the form when it was sent out and the date when it
arrived with the applicant? I am told there are a number of cases
in my constituency where sometimes the Home Office seems to use
first class, sometimes second class post, and sometimes applicants
have less, by the time they get the document, than the ten working
days left in which to complete it?
(Mr Boys Smith) I am afraid I cannot answer on the
class of post that we use for those documents. It certainly is
our aim that people should have the ten days. We send it to the
address that they have notified us of. I do understand that there
are sometimes occasions when we have not been told of a change
of address and then there is that problem.
41. I am not thinking of cases where there has
been a change of address but where there seems to have been far
less than the ten days by the time the letter has arrived for
them to complete it. The point that was made in this article by
the Refugee Council's chief executive, Nick Hardwick, was that,
whilst speeding up the process in some ways in the early stage
of application, as I was suggesting just now, there is a "blocking
up" later on because it leads to what is described in that
article as a number of "technical" rejections, which
then have to be picked up in the appeals system.
(Mr Boys Smith) It is undoubtedly the case, and we
have never sought to disguise this, that there have been some
instances where the form had been received in IND and not linked
to the file, and therefore a rejection had been recorded on the
grounds of, as we call it, non-compliance for lack of response
of the necessary detail. When it turned out that we have made
an errorthat has happened on a number of occasions, we
entirely accept that it should not have happenedwhere it
does happen, then cases are reviewed.
42. The articleonce again, I do not necessarily
see this as gospel truthrefers to 30 per cent of cases
falling into that category?
(Mr Boys Smith) I am afraid I do not have the figure
to hand. I do not believe it to be as high as that.
(Mr Wrench) If I could just come in, the figures quoted
for non-compliance refusals are not only those who have failed
to return the statement of evidence within the set period, it
includes people who do not turn up for an interview when one is
arranged and those who generally choose to go out of contact with
the Directorate, as opposed to meeting other requests.
43. Can I just pursue this just a little further,
Chairman. Can I come to the question of interviews. What do you
feel would be an adequate period of notice for an applicant of
his or her interview?
(Mr Boys Smith) I think they are entitled to a day
or two's notice, and normally we are able to provide that. I do,
again, appreciate that there are some people who are having, for
example, to travel distance for their interviews, and that is
inconvenient to some. Although I do not want to, in any way, give
the Committee the impression that it is all speed and no quality,
it has seemed to us and seemed to the Home Secretary, that if
there were, may I call it an "injustice" being delivered
by IND, it was in slow decisions. People are entitled to not only
an accurate decision but a timely one. The efforts that we have
made which have introduced for the first time a robust discipline
into the systempreviously people were able to string it
along if that is what they wanted to doa robust discipline
that has caused quite a shock round the system, I freely acknowledge
that, but one on which we have been able to build in order to
deliver these decisions which, as I say, in quality terms, have
held up in front of the appellate authorities.
44. I have had people living in my constituency
being summonedand it is Brighton on the south coastfor
interviews in Liverpool and Leeds. Why would that be so?
(Mr Boys Smith) Because it has been imperative as
far as we are concerned to take these decisions and of course
to precede them with the interview. Given the nature in which
we have been able to secure accommodation and staffing, a sizeable
part of our capacity to interview has been in those two offices,
the Leeds one being an entirely new one and Liverpool greatly
expanded. As I said, I do entirely accept that some people have
had to travel considerable distances for the interview. If they
had all been able to say: "We would rather wait for Croydon",
we would not have dealt with those decisions. Without wishing
to, in any way, cast aspersions on any of your constituents, there
are a number of people who would quite like us to delay the decision
because it is not a decision that they want.
45. I fully understand that. I am just wondering
about reasonableness in a situation like this. I absolutely take
the point of the need to introduce a fairer, faster system, which
the Government has done. You talk of a day or two as a reasonable
period of notice for an interview. I think about the situation
of somebody living in my constituency for whom English might not
be the first language, who has got to make arrangements for travel,
perhaps arrangements for interpreters to be present?
(Mr Boys Smith) We will supply an interpreter for
46. It may be that some applicants would wish
to have their own interpreter present, and so on?
(Mr Boys Smith) They might wish to, but they can be
assured that we supply a competent interpreter.
47. I am sure there is no doubt about that.
(Mr Boys Smith) In terms of comprehension they do
not need to supply their own interpreter.
48. I am sure there is no doubt about that,
but I suspect some people might like the reassurance of their
own interpreter with them. I just wonder whether you would still
feel that, in order to make the arrangements necessary for that
journey from Brighton to Liverpool or Leeds and the kinds of arrangements
that are involved, a day or two is a long enough period?
