Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


The backlog: how it came about

80. The rise in asylum applications to the UK over the past 15 years has been so steep—from 3,998 in 1988 to 84,130 in 2002, a more than twenty-fold increase—that it is likely that any asylum system and any Government would have had difficulty in coping with it. Unsurprisingly, since the early 1990s there has been a backlog of unprocessed applications, although, like the level of applications, the level of backlog has fluctuated within this period, as the following chart indicates:[86]

81. In an attempt to get to grips with the problem of increasing numbers of applications, there has been a continuous stream of government initiatives. Four major pieces of legislation dealing with asylum have been passed in the past ten years, and a fifth is currently before Parliament.[87]

82. Some of those initiatives have proved, in retrospect, to be misguided. Three examples are (1) the failed computer system for processing applications and the damage done by staff lay-offs in response to what turned out to be a short-lived fall in applications, (2) the asylum support vouchers scheme, and (3) the over-centralisation of the National Asylum Support Service. We deal with the latter two examples in our section on asylum support, in paragraphs 163-64 and 172-78 below.

83. The failure of the computer system was described by the technical magazine Computer Weekly as "a classic example of how not to manage an IT project".[88] In April 1996, following a competition, the Home Office let a contract to Siemens Business Services for a privately financed initiative called the Casework Programme, which was intended to combine a major business process reorganisation project with a complex computer-based document management system designed to speed up asylum claims by scanning documents and transmitting them electronically.[89]

84. The new computer system was introduced in 1998, 18 months behind schedule, and was overwhelmed by the volume of asylum applications, compounded by disruption caused by IND's move to a new headquarters building. In January 2000 the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) referred to "unacceptable delays" and criticised the lack of contingency planning. [90]

85. In February 2001 the then Home Secretary admitted that "the original full casework application now seems over-complex", and that as a result IND had decided not to introduce the fully computerised system as originally envisaged.[91] Since then asylum claims have been processed using a combination of IT and manual methods. The Home Office summed up in evidence to us the consequences of the failure to introduce an effective computer system:

    "By April 1997, there were 54,000 asylum applications awaiting an initial decision. In 1996 the then Government entered into a contract to computerise the caseworking function of [IND]. The scheme envisaged a paperless office with the costs being met from improved efficiency and a consequent requirement for fewer staff. In anticipation of this development, the number of caseworkers was run down and much experience was lost. Casework capacity was significantly reduced in anticipation of the efficiency savings, but the IT was not delivered and output fell. At the same time, there was a substantial increase in the volume of applications, particularly as a result of the conflict in Kosovo. As a result, the number of outstanding applications had increased to a peak level of 121,200 at the end of January 2000."[92]

86. The Minister of State told us that about 1,200 experienced caseworkers had disappeared from the system by 1998-99, "on the back of the expectation of that computer system by the previous Government"[93] She described the ensuing situation as one of "catastrophe", a "very, very disastrously low point". [94]

Tackling the backlog

87. The Home Office state that "in order to create the headroom" necessary to deal with the remaining backlog of claims, "there is a clear policy aim, also reflected in the PSA [Public Service Agreement] target for 2003-04 and beyond, to deter new, unfounded applications and thereby reduce intake".[95] This is not a new policy. Successive Governments have attempted to "deter new, unfounded applications" by a variety of measures—most of which have been attended by controversy because of the possibility that they might deter not only unfounded claims but genuine ones also.

88. The box below sets out a summarised list of government measures over the past decade to discourage unfounded applications. The figures for asylum applications to the UK set out in paragraph 30 above show significant dips in the level of applications in the mid-1990s and again since 2002. Although it is not possible to demonstrate a direct chain of cause and effect, the falls in applications following government restrictions suggest a significant correlation. As we have seen, the German experience in the early 1990s also indicates that government measures such as fast-tracking and rapid removals of asylum seekers originating from 'safe countries' can have a major impact on the number of applications.[96]

89. By December 2002 the backlog of outstanding applications had decreased to 40,800. The Home Office attributes this to "more efficient processes and additional resources".[97] The most recent statistics indicate a continuing reduction in the backlog: the number of cases awaiting an initial decision at the end of September 2003 was down to 29,100. However, of these cases, 20,600, or over two-thirds of the total, had been outstanding for more than six months.[98] The Minister of State told us that good progress towards the government target of deciding 75% of substantive asylum applications within two months (for this, see paragraphs 109-10 below) would help further clear the remaining backlog. She said that she did not want to set a target date, but hoped that within "a reasonable period of time", the number of outstanding applications would have been reduced to "normal work in progress".[99]


90. One obvious means of clearing a backlog is to provide for special or expedited treatment for the most long-standing claims. This has been done on three occasions in the past 12 years. It is noteable that on each occasion the Government of the day has avoided using the term 'amnesty' to describe its measures. On the first occasion no public announcement was made, but a rapid increase in the number of asylum seekers granted exceptional leave to remain, from about 2,000 in 1991 to 15,000 in 1992 and 11,000 in 1993, strongly suggests a deliberate policy of reducing the backlog by administrative means.[100]

91. A second attempt to reduce the number of outstanding cases was made in 1998. The Government's asylum white paper announced that:

    "There can be no question of an amnesty for those in the backlog. This would be unfair and would be seen as a reward for those who would abuse the system. Equally it would be unfair to ignore the consequences of very long delays, which are no fault of the applicant, in terms of the applicant's ties in this country or elsewhere. The Government will therefore adopt an approach in which the effects of long delays in reaching a decision will be taken into account and weighed with other considerations, but only in due proportion and in appropriate cases."[101]

In practice this meant that in the case of about 10,000 applications dating from before July 1993, the delay was deemed to be "so serious as to justify, as a matter of fairness, the grant of indefinite leave to enter or remain". In the case of applications made between July 1993 and December 1995, estimated to be about 20,000 cases, the delays would be weighed in the balance against the applicants' current circumstances.[102]

92. Finally, on 24 October 2003, the Government announced that "up to 15,000 families who sought asylum in the UK more than three years ago, the majority of whom are being supported by the taxpayer, will be considered for permission to live and work here".[103] The Government described this as a "one-off exercise" which will apply to those who sought asylum in the UK before 2 October 2000, had children before that date and who have suffered from historical delays in the system. It will also apply to cases where the final appeals process has not been exhausted and to those where final decisions were made but removal not effected. Asylum seekers who have committed a criminal offence, lodged multiple applications or whose cases are the responsibility of other European countries will be excluded from the exercise.

