Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

18.  Memorandum submitted by the IND Complaints Audit Committee

  1.  Lin Homer, Director General of IND, and Joanna Place, Director of the Change and Reform Directorate, challenged us to be robust and rigorous in discharging our remit. We have acted on this mandate when conducting the first three quarterly audits of 2005.

  2.  The most recent survey of complainants by the Customer Focus Unit highlighted the following:

    —  One in four found the service of the IND Complaints Unit good or very good;

    —  One in four found it OK;

    —  Half were dissatisfied—one in three found it poor and one in five found it very poor;

    —  One in three felt that a full and impartial investigation had been carried out;

    —  Less than half felt that their complaint had been taken seriously.

  3.  Our own audit findings in regard to formal complaints against named officials indicate a significantly lower quality of service:

    —  In three out of four investigations the evidence gathering was inequitable;

    —  In two replies to complainants out of three the reasons given were indefensible.

  This is serious insofar as IND is exercising significant new powers which have an impact on the lives and personal safety of thousands of asylum seekers. Enforcement, removals and detention involve police-like powers of entry to premises, restraint of persons, detention in holding centres and forceable removal. These powers are exercised over people who are often both vulnerable and desperate. If the UK asylum system is to work properly, it must protect those whom society may least wish to protect. In this regard an effective complaints system is vital to expose and redress misconduct, malpratice and unlawful violence. The current system patently fails to do this.

  4.  Operational complaints relating to poor quality of service have never been audited by the CAC. Our initial scoping exercise shows that:

    —  IND estimates approximately 26,000 pa;

    —  Our analysis of 3,000 indicates that 90% arise from delays in decision-making.

  It is important to stress that the above are limited to complaints made in writing. Attempts to resolve service deficiencies by informal means such as personal visits and telephone calls are not recorded. An indication of customers' frustration is the 40,000 MPs letters p.a. arising from constituents' dissatisfaction with IND service.

  To our minds these failures mean that the opportunity to redress service deficiencies has been lost. The organisation cannot learn from its mistakes. A vicious circle has been created in which initial complaints have not been properly resolved, further complaints relating to the same incident have been registered and resources have been wasted. The current system appears to us to be unmanageable and at risk of spiralling out of control. For example, we have been told about repositories holding thousands of files awaiting decisions. These include files relating to the deportation of failed asylum seekers. Given our finding that "delayed decisions" is a major cause of operational complaints, we are concerned that work in progress on these files could lead to further complaints and MP cases.

  5.  Based on our audits, visits, meetings and discussion with staff, we conclude that these problems have arisen because:

    —  IND has had a defensive culture in regard to complaints.

    —  IND's approach has lacked real customer focus insofar as complaints have been seen as a nuisance and have been given low priority. An indication of this is the delay in processing complaints to agreed targets.

    —  Complaints are not viewed as a source of business intelligence or management information.

    —  Complaints are not an integral part of the business planning cycle.

    —  The complaints handling system does not meet Cabinet Office standards.

    —  The complaints handling system is fragmented: IS and IND operate separate systems; databases are incompatible; poor file management and tracking increases inefficiency.

    —  Officials lack the skills to conduct proper investigations into complaints against named individuals.

    —  To date there has been a lack of clear values, agreed standards and effective procedures for handling operational complaints. There is guidance on handling complaints against named officials, but we assess these as inadequate.

  6.  In our view the system requires a fundamental reform of the way complaints are viewed and handled. It also requires a strategic realignment of complaints management within the business cycle and organisational thinking so that the customer is at the centre of business activities and complaints handling. We are encouraged by early discussions with the 2010 team responsible for strategic improvement of IND to 2010.

  7.  We have recommended that:

    —  There should be a single system for the whole organisation.

    —  This system should be more discerning than the current system in order properly to deal with different types of complaints. We have created a matrix to assist IND to categorise complaints more effectively and improve decision-making about the way complaints are handled.

    —  It should focus rigorously on investigating complaints of serious misconduct. One third of complaints against individuals are so serious that they should be investigated by a small group of properly-trained investigators working to proper standards and guidance to ensure a thorough investigation which would withstand independent scrutiny. In accordance with ministerial wishes we have assisted officials in designing a mechanism to call in the IPCC in the most serious cases.

    —  It should offer the option of informal resolution for complaints of less serious misconduct. Our audit has highlighted that two-thirds of complaints against named individuals can be handled by informal resolution. This would require fewer resources than currently expended and would greatly improve customer satisfaction.

    —  It should provide a means of redress through service recovery so that matters are quickly put right for complainants.

    —  It should provide real-time business intelligence to enable managers to improve performance and service.

    —  It should be an integral part of the business planning cycle and should form part of a strategy to develop professional standards in IND.

  8.  We have found examples of good practice which we have saluted in our current audit. We are encouraged that IND senior executives and senior managers have responded positively to some of our recommendations and are engaging with us in devising ways to improve systems.

13 December 2005

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