Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  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 error—that has happened on a number of occasions, we entirely accept that it should not have happened—where it does happen, then cases are reviewed.

  42. The article—once again, I do not necessarily see this as gospel truth—refers 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 system—previously people were able to string it along if that is what they wanted to do—a 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 summoned—and it is Brighton on the south coast—for 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 an interview.

  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 not—and from what you said there is not—a 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 people.

  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.

Mr Trend

  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 IND—and 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, personally—and I think I can confidently say that the same applies to Home Office Ministers—have 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 situation.

  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 year—i.e. this year—you would have said better, but here it is manifestly not better.
  (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 studied—for example, the backlog figures—it 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 team.


  57. Why is it not an agency?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think I have to say that because successive Ministers—forgive me if this appears slightly glib—have 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 IND—and I, personally, believe it to be one of the strengths of IND—is 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 taken—and, as I say, this does go back over a number of years—is 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.

Mr Trend

  59. Can I ask one final question, Chairman, when the Ombudsman says that all cases are speedily resolved—I 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 constituents—the 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.

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