93. The Home Secretary stated that many of the families who will benefit have put down roots in the community, with children who are "especially motivated and doing well in schools".[104] The Home Office expected that it will take about six months to assess the claims from those who may be eligible.

94. Citizens Advice and JUSTICE welcomed the Government's announcement.[105] Citizens Advice expressed regret that the Government did not go even further and include families which applied for asylum before October 2000 and have since been granted temporary leave to remain.[106]

95. Opposition to the Government's initiative in principle was expressed by MigrationWatch UK. MigrationWatch argued that "the exercise is highly unlikely to be a one-off", on the grounds that "the continuing failure to remove more than a small proportion of asylum seekers whose claims have failed (we estimate that about 1 in 5 are removed or depart voluntarily) will caused a recurrence of the conditions which led to the current amnesty". They estimated that since the cut-off date of October 2000, "a further 14,000 families will have applied for asylum who will, in time, meet the same criteria as those just granted an amnesty". They argued that experience in Spain and Italy shows that amnesties tend to be repeated and to act as a 'pull' factor to attract more asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. [107]

96. In defence of the Government's decision, the Minister of State told us that the initiative was "very targeted", being aimed specifically at asylum applicants who made their claims before reforms of the appeals process came into effect in October 2000, and who therefore had considerable reserved rights of appeal which later applicants did not enjoy. She said that "we took the view that … it was in everybody's interests to draw a line before we go on to bring in new simplifications to the appeals process".[108] She added that the Government estimated that for every 1,000 applicants who would move from benefits into employment as a result of this exercise, there would be a saving of £15 million to the public purse.[109]

97. We understand the reasons why the Government has announced what is in effect an amnesty for up to 15,000 asylum-seeking families who arrived in the UK more than three years ago. An individual amnesty may well be the appropriate humanitarian and financial response to a backlog. However, the cumulative effect of amnesties is to undermine the credibility of the system. The combination of a high level of applications and a low rate of removals will, over a period of years, create a situation in which the Government not only faces political pressure to clear up the ensuing backlog of cases, but has a moral obligation to asylum seekers who have been in the UK for several years, who have put down roots in the community, made friends and have children in local schools. If the Government does not address the problem at both ends, by reducing unfounded applications and by swiftly and humanely removing failed asylum seekers, it is indeed likely that there will be further amnesties. They will in turn act as a 'pull' factor, sending out an unfortunate message to people contemplating making an unfounded claim for asylum, that if they can get to the UK and make that claim, sooner or later the Government will regularise their position. Amnesties set up a vicious circle which should be broken by discouragement of unfounded claims, fast and efficient processing of those claims when they are made, and rapid removals when claims have failed.

Border controls

98. A key element in discouraging claims is through more effective border controls (which are likely to have the effect of preventing both genuine and unjustified claimants from entering the UK to make a claim). Our predecessors in the last Parliament reported on this issue in January 2001.[110] The major recommendation in that report was that the existing border control agencies should be combined into a single frontier force, combining the efforts of the police, Customs and Excise and the Immigration Service to tackle illegal entry into the UK. The report also recommended better use of technology, adopting equipment used in other countries to detect and deter clandestine entrants. [111]

99. In its reply, in March 2001, the Government said that it "remains to be persuaded that a single frontier force would necessarily bring the benefits being sought", but undertook to look at compromise options for improving co-operation between agencies.[112] More recently, speaking in the House on 3 July 2003, the Home Secretary said:

    "We have received a report on the reorganisation of the special branch throughout the country, that that involves the question of regionalisation, and that accountability will be important in that area. We know that we must get this right. However, there is a strong difference of opinion, including that between the police and others, as to whether a unified border control taking in special branch, immigration controls, Customs and Excise and those involved in the surveillance of our coastline, would be more or less effective. If I am convinced that it would be more effective, I will recommend to My Right Hon. Friend the Prime Minister that we take that course."[113]

100. Speaking to us in September 2003, the Home Secretary clarified the Government's position on this issue. He said that a cabinet committee was examining the connected issues of border control and organised crime, and that this was giving urgent consideration to the question of whether to link or unify the work of agencies involved in border control, including Customs and Excise, the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, individual Special Branches and the Coastguard. Mr Blunkett said that:

    "My own view is that there will have to be change. We have not yet agreed that change. … We will have to square the circle of those who believe that their activity is integral to their wider work. The Kent Police believe that their Special Branch activity on the issues of border control and immigration are crucial to their wider role and should be integrated. We want to ensure that we do not lose that. We want a more cohesive structure … we do not want to set up something which works on paper but does not actually work in practice."[114]

101. On the issue of introduction of new technology, and other measures to improve existing security, particularly at ports on either side of the English Channel, more progress has been made. As a result of UK-French co-operation, British immigration officers are now based at locations in France to decide upon admissibility of passengers prior to embarkation for the UK. Since June 2001, the UK Immigration Service has been operating immigration controls at Coquelles for vehicle traffic through the Channel tunnel, and at the Eurostar stations of Paris Gare du Nord, Lille and Calais for passenger traffic. In early 2003, 'juxtaposed immigration controls' at the ferry ports of Dover, Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne began to be introduced. It is hoped that by February 2004 there will be full joint immigration control on French soil.[115] Similar joint working is being introduced at the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge.

