Examination of Witness (Questions 1-70)
Q1 Chair: This is a one-off
session with the chief executive of the UK Border Agency to look
at the work of the UK Border Agency. May I refer all those present
to the Register of Members' Interests and may I, in particular,
declare my interest? My wife is a part-time judge and a full-time
Mr Winnick: At one time
I worked, many years ago, for the Immigrants Advisory Service.
Q2 Chair: Ms Homer, thank
you very much for giving evidence. We thought what we would do,
because your evidence is always so valuable to this Committee,
is to ensure that your letter was circulated in advance of the
Committee hearing, and thank you for sending it to us last week.
When you last appeared I raised some concerns about the letter
that you sent us. I felt it contained very useful information
but it was not particularly digestible because it consisted of
lots of numbers and issues of that kind, so we couldn't do a comparison.
What the Committee has doneand for your convenience
I have a copy for youis ask the House of Commons Library
to take your letter and to analyse it and to perhaps present it
in a more digestible form. As you see, it allows us and the public
to fully understand all the good work that is being done by the
UK Border Agency so we can question you more closely on the progress
that has been made. I hope that you could use that as the format
for the next letter because, as you know, this is now published
in the Library of the House by the Minister and reference is always
made by the Minister for Immigration to the work that is being
done and the relationship between ourselves and yourself.
If you look at this rather splendid bar chart that
has been prepared, it appears that the number of foreign national
prisoners has not declined in respect of the last four months.
Is it the case that you are deporting a similar number of foreign
national prisoners or fewer foreign national prisoners?
Ms Homer: Chairman,
thank you for that. I will certainly seek to incorporate as much
of that as I can into my future letters if that helps you both
compare and interpret. With regard to foreign national prisoners,
we are approximately in the same place that we are usually in
at this time of the year. There are a couple of things that occur
towards the end of the year. One is that we cleanse and check
all our data going backwards. So some information we did not have
to hand as each month went by is accumulated as the year goes
on. As you know, we also check, and effectively check out, foreign
national prisoners who might have been administratively removed
rather than removed straight from prison, which is one of the
reasons why the bar chart looks marginally behind for the point
of the year. But we are confident we are within a couple of per
cent of where we've been each time of the year.
Q3 Chair: Are you disappointed
that you're not doing better at removing foreign national prisoners?
I think that is a priority for this Government, as it was for
the last. Shouldn't we be exceeding our targets on removal, bearing
in mind that in your letter you were very clear that the taxpayer
should not fund people to stay in prison if they can be removed?
Ms Homer: Yes.
There are a number of aspects to our removals. First of all, over
the period since I first began reporting to this Committee, we've
removed about 19,000 prisoners, so in overall terms this is a
much better position for the agency than we were in when this
issue first came to the attention of the Select Committee. We
are also removing a significant number of prisoners much earlier
in our process and, indeed, over a third are now being removed
straight from prison and at quite an early point after they can
first be released.
Q4 Chair: But we're still
below target. We've not reached the target, have we?
Ms Homer: The other
thing I was going to say is we are moving away, partly at your
encouragement and certainly at the Government's, to single simple
targets and the question for us is are we yet at a point where
we are deporting people
Q5 Chair: No, I understand
all that, but we have not reached the target that was set for
the removal of foreign national prisoners. I understand all the
good work you're doing in cleansing and getting things ready but
the fact is we've not reached our target for removals.
Ms Homer: The target
for this year was to keep improving on last year, and I'm not
unhopeful about that, but the target is also to remove as many
as are going through the system. What I was going on to say is
that we do still find some challenges in removing prisoners to
particular countries and in circumstances where we can't establish
their identity at all or to the satisfaction of the country we
believe they belong to. So that's the area we're going to continue
to focus on.
Q6 Alun Michael: Yes,
it's about simplicity and clarity, and I applaud this presentation,
Chairman, because it does make sense of what otherwise is a bit
like trying to walk through a swamp. Can I ask, in terms of accountability
for correspondence, do you understand the principle that when
responsibility for answering MPs' correspondence was delegated
by Ministers to agencies, it was expected that the chief executive
would take the equivalent responsibility that Ministers had previously,
and not that it would be passed down the line successively within
an agency? Could you give us an undertaking that you will take
personal responsibility for MPs' correspondence in future?
Ms Homer: Chairman,
through you, I do take the responsibility very seriously. I tried
to explain to this Committee previously that we are seeking to
improve our performance, and indeed I think for 2009 we have made
another sustained improvement.
Q7 Alun Michael: Yes.
