Select Committee on Home Affairs Fifth Report


480. We now consider the treatment of those who come into contact with the immigration system. The idea that immigration control must provide a good service to customers has not been fully realised in the work of the immigration authorities.[480] As we have said above, the majority of the people they deal with are foreign nationals who pay a fee and whom we wish to be able to travel easily to this country. Many are relatives of British residents, and others are tourists, students and business people whose travel here is beneficial to the short- and long-term health of the economy (see paragraphs 22 to 32) But the other side of the immigration authorities' role is control - ensuring that people do not enter or stay in the UK unlawfully - and it is this aspect which has been dominant.

481. We acknowledge the conflicting pressures on the IND and UKvisas, but emphasise that the need to maintain the integrity of the immigration system must be balanced against the need to ensure a high-quality service to the millions of people whom we wish to be able to travel easily to the UK.

482. Applicants have to pay substantial fees and yet they have many complaints about delays and the difficulty of checking progress on their applications. Immigration control also provides a service to the resident population in attempting to ensure that only those people who are entitled to be in the UK are actually here, and yet there is considerable frustration that allegations of immigration violations are not apparently followed up (we deal with this issue at paragraphs 449 to 452.

Levels of fees

483. Most people applying for visas or leave to remain in the UK now have to pay a fee. Visa applications have for a long time incurred a fee, but charging for in-country immigration applications to cover the costs of this service began only on 1 April 2003.

484. In April 2005 the fees for in-country applications were raised. The "premium service" for certain applicants who apply in person and receive a same-day service costs £500, and the standard fee for postal applications for leave to remain is now £335. Students applying by post pay a smaller fee of £250, and applying by post to have existing leave transferred to a new passport costs £160. Some categories of applicant are exempt from paying a fee. [481]

485. The IND tells us that the new fees have not put people off applying: "Demand has remained strong overall, exceeding forecast, with no evidence that the price of our fees has had an effect on overall demand."[482]

486. UKvisas is supposed to meet the full cost of the visa operation from its fees. In July 2005 these fees were revised: a six-month visit visa now costs £50; most other temporary visas, including student and employment, cost £85; and settlement and marriage visas cost £260.

487. It is not at all clear why the fees are so much higher for the IND than for UKvisas. When we asked for an analysis and comparison of overseas and in-country fees, we were told that this was not possible "on a like for like basis" because the two organisations are "discrete businesses, each governed by its own regulatory regime and functioning on an independent cost base." [483]

488. The two sample cost breakdowns sent to us, relating to the cost of student applications, revealed surprising results, for instance that the salary costs per student application were calculated at £62.71 for UK applications but only £34.16 for overseas applications. Dominic Scott of UKCOSA said that he finds it difficult to understand why a student visa costs £85 but an extension costs £250 or £500, particularly since the initial application involves detailed checks but allowing someone to stay an extra year or move college should be an extremely simple process.[484]

489. UKvisas has not produced Regulatory Impact Assessments of increases to visa fees. By contrast, the Home Office carried out two RIAs when considering the increase to in-country application fees from 1 April 2005.

490. We know from our own experience as constituency MPs that the £160 fee for transferring a stamp to a new passport is the cause of many complaints.

491. The calculation of visa fees and in-country fees should be aligned at least in terms of what costs are taken into account and the impact assessment which accompanies them. If the levels of fees are to remain so different, the Government must be able to provide a clear and valid justification.


492. Delay is the cause of 90% of complaints to the IND (see paragraph 509 below). The IND receives 40,000 letters a year from Members of Parliament (almost two a week on average from each of the 464 MPs) arising from constituents' dissatisfaction with the IND's service.[485] Most of these are about delay. Delay is also the subject of thousands of telephone calls to the MPs' hotlines.

493. As we noted above (paragraphs 223 to 224), the IND's targets appear to result in difficult cases being left to the bottom of the pile. Witnesses alleged that easy cases are handled within the time targets but the more difficult ones drag on for months.[486] The IND told us that the longest processing time for a non-charged application in the last five years is 840 days (or 579 working days).[487]

494. There is an unacceptable level of delay in the IND's immigration casework, which leads to tens of thousands of complaints every year to both the IND itself and Members of Parliament. The IND must address this problem at its source by investing in initial decision-making and instilling a culture which does not allow cases to disappear into 'black holes'.

495. MPs' correspondence is handled by a separate section of IND which is not part of the Complaints Unit and provides a different level of service. The AIT has also recently introduced a specialised unit for handling MPs' correspondence. Both the IND and UKvisas have telephone hotlines which only MPs and their staff are allowed to use.