102. New detection technology deployed at Calais, Coquelles, Ostend and Zeebrugge, as well as at British ports such as Dover, includes passive milimetric wave imagers (which uses natural background radiation and thermal imaging techniques to produce an image of the interior of a vehicle), heartbeat detectors (using acoustic sensors linked to a portable computer that can identify a human heartbeat when placed on the chassis of a stationary vehicle), and X/gamma ray scanners (which use thermal imaging to depict the contents of a vehicle). The Home Office claims that use of this technology contributed to preventing 4,000 would-be illegal immigrants from reaching the UK illegally in the first six months of 2003. The Government stated that "we aim to expand the use of this technology to secure the whole of the north European coastline—progressively moving the UK's borders abroad to prevent people reaching the UK clandestinely in the backs of lorries."[116] The Government is currently negotiating to institute detection equipment in The Netherlands as well.[117]

103. The Sangatte Red Cross Centre near Calais, which at one stage had housed over 1,000 people and which had become a magnet for potential illegal entrants to the UK, was closed at the end of 2002 following agreement between the British and French governments. In that agreement:

  • stronger controls and tighter security were introduced at Calais and other French ports;
  • the UK took responsibility for just under 1,000 Iraqi Kurds, who were brought to the UK on work visas, and admitted around 200 Afghans identified by the UNHCR as having strong family links to the UK; and
  • the French government took responsibility for the around 300 remaining residents of the Sangatte centre, the around 500 already housed elsewhere or already deported and any illegal immigrants who continued to turn up in the area, then running at 30-40 a week.

104. A new EU-wide database of fingerprints, Eurodac, now records the country in which an asylum seeker first applies for asylum together with personal data and fingerprints, and is designed to prevent applicants from lodging claims in more than one state. Under the revised Dublin Convention ("Dublin II"), which came into force on 1 September, member states of the EU will be required to respond within six weeks to a request from another member state for information on an asylum-seeker. They will also be obliged to return anyone who has made multiple applications to the state in which the first application was made.[118]

105. Visa regimes for passengers transiting through the UK have been tightened up: in June 2003, it was announced that nationals of 16 specified countries would henceforward need visas to pass through, as well as to visit, the UK; and in October six more countries were added to the list.[119]

106. The Government proposes to impose new sanctions on asylum seekers who deliberately lose or destroy their travel documents on or before arrival in the UK, in order to conceal their origin or identity, or remove evidence as to their mode of arrival. The Government has also floated the idea of requiring carriers to take copies of passengers' travel documents before they embark. We commented on these proposals in our recent report on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill now before Parliament.[120]

107. We welcome the various specific measures the Government has recently taken to improve border security. These will have contributed to the fall in asylum applications during 2003. We particularly welcome the enhanced co-operation between the British and French Governments, which has led to significant progress in tackling the problem of illegal entry through the Channel ports.

108. However, we consider that there has been undue delay in resolving the issues surrounding the creation of a unified frontier force, as recommended by our predecessor Committee in 2001. It is now time for the Government to resolve disagreements between agencies on this proposal and take action to promote their greater integration.

Improving the processing of applications


109. The Government has committed itself to achieving these aims as a formal target. Home Office Public Service Agreement Target 7 is as follows:

110. In December 2003 the Home Office announced that it was on track to meet the target of deciding 75% of substantive applications within two months: initial performance data indicated that between April and July 2003, 79% of such applications had been decided within two months.[122]

111. To assist in achieving the target, the Home Office state that they have made a number of "process improvements":

    "These include the setting of clear milestones to help monitor performance at key stages of the process, the use of management information reports derived from the Case Information Database to track the progress of individual cases, and the creation of a centralised unit to serve decisions that had previously been returned to individual Immigration Service Outstations for this purpose."[123]


112. In order to speed up the processing of applications, the Government has put in place 'fast track' procedures to deal with certain claimants. A fast-track detention centre has operated at Oakington in Cambridgeshire since March 2000. Asylum seekers are detained at Oakington "where it appears that their application can be decided quickly, including those which may be certified as manifestly unfounded".[124] The aim is to decide claims within about 7 to 10 days. The decision to send an asylum seeker to Oakington is taken at the initial screening. The most important factor in this decision is nationality. In the case of some countries, deemed by the Government to be 'safe', any national of that country claiming asylum can be detained at Oakington. In the case of other countries, decisions will depend on the nature of the claim: for instance, applicants from Pakistan may be detained there but not if their claim is based on their being Ahmadi, Christians or women, because those claims are treated as being of a more complex nature.[125]About 80% of detainees at Oakington are released after they receive a decision; the remainder are moved on to other detention facilities.[126]

113. Oakington has a capacity to hold about 400 detainees. In 2002, an initial decision was made on 7,775 asylum applicants held there. In 99% of these cases the application was refused. Of the cases refused, 94% (7,230) lodged an appeal. Of the 6,315 cases which have received an appeal outcome, 11% of appeals were allowed, 86% were dismissed, and 4% withdrawn. The top five applicant nationalities received at Oakington in 2002 were Chinese (14%), Zimbabwean (10%), Turkish (10%), Indian (10%) and Czech (8%).[127] The most recent figures available, for the third quarter of 2003, show that during that period an initial application was made on 1,060 cases; in every case the application was refused.[128]

