Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

25.  Memorandum submitted by Law Centre NI


  Law Centre NI is a voluntary organisation which provides specialist legal services to advice organisations for disadvantaged individuals. Five specialist lawyers carry out our immigration and asylum work and we represent in a substantial number of all immigration appeals in Northern Ireland. We are the main advisors on immigration law in Northern Ireland. We operate an advice line five days a week and answer queries in relation to all aspects of immigration law. We also facilitate the Immigration Practitioners' Group which consists of lawyers and voluntary sector organisations. It meets regularly to discuss all aspects of immigration law and practice in Northern Ireland. Our written submissions have been informed by our knowledge and experience. We also endorse the written submissions of ILPA, of which we are a member.


  1.  There have been numerous significant and substantial attempts by various governments to improve immigration control in the UK. These changes have been both to substantive areas of law and to procedures and practice adopted by the Immigration Service. In particular, in 1998 the present government in response to the previous failings of the system published a white paper, which sought to achieve "a firmer, faster and fairer" system of immigration control. In our view, notwithstanding subsequent substantial changes both procedurally and to the legal framework, the system of immigration control is still cumbersome, arbitrary and ineffective. In general, changes to practice and procedure in immigration law have overlooked the concerns and needs of Northern Ireland. We outline below our main areas of concern, but in summary:

    —  there is no public enquiry office in Northern Ireland (see paragraphs 3, 14 & 20 below);

    —  poor quality of decisions especially involving applications made by Irish nationals or their family under EEA law (see paragraphs 9, 12 below);

    —  enforced removals from Northern Ireland (see paragraph 15 below);

    —  detention of migrants in Northern Ireland (see paragraph 21 below); and

    —  conduct of the Immigration Service in Northern Ireland is not covered by equality legislation (see paragraph 22 below).


  2.  Significant resources have been spent on trying to improve the organisation of the UK Immigration Service (UKIS), including a number of structural changes within the organisation itself. Unfortunately these additional resources and changes have made little impact on the ground for practitioners or migrants. The exception is Work Permit's (UK), which is now reasonably accessible and informative.

  3.  In Northern Ireland we are particularly affected by the lack of a Public Enquiry Office, which was closed in 2001. The Immigration Service's only presence now in Northern Ireland is at the International Airport with a limited responsibility, namely just on entry into the UK. The lack of a Public Enquiry Office impacts in a number of ways. For example, asylum seekers have to claim asylum through a third party and there is a lack of clarity as to which section of UKIS has responsibility for casework in Northern Ireland. Generally it is Immigration Service office in Liverpool and officers from that section come to Northern Ireland on an irregular basis to conduct interviews and enforce removal. However, on occasions staff at Manchester, Croydon or Belfast have managed files without any apparent rationale and more than one section of UKIS and the Home Office have become involved. This can create significant practical problems, especially at times of emergency, for example, when copies of important documentation such as a notice of removal direction, cannot be provided as the file is in transit and not accessible. Another problem is ascertaining who has ultimate responsibility for a particular case. Recently, we negotiated the return of one of our clients to Northern Ireland with Liverpool UKIS, only for those arrangements to be cancelled without notice by the Third Country Unit within the Home Office, as this Unit had in fact responsibility for the case. This led our client to be separated from her family for a number of days.

  4.  These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the only source of information is the Public Telephone Enquiry Bureau. When you eventually get through, although you are usually able to clarify at what stage a particular case is at, numerous clients have been wrongly and ill-advised about how to regularise their immigration status. This has caused significant problems at a later stage. One of our clients was incorrectly advised to make an application for indefinite leave to remain. The application was refused, when in our view if he had been advised to make an application for a further extension this would have been granted.

  5.  There are also particular problems with the European Casework Unit. We advise and assist substantial number of cases involving applications under EEA law. This arises from the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland in relation to dual British and Irish nationality. There can be significant delays in processing these applications, notwithstanding that there is a requirement under European Law for these applications to be dealt with promptly and effectively and certainly within six months. Further. it is also virtually impossible to liaise with the Unit because there are no contact details (compare with our positive experiences with Work Permit's (UK)).