496. Although constituents do come direct to MPs with their immigration problems, many immigration applications are referred to MPs by advisers because that is seen as the only way of making progress with a case. In some circumstances they will charge their clients for writing a letter to an MP asking him or her to take up the case with Ministers, a service which MPs provide for nothing.[488] Many Members find a large proportion of their constituency caseload taken up by immigration cases.

497. It would not be appropriate for the Committee to advise Members of Parliament how to carry out their constituency duties, but we believe that they should consider carefully whether, when the appeals system has clearly been exhausted, it is wise to pursue an immigration case, as this is likely only to cause further delays which are inconsistent with the aim of a smoothly functioning and efficient immigration and appeals system.

498. We do not believe it to be appropriate that Members of Parliament have become an integral part of the immigration system upon which even representatives rely to make progress with a case. UKvisas, the IND and the AIT must improve their systems for handling inquiries and complaints so that applicants and representatives do not need to short-circuit the system by going through their MPs.

Checking progress of applications

499. Providing information to applicants about the progress of their cases is a basic customer service, yet we were told of considerable dissatisfaction.

500. The IND's Immigration and Nationality Enquiry Bureau (INEB) is the main telephone contact centre for the Croydon, Sheffield and Liverpool operations. As well as handling calls asking for general information, it also deals with telephone enquiries about individual cases. INEB caseworkers we met on our visit there suggested that nine out of ten calls are about the progress of a case, but they told us that they are not allowed to put the caller through to a caseworker who could answer the question. Nor are they allowed to divulge the information about the case which is available to them. Callers are told instead that they have to write to or fax the caseworkers, but often they receive no response. This leads to frustration and complaints.

501. ILPA told us about the problems they as representatives encounter in contacting the IND via INEB rather than directly, and also about delays in responses to inquiries from posts abroad: "I cannot think of any other business with which you might chose to engage where, when you have given them your money and made an application and when you ring up you are told you cannot speak to anybody who is dealing with this matter". The one good example in their view is Work Permits (UK), which they find accessible and efficient.[489]

502. IAS notes variations in accessibility of visa sections overseas:

    Some Posts are relatively accessible and it is possible to telephone, fax or email and receive a reply. Other Posts appear impervious to communication, making it extremely difficult to negotiate or to ask for a decision to be meaningfully reviewed. An expensive appeal then becomes necessary. This also applies to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, with which it is virtually impossible to communicate by any means.[490]

503. UKvisas has a central telephone enquiry number but it is no longer available to most callers from overseas. Overseas callers are encouraged instead to contact their local British visa section, or to email, write or fax UKvisas.

504. In some cases we recognise that there might be security implications to keeping applicants informed of progress on their case, but in all others we think it would be beneficial. In at least some cases a knowledge of the reasons why an application was delayed might enable an applicant or sponsor to provide or clarify relevant information and thus reduce the pressure on the system. Some progress towards this has been made: in the outsourced visa application centre we visited in Lagos we were shown the centre's website which included a facility for applicants to track the progress of their cases online.[491]

505. The frustration caused to applicants by being unable to find out the progress on their applications leads to large numbers of complaints, and is unacceptable. The Government should carry out a review of the information given to applicants and their representatives on the progress of their cases, with a view to providing as much information as possible, even to telephone callers. A system which would let all applicants track the progress of their case online would enormously reduce the number of enquiries and complaints.

Handling complaints

506. The IND Complaints Unit acts as the central point of contact for all complaints about the IND. Complaints are categorised as either operational or formal. Operational complaints relate to the way the IND works, so may for instance be about the time taken to process an application, or the lack of accurate information or facilities. The department responsible for investigating the complaint will be responsible for informing the complainant of the outcome. Formal complaints are about the conduct of an individual member of IND staff, for example if an applicant considers staff to have been inefficient, rude, offensive or unprofessional. The IND Complaints Unit will take responsibility for co-ordinating these investigations, and when the investigation of a formal complaint is complete, the complaint file will be audited by the IND Complaints Audit Committee (CAC), an independent panel set up in 1994. The IND aims to provide an answer to operational complaints within four weeks and the findings of formal investigations within eight weeks.