114. A recent change in the law allows an asylum seeker to be removed from the country while their appeal is still pending, if the claim is certified as "clearly unfounded", and the applicant is entitled to live in a state where there is "no serious risk" of persecution. The Minister of State told us that "there will be a presumption, I think a legitimate presumption, that people coming from those countries would not have a legitimate claim".[129] This process of 'non-suspensive appeals' came into force in November 2002. Certified applicants who have been removed must pursue any appeal from abroad. The process is mainly administered at Oakington. [130]

115. Four Kurdish Iraqi asylum seekers sought judicial review of the decision to detain them at Oakington, arguing that this was contrary to Article 5 of the ECHR. In October 2002 the House of Lords ruled that detention for the purposes of speedy removal was lawful.[131]

116. A new fast-track scheme was announced by the Home Office in March 2003. This is being piloted at Harmondsworth removal centre. Up to 90 asylum seekers at a time with claims deemed to be 'straightforward' will be detained. The intention is that they will proceed from arrival to decision, through appeal and, if unsuccessful, removal, in about four weeks. The scheme is aimed particularly at new asylum claimants arriving at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports.[132]

117. One of the Home Office's Public Service Agreement targets for 2003-04 is for 70% of detainees in the fast-track schemes to be dealt with within 14 days. This target has not yet been met: as at December 2003, the average time in detention for those removed so far is 36 days.[133]


118. The Home Office claims that "while delivering greater speed and volume, it is also essential to sustain the high quality of initial decisions". [134] Notwithstanding this stated commitment, many of our witnesses were highly critical of the quality of initial decision-making on asylum applications.

119. The Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), for instance, described IND as "a department now notorious for its poor administrative performance." They stated that the reasons given by the Home Office for rejection of claims "often bear little relation to the basis on which the claim is made", and, as a result, many meritorious claims have to be unnecessarily appealed. IAS alleged that decisions are arbitrary, with two problems in particular:

  • Changes to a claimant's account often lead to rejection on grounds that he or she is not a credible witness, ignoring factors such as the fallibility of human memory and lack of early access to legal advice (which enables claimants to focus on what it is most relevant); and
  • Claimants are often rejected on a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' basis:

    "For example, a claimant who explains that he left his country at the first sign of trouble is rejected because he has not suffered any sustained problems. A claimant who remains in his country despite suffering persecution, perhaps because he did not have the resources to leave or felt tied or loyal to his country in some way, will be rejected on the grounds that he cannot be telling the truth or he would have left sooner."[135]

120. The Refugee Council, the Law Society, and many other of our witnesses made similar criticisms.[136] Asylum Aid told us that "refusal letters habitually disclose gross mis-statements of the application's details or the country information".[137] The Jesuit Refugee Service referred to "basic administrative errors—with serious consequences. We hear from our clients of important letters from the Home Office not arriving at all, or being sent to previous addresses."[138] IAS proposed a co-operative rather than confrontational approach to the assessment of claims, with IND being replaced by a new agency more independent of the Home Office, and resources 'front-loaded' to improve the quality of initial decisions.[139]

121. The Immigration Law Practitioners' Association argued that the Government's drive to speed up decision-making was proving counter-productive:

    "A failure to 'front load' the determination system, collecting the necessary information at the earliest possible stage and assessing this information in a way that stands up to scrutiny, leads to a system that is neither adequate nor fair. The demand for speed in initial decision-making furthermore lengthens and complicates the system as a whole, by ensuring that the initial decision is unlikely to be informed and sustainable. … Separating the staff involved in initial decision-making from those involved in defending those decisions at appeal ensures duplication of effort on a massive scale."[140]

122. The Home Offices itself acknowledges that "what happens at appeal is an important source of information about the quality of initial decisions".[141] Over the past ten years there has been a steep rise in initial-level appeals (i.e appeals from the initial decision to the adjudicators of the Immigration Appellate Authority), from 2,440 determined in 1994 to 64,405 determined in 2002. This has been accompanied by a significant rise in the proportion of appeals which are successful, from 4% in 1994 to 22% in 2002.[142] Critics of the Home Office argue that this level of successful appeals indicates that, in the words of Mr Keith Best, Chief Executive of IAS, "there is something terribly wrong with the initial system".[143]

123. Initial decision-making has been particularly criticised on the grounds that inadequate 'country information' is available to the Home Office—in other words information about the human-rights situation in the countries of origin of asylum seekers. Several witnesses, including the Refugee Council, called for the establishment of an independent documentation centre, to provide objective advice on conditions in asylum seekers' countries of origin.[144] The Law Society called attention to:

    "the use of incorrect country information. An example of this is the decisions to return applicants to Zimbabwe last year, despite it being unsafe to do so. The Government subsequently had to change its policy on this. … An independent documentation centre … if adequately resourced, would provide publicly accessible, accurate and up to date independent country information."[145]

124. The Government has set up an Advisory Panel on Country Information within the Home Office, as envisaged in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and it argues that this will be a source of objective information.[146] However, the Advisory Panel was described by Mr Keith Best, Chief Executive of IAS, as "a much, much watered down version" of the independent documentation centre.[147]

125. IND has been criticised not only for insufficient knowledge of the human rights situations in applicants' claimed countries of origin, but of lacking local knowledge which would give it a better chance of detecting fraudulent applications. The former asylum seekers who gave oral evidence to us argued that IND should employ refugees with direct personal knowledge of countries of origin.[148] Mr Mohammed Fahim Akbari told us:

    "most of the case workers … are not qualified. Even if they ask a question, they have them all written down and if you see the way they ask, all of them ask exactly the same questions."