  6.  There still appears to be a lack of co-ordination between the various sections of the UKIS and the Home Office. By way of illustration following the successful appeal by an applicant he has now been waiting over a year to obtain his passport. We have sent numerous letters to the Home Office in Croydon and UKIS in Liverpool and Manchester. We have received only one helpful response, when we were advised that his passport was on his port file. However, his passport has still not been returned and we have not been able to locate his port file.

7.   Entry clearance posts

  Although e-mail has eased communication with entry clearance officers, many of our clients have raised numerous concerns about the quality of service they have received, especially those posts where applications have to be lodged through an agency.

8.   Enforcement Unit

  Co-ordination appears to be a particular problem with the Enforcement Unit. the Unit frequently is not aware of the up to date position or circumstances of a particular individual. For example, one family were picked up on an early morning swoop at their home notwithstanding the fact that the father had an outstanding appeal to the Court of Appeal.


9.   Entry clearance decisions

  We have seen a recent statement by the Immigration Minister outlining the steps seeking to try and improve the quality of decisions. However, these minor changes are not going to substantially or significantly improve the quality of decisions by entry clearance officers. There is a particular problem in relation to applications made under European law by Irish citizens, who wish their non-EEA family members to join them in the UK. We are aware of this being a serious problem as the majority of residents in Northern Ireland hold both British and Irish nationality and therefore can rely on European law when supporting applications submitted by their non-EEA family members to join them in the UK. In particular:

    —  many applicants have been advised not to pursue an application under European law and have been persuaded to their detriment to apply under UK immigration law instead. This is a particular problem with entry clearance officers in the Philippines and Turkey;

    —  when refusing these applications entry clearance officers have wrongly applied requirements under UK Immigration rules (for example the need to maintain and accommodate a family member); and

    —  recently an application was refused, albeit not formally, because the Irish national also held British nationality.

  10.  Such decisions and advice are plainly erroneous and unlawful, but inevitably lead to further separation of family members.

  11.  Moreover, entry clearance officers when making decisions regularly fail to consider evidence submitted in support of applications or misinterpret that evidence. In addition, applications by spouses to join their partner or husband settled in the UK are still being refused on "primary purpose" grounds implicitly if not explicitly.

12.   After entry decisions

  Again there is significant problem with quality of decisions in respect of applications based on European law. Decisions generally consist of one paragraph, of which only one sentence is materially relevant, namely "the Secretary of State considers that you have failed to provide evidence that you are a qualified person". This ground is applied notwithstanding that such evidence had in fact been submitted. In these cases immediately prior to an appeal hearing the Presenting Officer will either withdraw the decision or concede the appeal. This inevitably is a waste of time and resources in preparing for an appeal and is extremely frustrating for all concerned, particularly the appellant and their family.

  13.  Poor decisions also still regularly occur in relation to asylum applications, variation appeals or applications for indefinite leave to remain.


14.   Lack of Public Enquiry Office in Northern Ireland

  The lack of a Public Enquiry Office in Northern Ireland significantly disadvantages migrants here. It has resulted in a lack of communication between the regional office responsible for Northern Ireland, local immigration advisers and other appropriate stakeholders. The lack of clear lines of communication undermines effective implementation of policy on a national and local level and has led to the concerns and needs of Northern Ireland being overlooked in relation to the rest of the UK. We understand that government departments in Northern Ireland would welcome a Public Enquiry Office presence in Belfast.

15.   Removal policies in Northern Ireland

  There is an increasingly aggressive approach by UKIS to the removal of individuals from Northern Ireland. We have represented three separate clients who have been the subject of raids on their home by immigration officers with officers of the PSNI:

    —  all clients had legal representatives acting on their behalf, were complying with conditions of temporary admission and their applications were pending at various levels. In these circumstances the obtaining of the warrants raises a possible abuse of the law;

    —  the initial two raids, both which involved young children, entailed approximately seven individuals entering the house, intending to take the families to Dungavel. It was traumatic for all concerned. In one case the mother attempted suicide;

    —  removal policies in relation to families and vulnerable individuals are wholly inadequate and, Home Office practice is not being properly followed.