507. The new Chairman of the CAC, Dr Ann Barker, is scathing in her criticism of the IND's complaints system:

508. There are 500 to 600 formal complaints a year, about one third of which are so serious (for instance allegations of assault) that they should, in Dr Barker's opinion, be referred to the police.[493] The CAC's recent audit of formal complaints against named individuals indicated a very low quality of service: it found that in three out of four investigations the evidence-gathering was inequitable (complainants are not interviewed, there is no attempt to test their evidence, and little independent evidence on their side, in contrast to "quite detailed investigation on the side of the official in regard to independent witnesses and any other corroborating evidence),[494] and in two replies to complainants out of three, the reasons given were "indefensible".[495] And yet these investigations cost £3,000 each.[496]

509. Dr Barker notes that the CAC has hitherto not audited "operational complaints", i.e. those relating to the way the IND works as opposed to formal complaints relating to the attitudes and behaviour of staff. The CAC has carried out an initial scoping exercise which indicates that the number of formal complaints is dwarfed by the number of operational complaints, of which there are about 26,000 a year. 90% of operational complaints arise from delays in decision-making.[497] Dr Barker told us that "it is completely unknown how much is being spent" on these complaints, but that a "large and incalculable amount of money is being wasted".[498]

510. Dr Barker concludes that the problems with the complaints system in the IND have arisen for reasons which include:

  • a "defensive culture in regard to complaints" within the IND
  • a lack of real customer focus with complaints being seen as a nuisance and accorded low priority
  • complaints not being viewed as a source of business intelligence or management information
  • lack of relevant skills amongst officials
  • fragmentation of the complaints handling system (the IS and the IND operate separate systems; databases are incompatible; there is poor file management and tracking)

·  a lack of agreed standards and effective procedures for handling operational complaints, and inadequate guidance on handling formal complaints. [499]

511. She calls for "a fundamental reform of the way complaints are viewed and handled", with "a strategic realignment of complaints management within the business cycle". She makes the following recommendations:

  • there should be a single complaints system (and a single central database) for the whole organisation, but with a variety of channels for making a complaint to it
  • complaints should be categorised more effectively so that each receives an appropriate response
  • there should be more intensive investigation of complaints of serious misconduct (one third of complaints against individuals fit into this category) with reference to the Independent Police Complaints Commission in the most serious cases
  • the option of informal resolution should be available for less serious complaints of misconduct
  • the system should provide real-time business intelligence to enable managers to improve their performance.[500]

512. On this last point, she suggested that at the moment "The opportunity to redress service deficiencies has been lost. The organisation cannot learn from its mistakes."[501]

513. When we visited the Complaints Unit on our visit to the IND in Croydon we were told that it is in the middle of a period of change, that it is looking to redefine complaints to remove the artificial distinction between formal and operational complaints and that new software is being introduced to improve the monitoring of complaints and include follow-up action.

514. Fiona Lindsley, formerly Independent Monitor for Entry Clearance Refusals without the right of appeal, told us that although relatively few people complain about visa applications, in about two thirds of cases she found responses to complaints unsatisfactory.[502] UKvisas does not have an equivalent of the CAC.

515. Whilst we welcome the extension of the IND Complaints Audit Committee's role to cover the huge number of "operational complaints", we call for the Government to implement a single immigration complaints system, covering both the IND and UKvisas, with a variety of channels of complaint and a variety of methods for dealing with those complaints, ranging from informal resolution to intensive investigation. We particularly emphasise the need for the organisation and individuals within it to learn from substantiated complaints.

480   Dr Ann Barker, the Chair of the IND Complaints Audit Committee, commented that her predecessor "did a very good job of raising officials' awareness of the fact that they had customers".Q 14, 13 December 2005 Back

481   Levels of fees are set out in regulations made under s. 5 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (as amended) Back

482   Ev 52, HC 775-II Back

483   Ev 390, HC 775-III Back

484   Q 652, 9 May 2006 Back

485   Ev 69, HC 775-II Back

486   Ev 85, HC 775-II and Q 285, 17 January 2006 Back

487   Ev 255, HC 775-III Back

488   Qq 245-251, 17 January 2006 Back

489   Ev 75, paras 36-37, HC 775-III; Q 250, Q 280, Q 285 and Q 302-304, 17 January 2006 Back

490   Ev 41, para 4.5, HC 775-II Back

491  Back

492   Q 2, 13 December 2006 Back

493   Qq 16-20, 13 December 2005 Back

494   Q 5, 13 December 2005  Back

495   Ev 69, HC 775-II Back

496   Q 21, 13 December2005 Back

497   Ev 69, HC 775-II Back

498   Q 12 and Q 21, 13 December 2005 Back

499   Ev 69, HC 775-II Back

500   Ev 70, HC 775-II Back

501   Ev 69, HC 775-II Back

502   Q 27, 13 December 2005 Back

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