Mr Akbari said that there were two national languages in his home country of Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto, and to a native of Afghanistan no Dari-speaker could be mistaken for a Pashtun, but Home Office caseworkers lacked this kind of local knowledge that would enable them to detect people who were not what they claimed to be.[149]

126. The Home Office has been exploring the potential value of language analysis in detecting such nationality fraud. In October 2003 the results were announced of a pilot study involving selected applicants from Afghanistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka. The applicants were told:

    "From the information you have supplied, we are not satisfied that you come from [country/area] as claimed. We therefore wish to give you the opportunity to substantiate your statements about your country/area of origin. If you agree to proceed, we will tape your statements and hand them over to an expert for analysis who will give their opinion on your place of origin. … We would like to ask you to talk about [country] in your own language."[150]

127. The study found that 9% of the total number of applicants, and 21% of claimed Somali nationals, were claiming a false nationality. A further 8% were found to be not from their claimed minority tribe. Where language testing had been deployed, the percentage of outright refusal decisions was 78% compared to 51% for the pilot nationalities as a whole. The percentage of appeal decisions upheld was also significantly higher for the selected applicants (86% as against 68% for the pilot nationalities as a whole). The pilot study will be followed up by a wider use of language analysis as part of the asylum screening process. The Home Office accepts that the credibility of such language analysis depends on the credentials of individual language analysts. It is considering setting up a language analysis bureau to address this issue.[151]

128. Several of our witnesses criticised what they claimed was a lack of good quality legal advice available to claimants.[152] The Refugee Society, for instance, stated that—

    "There is still no guarantee of quality legal representation from the outset of the asylum process, even though the Government has previously acknowledged that it can contribute to an efficient system."[153]

JCWI (the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants) claimed that "there is restricted access to legal information and advice".[154] Bail for Immigration Detainees likewise asserted that "some detained people do not have proper access to good quality legal advice … one illustration, of many, is that legal visits at Lindholme detention centre are restricted to three days a week, from 1.30 pm to 3 pm".[155]

129. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, has commented on the specific issue of the provision of legal assistance to people being detained. On the basis of her inspections of five immigration centres (including Oakington), she stated that detainees were unable easily to obtain good legal advice, and that in a number of centres they were clearly targeted by unscrupulous advisers who were able to prey on their vulnerability. Inadequate provision of interpreting services meant that detainees reported being unable to understand what representatives told them.[156] Language Line, which supplies interpretation services to public sector organisations in the UK including the Immigration Service and NASS, told us that they "do not believe that all organisations involved in the immigration process currently achieve best practice … in their provision and use of language services".[157]

130. In our report on asylum removals, we stated that "current arrangements for access to legal advice [for detainees] are inadequate". We recommended that the situation be improved either through the appointment of welfare officers within removal centres who could co-ordinate access to legal services, or by provision of access to a duty solicitor.[158] In its reply to our report, the Government agreed that all detainees should have access to competent legal advice. They added:

    "All detainees are told how to contact the IAS and RLC for advice and assistance, and they have access in removal centres to the free telephone lines operated by those two organisations. Information about finding a legal representative is displayed in removal centres. … The Legal Services Commission is currently considering letting contracts to solicitors local to removal centres in order to enhance access to legal representation."[159]

131. The Minister of State, responding to our witnesses' criticisms of the quality of initial decision-making and processing of applications, told us that "the priority has to be to get order into the system and to get the numbers down", but also that "I want to see … if we can make sure that we can say, hand on heart, that the decisions are all as high-quality as we would like them to be".[160]

132. The Home Office told us that caseworkers receive three weeks' initial asylum training and mentoring, followed by three days' interview skills training. They are "trained to conduct interviews objectively and impartially", while "it is recognised in particular that caseworkers should be equipped to deal fairly and sensitively with those applicants who have suffered torture or other forms of trauma". Caseworkers who deal with 'non-suspensive appeal' cases receive additional training. The quality of decision-making is sampled by internal and external (Treasury Solicitors) assessors.[161]

133. The Home Office's Public Service Agreement targets for 2003-04 include "taking high quality decisions". The criteria for meeting this target are:

i.  80% of decisions (grants and refusals of asylum), sampled at random over the year, are found to be fully effective or better; and

ii.  80% of decisions, assessed by external assessors over the year, are found to be fully effective or better.

Both criteria will increase to 85% for the year 2005-06.[162] The Home Office Autumn Performance Report 2003, issued in December 2003, states that outturn figures for the target will not be available till 2005.[163]

Processing of applications: conclusions

134. The Minister of State told us that—

It is clear that the decision-making capacity of the asylum system was badly affected by the failure in the late 1990s to introduce an operational computer system. This was a classic case of botched IT procurement, made worse by the failure of Home Office contingency planning.

135. Since then much effort has been put into, in the Minister's words, restoring "order and management and rationality" to the system, and it is right that the progress made towards this end should be acknowledged—even though much remains to do.

136. We believe that fast-track processes are justified in principle. There are substantial numbers of applications for asylum which are indeed "manifestly unfounded" or can for other reasons be disposed of swiftly, and it makes sense to sift out such applications for special treatment at the stage of initial screening. Following the Law Lords' ruling that detention for the purposes of fast decision-making and, if necessary, removal is lawful, the Government has taken steps to expand the system of 'fast-tracking'. We support the decision to pilot the fast-tracking of incoming airline passengers at Harmondsworth. However, it is important that claimants subject to fast-tracking procedures should be treated humanely and receive a fair hearing, with safeguards to ensure that any genuine refugees who have been sifted in error have their rights protected. We hope that HM Chief Inspector of Prisons will continue to monitor conditions at Oakington and Harmondsworth, as well as at other asylum detention centres, and we expect the Home Office to take action where necessary in response to her findings. We are not satisfied that the Government has done enough to ensure that adequate legal advice is available to asylum seekers and repeat the recommendation in our previous report (see paragraph 130 above) that steps should be taken to remedy this.