16.   Points based scheme

  Attached is our response to the recent consultation document [not printed]. We highlighted in particular:

    —  the extremely poor quality of decision making leaving us appalled at the proposed withdrawal of appeal rights for the vast majority of migrants;

    —  our objection to the proposal to impose bonds and sponsorships on employers and educational institutions;

    —  the short sighted decision to propose the abolition of low skilled schemes on grounds that A8 nationals currently fill these vacancies. The Sector Based Scheme still plays an important role to a large number of industries in Northern Ireland; and

    —  that a Skills Advisory Body should be convened on a regional basis.


  17.  Our success rate on non-asylum appeals is very high and demonstrates why it is fundamental that any managed migration system has an independent review element.

18.   Entry clearance appeals

  There are significant delays in relation to entry clearance appeals. We have been advised that this is primarily because of the entry clearance post's failure to forward papers to the Appellate Authority. When the papers are finally produced, frequently they are incomplete.


  19.  Operational concerns are being prioritised over the legal and human rights of alleged immigration offenders. This has resulted in a number of unlawful attempted removals to Dungavel (see above).

  20.  Migrants in Northern Ireland have to report to the PSNI because there is no Public Enquiry Office in Northern Ireland (c.f. rest of the UK). This is particularly problematic in relation to those migrants released on bail but required by statute to report to a CIO—it is not practically feasible.


  21.  Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK where immigration detainees are held in the Prison Estate as a matter of course. Conditions in prison are not suitable for those charged with no crime and who may have suffered in their home country. Increasingly detainees remain in PSNI custody suites for days before being moved to a prison or transferred to Britain. We have campaigned for years against this practice, attached are two publications "Sanctuary in a Cell—the Detention of Asylum Seekers in Northern Ireland" [not printed]. It contained 33 recommendations and three years later only one had been met in full. The positive developments across the rest of the UK have not impacted on the issue of detention here.


  22.  The Immigration Service is neither covered by the equality duty in section 75 of the 1998 Act or the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000. The later applies to the Immigration Service elsewhere in the UK. On grounds of equity alone this anomaly should be remedied as a matter of priority.

  23.  There are also two main areas of Immigration Control which we believe raise race equality issues:

    —  decisions made by entry clearance officers regularly raise race discrimination issues, particularly inappropriate references to the general circumstances in a country; and

    —  decisions made at Belfast International and City Airports to refuse entry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that individuals of African origin are far more likely to be target for in-depth questioning about their immigration status and reasons for travelling to Northern Ireland.


  24.  The lack of published regional statistics in relation to asylum and immigration in Northern Ireland is a real concern, notwithstanding lobbying by immigration practitioners here for a number of years. In particular, proper regional statistics in relation to asylum seekers based in Northern Ireland have never been provided. The Home Office state this is because it is not practical to provide such statistics. Statistics in relation to those asylum seekers in NASS accommodation in Northern Ireland is available, but to obtain a complete picture practitioners and refugee support groups are left to make rough estimates based on their combined experiences. Regular accurate statistics would allow practitioners and support groups, as well as the relevant statutory organisations to better assess the various needs in Northern Ireland, both in terms of numbers and nationalities. This also applies to statistics in relation to detention, removals, work permit applications, A8 registration applications, student applications and other non-asylum applications broken down into appropriate categories. There appears to be no reason why the Home Office could not collate such information.

25.   Co-ordination with European immigration policies

  At a policy level, co-ordination with our European partners generally appears to be merely an attempt to deter asylum seekers and migrants from entering Europe and also at establishing minimum standards of procedure to the lowest common denominator.

  26.  At a practical level in Northern Ireland co-ordination between the UKIS and the Irish Immigration authorities can be effective, but is just as likely to be cumbersome and bureaucratic. For example, cases involving the criteria for establishing responsibility for an asylum claim can sometimes take months and the individual is usually detained during this process. Delays also occur in cases where an individual legally in one territory, inadvertently crosses the border, possibly unaware of the different jurisdictions, but wishes to return. However, a bureaucratic process has to be followed. Another problematic area is the operation of the Common Travel Area and how that impacts on foreign nationals entering one country, crossing the land border to the other.

  27.  As the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU country, migrants and practitioners in Northern Ireland would benefit from regular constructive communication between the authorities on both sides of the border. For example a cross border group on immigration with statutory, voluntary sector and practitioner members would be very useful.

Buster Cox

Immigration Legal Adviser

2 December 2005

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