Sorry, I was dealing with the principle, because the past has
certainly been that the level of delegation has gone down and
down and down and the quality of response went down. Efforts to
improve it are one thing. I'm asking whether you will take the
sort of personal responsibility that Ministers did in the past,
because that was what was delegated to chief executives?
Ms Homer: I do
take a significant personal responsibility. If you're asking me
whether I will personally sign every letter from an MP, the reality
is if I did that the service we gave would go down. The volume
we get is such that that is not practical and feasible. However,
Q8 Alun Michael: I can't
imagine that it's worse than for Immigration Ministers. It's a
question of the responsibility and responsibility for maintaining
high standards as well as speed of response and not just letting
it filter down through the Department.
Ms Homer: Yes,
and I do accept that.
Q9 Chair: Now, let's
move on to your next set of figures, which is the clearing of
the backlog and in particular the granting of indefinite leave.
You seem to have granted quite a lot of people indefinite leave
in the last four months. Do you know what that figure is? It's
up from 38% in July to 42%. How many more people have been given
indefinite leave by the Government?
Ms Homer: Chairman,
the figures for the proportion of grant we think have remained
pretty stable throughout. You mentioned it was 38% last time but
in fact it has varied around about the top 30s, early 40s.
Q10 Chair: Yes, I understand
that but we need to get this clear. You have given us the figures
and you have told us in February this year it was 35%, in July
it was 38% and now in your last letter to uswe're questioning
you on this letterit's now 42%. That's an increase of some
30,000. Now, they may be right or wrong, we're not here to look
at individual cases, but as a matter of fact, because we want
to deal with facts on this Committee, you have granted additional
indefinite leaves. It has gone up by 4%. That's several thousand
people, isn't it?
Ms Homer: Yes.
Q11 Chair: Yes. What
is the total of the grants in the last four months, since your
last letter? Not since statistics began but just since your last
letter in July.
Ms Homer: In both
August and September we granted about 8,000 grants, in each of
Chair: But since your
last letter to us?
Ms Homer: Yes.
So that's August and September.
Chair: It has gone up
Ms Homer: Yes.
Q12 Chair: Now, how does
that square with the Government's intention to keep migration
down and the Home Secretary's speech last week that she wanted
to make sure settlement was being curtailed for people? On the
one hand, the Government wants to reduce immigration by tens of
thousands. On the other hand, the UK Border Agency seems to be
granting indefinite leave to even more numbers of people.
Ms Homer: You know
from the regular conversations I have with this Committee that
the cases that had not been dealt with speedily required concluding
and it is the nature of delay in these cases that additional rights
accrue through the passing of time. We are confident that, with
regard to the new asylum model, we are now deciding cases both
more quickly and more efficiently. But we have to respect that,
in a case that may be as much as 10 years old, a circumstance
where, if we had acted more speedily originally, we could have
refused a case, may subsequently lead to rights that have to be
Q13 Mark Reckless: Looking
at this reduction in the asylum legacy, you've clearly made spectacular
progress in reducing it, but then there is the proportion of what
is happening to these people--334,500 cases in all and only 10%
of those have been removed. It's not just this Government but
the previous Government on a cross-party basis have asked you
to clear this backlog of asylum cases and I'm concerned, on behalf
of this Committee, that that's leading to, other things being
equal, people simply being allowed to stay.
Ms Homer: It isn't
in any way just an approach where we've said everybody can stay.
Each case is looked at individually. If you bear in mind that
all these cases were at least four years old, some of them were
13 or 14 years old, we inevitably have to recognise the rights
that have accrued. I am expected to comply with the law. Inevitably,
if you don't decide cases quickly and efficiently, further rights
are established. It's one of the reasons why both previous Ministers
were determined, and Damian Green as my current Minister is determined,
to improve the asylum system. The best and most efficient way
to deal with cases is quickly and well and to conclude them when
they're fresh. Once a case is 13 years old, an individual may
have married, they may have children, they may now have protection
rights under the international protection laws that they didn't
have earlier. We have to take into account all of those facts,
which is why it's so important to decide the cases more quickly
than was the case in the past.
Q14 Mark Reckless: I'm
sorry but there's a contrast between you referring to particular
types of circumstances, for instance someone getting married or
someone having children or the international protection for their
country having changed, and your reference to them inevitably
acquiring rights through the passage of time.
Ms Homer: No.
Mark Reckless: Which is
Ms Homer: What
I'm saying is that inevitably the passing of time causes circumstances
to change. We have got a significant number of these older cases
out. I've recently removed a young man who has been in the country
for over seven years. Certainly in circumstances like that individuals
will try to assert that the passing of time, in itself, gives
rise to rights. We challenge that and we have argued very successfully
in front of the courts that, in circumstances where time has elapsed
because the individual has made it difficult to conclude his case,
we should still be able to proceed. But in circumstances where
we have partly caused the delay we have to recognise that.