137. We commend the Government for its introduction of a comprehensive induction process for asylum seekers.[165] We observed induction procedures at first hand on our visit to Dover, and were impressed by the thoughtfulness with which they had been drawn up, and the balance struck in informing claimants both of their rights and their responsibilities. We support the establishment of dedicated induction centres. This will not only make the applications process more efficient, but also carry benefits in the provision of information and services to asylum seekers. We strongly endorse the Government's induction centre strategy.

138. We also support the Government's plans to introduce accommodation centres.[166] Such centres, if properly resourced, will operate as 'one-stop shops' to the benefit of asylum seekers, providing board, education, health, interpretation and purposeful activity on one site. They will enable applications to be processed more efficiently and lift some of the burden of asylum support from local authorities.

139. Given the delays in opening accommodation centres, and the fall in asylum applications, the Government in its response to this report should clarify how many accommodation centres it intends to establish, with what capacity, on what timetable and at what cost.

140. There will be some local sensitivities about the siting of both induction centres and accommodation centres. For induction centres, a flexible approach including the use of dispersed accommodation may reduce these concerns.

141. We recommend that the Government should move as quickly as possible towards a situation in which all asylum seekers are processed either through an induction centre, accommodation centre or a fast-tracking facility. The investment necessary to expand the IND estate must be made available as a matter of priority.

142. We welcome the Home Office's commitment to developing language analysis. The results of the recent pilot study (see paragraphs 126-27 above) confirm anecdotal evidence that there is a significant problem with asylum seekers falsely claiming certain nationalities. They also demonstrate the effectiveness of language analysis as a tool for detecting such fraud. We support the extension of the language analysis scheme as part of the asylum screening process and believe that this should be developed as quickly as possible.

143. Notwithstanding these positive initiatives, there are still grounds for concern about the poor quality of much initial decision-making by immigration officers and caseworkers. This is indicated not only by the near-unanimous view of our witnesses, but by the disturbing rise in the number of initial decisions successfully appealed against, from 4% in 1994 to 22% in 2002.[167] The pressure to speed up the process and increase through-put may have led to an erosion in the quality of some initial decision-making. In our recent report on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, we expressed support for the principle of moving to a single-tier of asylum appeals, as the Government propose, but we added:

    "The real flaws in the system appear to be at the stage of initial decision-making, not that of appeal. We recommend that the implementation of the new asylum appeals system should be contingent on a significant improvement in initial decision-making having been demonstrated. In particular, the relevant sections of the Act should not be brought into force until the statistics show a clear reduction in the number of successful appeals at the first-tier, adjudication level."[168]

144. We support the calls for greater 'front loading' of the applications system, that is, putting greater resources into achieving fair and sustainable decisions at an early stage. It is essential that better provision is made of good quality legal advice and interpretation services at the initial stage will not only serve the interests of justice, but eliminate much of the need for initial decisions to be reconsidered through the appeals process. We also recommend that the Home Office should seek to recruit a greater number of interpreters or caseworkers with specialist knowledge of asylum seekers' claimed countries of origin, to enable more informed decisions to be taken at the initial stage. Claimants whose applications have been accepted as genuine may, after suitable screening, be suitable candidates for these posts.

145. The overall calibre and training of the immigration officers and caseworkers who take the initial decisions also needs to be reviewed. The Home Office's Public Service Agreement targets for 2003-04 include "taking high quality decisions", with the aim that 80% of decisions should be assessed to be "fully effective or better". There are three grounds for concern about this target:

    i.  We note that no indications have yet been given of progress towards meeting the target.

    ii.  Even when the target for "fully effective or better" decisions has been raised to 85% in 2005-06, that will still leave 15% of decisions, or 3 in 20, as less than fully effective, which is an unacceptably high proportion.

    iii.  Although Treasury Solicitors will provide "external" assessment of progress towards the target, there is no provision for independent, extra-governmental assessment.

146. We recommend that the Government should publish details of the Treasury Solicitors' assessment of the quality of IND decision-making on asylum applications. We further recommend that the Home Office should commission an independent review of the quality of that decision-making, and publish its results. We also recommend that the Public Service Agreement targets for future years should be more challenging. A reduction in the current relatively high proportion of successful appeals should be formally included as part of the target. The system of decision-making should be subject to constant assessment and review.

147. The aim with regard to initial decisions should be, as elsewhere in the system, to combine efficiency with fairness. This means holding early interviews, but in circumstances where their fairness cannot be challenged, i.e. conducted in the presence of interpreters, with legal advice, medical reports and accurate country information available at the right stage in the process, thereby minimising grounds for appeal.

148. Finally, it is essential that the system of processing asylum applications should be properly resourced. When we took evidence in July 2003 from Mr John Gieve, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, we were astonished to find that the Treasury had still not agreed the IND budget for the current financial year. More recently, the Home Office announced that although IND's resource budget for 2003-04 was £1,713 million, "discussions on the detail of a settlement on additional funding continue with the Treasury".[169] On 12 January 2004 the Home Office told us that "negotiations with the Treasury have now concluded and the revised budget for IND for 2003-04 will be reflected in the Spring Supplementary Estimates."[170]

149. A failure to fund the system adequately during the period of the computer crisis undoubtedly exacerbated that situation. It is profoundly unsatisfactory that a key service has to operate without a defined budget. While this remains the case, it is difficult to have any confidence that the necessary 'front-loading' of the applications system will take place. We strongly urge the Treasury and the Home Office to reach agreement on the extra investment needed in the asylum system in good time for the next spending round, and for that investment to be keyed significantly to the 'front-loading' of the system.