(Mr Boys Smith) Undoubtedly we have set some brisk
timetables. I am afraid I do not, unless one of my colleagues
does, have to hand the sort of average notice time that people
are receiving. I do accept that, in order to travel to Liverpool
and Leeds, a number of people, not just from Brighton but in the
whole of the South-East, have in some sense found it less convenient
than if they had been able to be interviewed in Croydon. I would
not quite like to say it is a price to pay, but we have had to
introduce these disciplines in order to reduce the backlog which,
in itself, was quite unacceptable.
49. I fully accept the backlog was unacceptable.
I began by saying it is one of the things that I was unhappy about
and other members of the Committee were unhappy about last year.
I hear the points that you have made about that. I am surprised
that there is notand from what you said there is nota
standard period of notice of interviews, and it seems to vary
from case to case?
(Mr Wrench) Could I just come in and say that this
is obviously a time of quite considerable change, both in terms
of capacity to handle cases and the processes we are using. Procedures
are being fine tuned all the time. What there is in place is a
regular process of discussion with representative organisations,
the users of the system, if you like, and things like the difficulty
we have with some statements of evidence, forms coming in to Croydon
and not being linked to files, that was very quickly remedied
with the introduction of a dedicated PO box for those to be referred
to. As I say, there are a regular series of meetings and discussions
about these sorts of precise issues that are causing difficulties
for people. While having the overriding imperatives we do to get
through the case load and achieve the reform of the system, we
are very open to looking at the details and seeing how they affect
50. My final question, Chairman, if I may: from
what Mr Wrench has just said, I have the impression that perhaps
if the author of this article, Mr Travis, of The Guardian,
were writing this article now looking back at the period of the
last four months, it was published in January, that figure of
30 per cent, if it was accurate at the time, might be a much lower
figure for the last four months, would you think?
(Mr Wrench) The percentage of refusals on non-compliance
grounds overall is still pretty high. I think, in some ways, that
would be a reflection of the nature of the caseload, that we are
getting through a backlog with some older cases where some people
will have chosen to lose contact with the Department. In that
way the handling of newer cases might not be the same.
51. I remember that last year we heard that
this was a time of change for the office and that things were
going to get better, but the Parliamentary Ombudsman who's a mild
mannered soul has hardly ever put before us a submission which
is quite so strongly worded and he remains as you heard at the
beginning of this session extremely critical, saying complaints
are up, files have been lost, a large increase in the number of
defective decisions. He does not believe, I suspect, that the
responsibility for the consequence of the delays is being accepted
by INDand he points to some old cases with the Benefits
Agency and in his report a case, in particular, case number C1441/00,
which ended up with a payment of £750 and an apology from
the Permanent Under-Secretary, a matter which must have taken
weeks of time of public servants and tens of thousands of pounds
of expense. None of this seems to have been at all satisfactory?
(Mr Boys Smith) I feel in answering this, Mr Chairman,
I am bound to go over points I have made before. I entirely accept
that there have been totally unacceptable delays in cases both
of asylum and non-asylum in IND, and in addition to that we have
made mistakes over individual cases, mistakes in the sense that
they were not just held up in some backlog but that files have
been mislaid, or something of that kind. I, personallyand
I think I can confidently say that the same applies to Home Office
Ministershave never sought to duck the responsibility for
that. I have not tried to argue that all the problems are just
down to that reorganisation. I think they go much deeper than
that, as I said a moment ago, and they do link up with the long
term position on resources and a whole series of things that happened
before reorganisation. I am not trying to bamboozle the Committee
in suggesting things are now all rosy, because they are not yet
all rosy. We still have too high a backlog on some cases. We are
still sometimes making mistakes. I do believe that the manner
in which, both for asylum and non-asylum cases, we are eating
into that backlog is itself a major transformation for our organisation
and, therefore, the quality that we give to people. I understand
that complaints to the Ombudsman have not gone down. I hope that
they will go down. I believe that they will go down, and certainly
those on asylum, because, as I say, the asylum cases that have
been investigated informally or formally since that last hearing
do all have their origins from when we were in an excessive backlog
52. The Ombudsman tells us that complaints about
the service have doubled in the last year, which I am sure is
a matter of concern. If we had put to you last year: do you think
the position would be better or worse next yeari.e. this
yearyou would have said better, but here it is manifestly
(Mr Boys Smith) I think the situation, if I may say
so, Mr Chairman, is better. We are getting through decisions faster.
We are maintaining the quality of those decisions, as evidenced
on the asylum side by the appeal rate. We have brought the backlogs
down. In a whole other variety of ways, for example, the speed
with which people are dealt with on the telephone, the speed with
which the comprehensiveness of the service provided at the public
caller unit of the asylum seeker unit in Croydon, the service
is superior to what it was a year ago. Although I am not naive
enough to suggest everything is rosy, as I said before, I do believe
that we are providing a better service and, moreover, I do believe
that if the figures are studiedfor example, the backlog
figuresit is quite clear that we are on a path which is
one of improvement rather than deterioration.
53. What has chiefly led to this improvement?
We were told last year that the problems that existed would not
be solved and that a paper solution had to be found. What has
been done about that?