Q15 Bridget Phillipson:
The UK Border Agency is facing big cuts through the comprehensive
spending review. Can you say what impact that's going to have
on the service that you offer but also on making sure that the
asylum backlog doesn't simply grow again as a result of staff
Ms Homer: Yes.
The UK Border Agency is taking cuts of about 20%. We are approaching
our spending target by looking, first of all, at reductions we
can make in our support services. That's about 10% of our budget,
so we are taking about a 35% reduction in that overhead cost.
Then in relation to our frontline cuts, we are expecting to take
about 20% out. We believe that's possible to do without a diminution
in service across the entirety of our business by focusing on
a number of areas.
First of all, we're continuing the programme we put
in place to be more productive. That's sometimes about the way
people work; it's sometimes about the way machinery works. Automatic
gates at the borders allow a certain number of lower-risk passengers,
such as returning British citizens, to go through gates. In the
same way, our new integrated case working system allows people
to apply online: 8,000 applied online on the first day we put
it up. Those things take out work.
We also believe that it's right to transfer more
of the cost on to the applicant, so we are counterbalancing how
much the applicant pays versus the taxpayer. Now something like
a third of our costs is placed on the applicant when it was about
one tenth when I first came into the business. Thirdly, we are
also making sure that we spend less on asylum support. This is
a point the Chairman has made numerous times: as that legacy workload
comes down, the amount we're spending sustaining particularly
families, while we don't decide their cases, is also reducing.
So those are three of the big areas that we are making money reductions.
Q16 Bridget Phillipson:
Do you anticipate job losses?
Ms Homer: Yes.
We have made 1,700 reductions this year. We've been able to achieve
that by a combination of natural wastage and voluntary redundancy
and we anticipate making about another 5,000 reductions over the
period of the spending review, which is, I think, probably a few
less each year than we have had to make this year. Again, my hope
and expectation will be that we can continue to do that in an
orderly way. We've got quite skilled at redeploying our staff,
so we'll use all of the jobs we get from natural wastage for the
staff we've already got, we'll bear down on all our agency workers
and we'll seek to use schemes such as voluntary redundancy again
in the future.
Q17 Steve McCabe: I'm
just astonished by the spectacular improvement in the asylum case
clear up. Last year it just about made 15,000 in a four-month
period; this year, between July and September, 57,500. Everyone
wants to know what's your secret? What is it that you're doing
now that you weren't doing before and who takes the credit for
Ms Homer: I feed
them spinach. Truthfully, if you recall, I think it was probably
two if not three appearances ago, I updated you on a proposition
we were putting in place to ask a commercial provider, Serco,
to stand alongside our legacy workforce and to prepare the cases,
to do the administrative work on the cases, so that our more skilled
case workers could focus on deciding those cases. When I first
put that in place I reported to you a rather disappointing start
to that programme; it was a slower shift than we had expected.
But we did stick at that and a lot of the credit should go to
the director that I have in charge of this group, Jackie Luetchford,
who is a long-term member of staff of the agency, and to the nearly
800 staff that work in the CRD who, as that new front end has
really started to work, they have just really motored and we saw
a 68% improvement in their productivity over the summer months.
This is all the more remarkable since this group of staff don't
absolutely know what they'll have to do after they finish this
work. All of common sense would say they might be slowing down
and it's hugely to their credit that they're not.
Q18 Chair: Of course,
you gave an undertaking to this Committee that you would not take
your bonus for next year unless the legacy cases were all completed
Ms Homer: I very
much doubt that that's going to be an issue this year in any event,
but I promise you I haven't been whipping them because of the
commitment I gave to you about my bonus. I think they've done
a great job.
Q19 Nicola Blackwood:
I'd like to take you back to page 3 of the library note and look
at this pie chart. We've had 334,500 cases dealt with up to the
end of September. We've already discussed the discrepancy between
grants at 139,000 and removals at 35,000. There's another big
patch of errors, which we won't discuss now, but there's quite
a large segment of "others": 48,000. I wonder if you
could just discuss that segment a little and explain how many
of the others you have not been able to contact and have been
considered closed as a result of inability to contact the applicant?
Ms Homer: The controlled
archive element, the 18,000, are those where, after fairly rigorous
attempts, we have not been able to contact someone. Again, as
I've described on earlier occasions, we do a range of checks,
not only in our own databases but elsewhere. We then place those
cases in what we call our controlled archive and we then check
it regularly. We only place them into the concluded cases statistics
once six months has passed without any further action. So, those
18,000 are the ones where we are concluding that they've either
left or it was a second identity or it has been concluded but
we've not married the names up.