The recent reduction in applications—and its consequences

150. On 7 February 2003 the Prime Minister, speaking on BBC Newsnight, said that the most effective way of tackling the asylum problem was "to stop the numbers coming in … I would like to see us reduce it by 30 or 40% in the next few months and I think by September we should have it halved". The figure should go below 45,000 "in years to come", he added.[171] In the House on 12 February he stated that this reduction was "a firm commitment".[172] Giving evidence to us on 8 May, the Minister of State was confident that the commitment would be met. However, she acknowledged that the baseline month was "a peak month for that year", which would make achieving the target easier.[173]

151. In November 2003 the Government announced that it had met the Prime Minister's commitment. The asylum statistics for the third quarter of 2003 show numbers down 52%, with 4,225 applications in September 2003 compared to 8,770 in October 2002.[174] The number of applications in the whole quarter was up slightly on the previous quarter (11,955 as against 10,585), but the overall trend in the past year has been clearly downwards (with the three previous quarters having had 16,000, 22,760 and 22,030 applications respectively). The Home Office attributes the decrease in applications to the impact of measures in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2001 (such as non-suspensive appeals and benefit restrictions), tighter border controls, new visa regimes and the replacement of exceptional leave to remain with the new category of humanitarian leave.[175]

152. What is not clear from the published figures is the extent to which these various new measures, rather than dissuading people from seeking illegally to enter the UK, may be dissuading them from claiming asylum when they have already arrived in the country. In other words, there may be a 'displacement effect', with fewer asylum applicants but more non-declared illegal immigrants.

153. In the nature of things it is not possible to know how many people are illegally present in the UK. It is arguable that a compulsory national identity card scheme might 'flush out' significant numbers of such people—although it might be that some would continue to lead an underground existence, lacking a card, working illegally and therefore statistically invisible. We will review the arguments for and against an identity card scheme in a separate inquiry in the present Session of Parliament.

154. A further issue arising from the fall in applications was raised by Dr Heaven Crawley of the IPPR. She claimed that the latest asylum figures show that measures intended to deter economic migrants are also excluding those in need of protection:

    "The Home Office has introduced a range of measures which it believes will deter and prevent economic migrants from using the asylum system to avoid UK immigration controls. At the same time it has pledged to provide protection to those genuinely in need. If the measures had been successful in meeting both these objectives, we would expect to see the number of those granted refugee status increase proportionately. The fact that we have not suggests that the measures fail to differentiate between those who are genuinely in need of protection and those who are not. The reduction in the number of applications has been achieved principally by making it difficult for everyone, regardless of their circumstances, to get into the UK."[176]

155. We subsequently asked the Minister of State how she responded to the argument that if unfounded claims are reduced, one would expect to see a proportionate increase in the grant rate. She replied:

    "I think that is a spurious argument. It fails to take account of the fact that as a result of some of the measures that we have introduced, not least Non-Suspensive Appeals, and also as a result of changing country conditions, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq, then you actually get a changing mix of people from which asylum claims are being drawn. It is not a variable that is fixed, your mix of countries changes, and that means the actual quality of the claims that are put forward is different and that has to be taken into account."[177]

156. We welcome the recent fall in applications. There is no doubt that this is due at least in part to the range of measures the Government has introduced over the past 18 months to deter unfounded applications for asylum. It is clear that as the border control and asylum application system is tightened, as incentives to claim asylum in-country are reduced, and as action is taken against people trafficking, the number of applications is being reduced. The measures in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, currently before Parliament, will have the effect of reducing applications further. It is possible that a future fall in applications may reflect at least in part the increasing difficulty of simply making a claim, whether well founded or spurious. There also remains scope for doubt as to the extent to which the fall may be offset by an increase in the number of people illegally present and undeclared within the UK.

157. It has been argued that the absence of an increase in the proportion of successful applications as the overall number of applications has fallen suggests that genuine refugees are being deterred from applying. Although we note the Minister's counter-argument that this is not necessarily the case because the mix of countries of origin is also changing, we fear that there is some substance in these fears.

158. The recent fall in applications has not been accompanied by a rise in the success rate at the stage of initial decisions. In fact, the success rate has actually fallen. In the case of those granted refugee status, the fall has been a slight one: from 10% in 2002, to 7% in the first and second quarters of 2003, to 5% in the third quarter. In the case of those granted leave to remain on humanitarian grounds the fall has been steep: from 24% in 2002, to 19% in the first quarter of 2003, and then—after the introduction of the two new categories of humanitarian protection or discretionary leave—to 7% in the second and third quarters of 2003.[178]

159. The measures in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill currently before Parliament, if enacted, are likely to make it even more difficult to make an asylum claim in the UK. This may be an unintended effect of measures such as those to crack down on people traffickers—however illegal their activities, people traffickers are used by genuine as well as unjustified claimants.

160. As it becomes increasingly difficult to get into the UK to make an asylum claim, it must be the case that many people who would have a well-founded case for asylum will be unable to make a claim. In addition, the dependence on people traffickers means that asylum is overwhelmingly an option only available to young men from relatively financially supportive backgrounds. They are not necessarily representative of the refugee population that would potentially be able to claim asylum in the UK.

161. This is an inescapable consequence of the border-control and other measures which the Government have taken in order to crack down on abuse. We do not criticise the Government for taking such measures, but we do believe that their full implications for potential genuine asylum seekers must be recognised. The Government should acknowledge that, as genuine claims become harder to make, more needs to be done to fulfil the UK's humanitarian obligations to the world's refugees by alternative means. There is a moral obligation on the Government to provide alternative legitimate routes by which refugees can gain access to this country, to assist refugees closer to their country of origin, and to tackle the roots of enforced migration.