(Mr Boys Smith) A lot has been done. The processes
for handling the paperwork in IND have been transformed, again
both asylum and non-asylum business, in order that the work flows
more smoothly through the system. There has been an enormous addition
of resources. For example, just to take asylum, 500 people were
recruited just to take decisions. In addition to them, there are
support staff of one kind or another. That picture of increased
resources goes right round IND. It is an organisation which was
5,500 strong about two years ago, or rather less, and it is now
coming up to 10,000 strong. There has been an enormous investment.
There has been changed process. In addition to that, there have
been some undoubted improvements in the IT available to case workers,
but not the all singing, all dancing IT that was spoken of some
years ago, which it has been publicly announced we are not now
going to try to introduce. IT has therefore played its part, but
it is absolutely right, as our colleague Chris Mace said last
time, that it is a paper based solution that we must seek and
I believe we are now finding.
54. Do you feel that you now have sufficient
resources and sufficient IT to do the job, to get through the
backlog and maintain good service?
(Mr Boys Smith) I think we do. At present rates and
foreseeable rates of intake, yes, I think we do. This has been
an enormous investment. We are now, for the first time in recent
history in IND, resourced to be on top of the job, whether it
is case working or other aspects of it, like port work, for example.
55. So you are content with the level of staff
and the amount of resource you have?
(Mr Boys Smith) On the present and foreseeable intakes,
yes, I believe we are adequately resourced. We have a long way
still to go into providing a fully satisfactory service.
56. I noticed a slight hesitation as you began
that answer that you are content, for example, with the present
situation. It seems to me, if I can be mischievous for a moment,
not so long ago many of these responsibilities were clearly Ministerial
responsibilities and it seems that the nature of modern Government
is to try and pass responsibility for these down to agencies for
departments of public service which appear to be accountable for
their own actions and therefore to get responsibility as far as
possible from Ministers. That increases the political position
of people who run the services like you do. You do accept responsibility
for the IND and if you have anxieties about its resourcing or
about policy issues and the strictly political issues then I think
you should be free to say so. Do you input into Home Office policy
on immigration generally?
(Mr Boys Smith) Absolutely. I should just make quite
clear that IND is one of the directorates of the core Home Office.
It is not an agency. I am as responsible to the Permanent Secretary
and to Ministers as is any other senior member of the Home Office
57. Why is it not an agency?
(Mr Boys Smith) I think I have to say that because
successive Ministersforgive me if this appears slightly
glibhave decided it should not be. It has been debated
from time to time, and this goes back over a number of years.
I think I am right in saying, although it is not a subject of
current debate, the view has usually been reached that one of
the strengths of INDand I, personally, believe it to be
one of the strengths of INDis that the policy responsibilities
and the operational responsibilities are under the one umbrella
in one organisation. I think we have shown in a number of ways,
which we could expand on if you like in a moment, that has been
a strength in the past year, and were it be made into a formal
agency the presumption I think would be that the policy responsibilities
would remain in a core department and the operation would go elsewhere.
58. If that integration is a strength, does
it mean that it is lost from the agency system?
(Mr Boys Smith) I hesitate to get into old arguments
about the Prison Service, but you will recall that I think a presumption
would be that if IND had to be an agency a number of policy responsibilities,
as indeed my colleague deals with as Deputy Director General,
Policy, Peter Wrench, would undoubtedly have to remain closer
to Ministers than would be the case if they were an agency, in
other words, you would pull the policy out of the current IND
and keep in the core Home Office and make the rest of IND an agency.
I think it is not for me perhaps to express a view, but the view
that has been takenand, as I say, this does go back over
a number of yearsis that it was better to leave the situation
as it was. Bearing in mind also that in a number of ways, as greater
delegation has come in and other procedures have perhaps loosened
up, a number of the flexibilities that might be valuable in an
operational context, are now available to IND in any case and
we have a very substantial financial and personnel delegation
from the central Home Office, within ground rules and so on, that
passes down to me.
59. Can I ask one final question, Chairman,
when the Ombudsman says that all cases are speedily resolvedI
do not know whether this is the experience of all Members, but
on those occasions when I have been asked to intervene by a constituent,
matters have speeded up tremendously, for which one is personally
grateful for one's constituentsthe CSA had this problem
and in the end they set up a special department because there
was a perception by the public, I think rightly, particularly
amongst people who do not understand how the system operates,
that some people get better and faster treatment because they
have kicked up. Do you think that is fair and how do you actually
deal with it?
(Mr Boys Smith) I think it is undoubtedly the case
for immigration as it is for, to the best of my knowledge, all
other aspects of Government business, that if a Member of Parliament
intervenes with a Minister accelerated procedures will then ensue.
That is almost part of the political culture, and I do not want
to explain that. What I want to reach is a situation where people
do not want to complain to their MP in the first place.