162. Secondly, as the system for applications is tightened, we can expect a rise in illegal migration and illegal working, whether by failed asylum seekers or by those who do not make an asylum application. It is important that the Government should devote as much attention to this problem as it has done to the level of asylum applications.

86   Source: Ev 265; see also Ev 236 Back

87   The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and the current Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. Back

88   Computer Weekly, 22 February 2001 Back

89   The early history of the project is set out in Committee of Public Accounts, Seventh Report of Session 1999-2000, Home Office: The Immigration and Nationality Directorate's Casework Programme (HC 130), published in January 2000. Back

90   HC (1999-2000) 130, paras 14, 16, 30-31 Back

91   HC Deb, 6 February 2001, col 497W Back

92   Ev 168 Back

93   Q 4 Back

94   Q 32 Back

95   Ev 169 Back

96   See para 79 above. Back

97   Ev 168 Back

98   Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2003, p 3; Qq 22-25 Back

99   Q 25 Back

100   HC Deb, 27 July 1998, col 41 Back

101   Fairer, faster and firmer: a modern approach to immigration and asylum (Cm 4018), July 1998, para 8.28 Back

102   Cm 4018, paras 8.29-30; see also HC Deb, 27 July 1998, cols 39-41, and HC Deb, 26 October 1998, col 18. Back

103   Home Office press notice 295/2003, Clearing the decks for tough new asylum measures, dated 24 October 2003 Back

104   IbidBack

105   HC (2003-04) 109, Ev 16 (para 5.1), Ev 23 (para 3) Back

106   Ibid., Ev 16 (para 5.2) Back

107   Ibid., Ev 39 (paras 3, 5) Back

108   Q 889 Back

109   Qq 898-99 Back

110   Home Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2000-01, Border Controls (HC 163), published on 31 January 2001. The Government's reply was published on 28 March 2001 as the Committee's Fourth Special Report of Session 2000-01 (HC 375). Back

111   HC (2000-01) 163-I, paras 109, 116 Back

112   HC (2000-01) 375, para 44 Back

113   HC Deb, 3 July 2003, col 625 Back

114   Qq 50-51 Back

115   See Q 774. Back

116   IND press notice 273/2003, New detection technology to prevent illegal immigration, dated 6 October 2003. Back

117   Q 774 Back

118   Ev 172; Qq 777, 781 Back

119   HC Deb, 23 June 2003, col 29WS; Home Office press notice 280/2003, Tighter visa regimes to improve border control, dated 15 October 2003 Back

120   HC (2003-04) 109, paras 20, 23, 26, 29, 33 Back

121   Home Office Targets: Annual Performance Report 2003 (Cm 6057), December 2003 Back

122   IbidBack

123   Ev 167 Back

124   HC Deb, 16 March 2000, col 263W Back

125   Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, JCWI Immigration, nationality and refugee law handbook, ed Duran Seddon (2002), p 507 Back

126   JWCI handbook, p 508 Back

127   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, paras 40-42 Back

128   Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2003, p 9 Back

129   Q 41 Back

130   HC (2002-03) 654-I, para 37; AA 33, p 3 Back

131   R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Saadi (FC) and others (FC) (Appellants), [2002] HL 41 Back

132   Home Office press notice 074/2003, New fast track pilot for asylum claims, dated 18 March 2003; Ev 167, 171-72 Back

133   Cm 6057, PSA 7 Back

134   Ev 168 Back

135   Ev 195-96 Back

136   Ev 239, 222-23 Back

137   Ev 154 (para 3.4) Back

138   Evidence not printed Back

139   Ev 196 Back

140   Ev 207 Back

141   Ev 168 Back

142   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, paras 25-30; Tables 7.1-2 Back

143   Q 401 Back

144   Ev 239 (para 2.6) Back

145   Ev 222 Back

146   HC (2002-03) 654-II, Qq 629-30, 799 Back

147   Q 454 Back

148   Q 631-33, 659-60 Back

149   Qq 632-33 Back

150   Home Office, Evaluation of Language Analysis Pilot: Summary of Findings, Annex B Back

151   HC Deb, 21 October 2003, cols 35-36WS; Evaluation of Language Analysis Pilot: Summary of Findings, para 4.2 Back

152   The specific issue of legal aid to asylum seekers is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Back

153   Ev 239 (para 2.3) Back

154   Ev 210 Back

155   Evidence from Bail for Immigration Detainees (not printed) Back

156   Inspection of five Immigration custodial establishments (April 2003), pp 67 Back

157   Ev 221 Back

158   HC (2002-03) 654-I, para 99 Back

159   HC (2002-03) 1006, p 10 Back

160   Q 26 Back

161   Ev 168 Back

162   IbidBack

163   Cm 6057, PSA 7 Back

164   Q17; see also Q 32. Back

165   See para 17 above. Back

166   See para 19 above. Back

167   See above, para 20 Back

168   HC (2003-04) 109, para 43 Back

169   Letter dated 17 December 2003 from the Minister of State, in reply to a Written Question tabled by Mrs Claire Curtis-Thomas MP, Annex C Back

170   Ev 263-64 Back

171 Back

172   HC Deb, 12 February 2003, col 861 Back

173   Q 56 Back

174   Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2003; Home Office press notice 325/2003, Government meets target to halve asylum applications, dated 27 November 2003 Back

175   Ev 169 Back

176   IPPR press notice, 28 August 2003 Back

177   Q 797 Back

178   Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002; Asylum Statistics: 3rd Quarter 2003 Back

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