There are a further 43,000, as I refer to in the
letter, that have gone into the controlled archive that haven't
yet finished their six months. That's another big tranche where
that group of controlled archive will grow as those reach their
six months. Over that period, we have seen only a handful of those
controlled archive burst back into life, but we continue checking.
Despite the fact they go into the controlled archive, we don't
just close the door. We keep rolling them through our databases
on a regular basis so that if they did pop back into the system,
either actively by contacting us or by making another application
or committing a crime, we would then be able to make the connection.
Q20 Nicola Blackwood:
So the cases are closed but not closed because you still do checks
on the cases that are in that archive?
Ms Homer: The cases
are as concluded as we think they can be but we remain open-minded
and able to reactivate them if something causes us to need to
Q21 Chair: I think this
is a new version of closed, that is what Nicola Blackwood is saying.
Are they closed?
Ms Homer: They're
concluded, Chairman. I've never used the word "closed"
on them because and, again, apologies to new Members, I think
if you look back at my comments about the
Chair: Well, no--apologies
to all of us because I don't understand the difference between
closed and concluded.
Ms Homer: If you
look back at my description of controlled archives, we were always
clear that, after concluding the significant number of checks
we do and after putting them into controlled archive and the passing
of time, we would regard them as concluded. That has proven to
be appropriate so far. A very small number in a sense have come
alive again. A great proportion of these, we suspect, have left
the country of their own volition or have been concluded under
a different name or a different reference without us completely
being able to put the two together.
Q22 Dr Huppert: We had
some discussion earlier about delays in resolving cases and I
think I take a slightly different line from Mr Reckless in that
to some extent, if we as a Government have failed to process people,
we have a debt where we have messed up. But can I move on from
the legacy cases to what's happening with current cases, because
you state in your letter that intake of new asylum seekers remains
at a historic low and you have a six-month deadline to try to
deal with them. I believe you're very self-congratulatory about
getting 59% of cases dealt with within six months, whereas I think
there's a target of 90%. Indeed, I think we should be ensuring
that all cases are dealt with within six months because it seems
deeply inappropriate that we are keeping people hanging for an
astonishingly long time while we decide what to do. Are we going
to hit 90%? Will we hit 100%? What can you do to make sure we
don't build up yet another backlog as soon as we've cleared the
Ms Homer: I should
just be clear with the Committee that our targets are about concluding
cases, not deciding them. We already decide the vast majority
of cases within 30 days and I think probably over 90% have a decision
well within the six months. But we have set ourselves a target
of finishing cases in as fast a period as we can. This goes back
to the earlier comments that if you just take a decision on a
case and you don't put it into effect, the passing of time alters
the basis of the case. Now, yes, we have tasked ourselves to improve,
year on year, on the number that we conclude within six months
Our new Minister is suggestingand indeed this Committee
and the PAC suggested alsothat it would be perverse of
us just to focus on six months and not to keep concluding cases
beyond six months and indeed not to take into account cost and
What we are now seeking to do is to focus on a kind
of basket of indicators and make sure that we are following through
in as many of the cases as we can. But there will be circumstances,
sometimes entirely beyond our control, that mean concluding by
removing is not possible. It would have been the case with Zimbabwean
cases until a very few weeks ago because we had no route back
to Zimbabwe. It didn't mean every Zimbabwean was entitled to asylum
and, therefore, we took those cases as far as we could and our
internal rule is that cases that are difficult to conclude because
of a country circumstance must be taken as far as they can be
Q23 Dr Huppert: I think
some of that is helpful. I'd be very interested if, in future,
you could provide some information about the decision process
because, from people in this situation I've spoken to, I hear
of a number of cases where it is that initial decision that seems
to take a long time and I'm involved too often with trying to
chase that up. It would be very helpful to get a sense of what
that is because I think we have a duty to make a decision rapidly
and not to keep people hanging on. If there are people where it
is taking us over six months, say, to make a decision, would you
agree that we should go back to a system where they're allowed
to work while we try to make a decision as to what to do?
Ms Homer: I don't
personally believe, from an operational perspective, that asylum
seekers should be allowed to work. Many people who make a claim
for asylum that is not well founded are predominantly coming here
to seek to work. My belief
Dr Huppert: But this is
people where we've taken six months to decide whether they should
be allowed asylum or not. We are delaying them.
Ms Homer: There
are very few in that category and what I would encourage MPs to
do is to write to me and, going back to Mr Michael's point, we
ought to be actioning cases. As I say, 60% are now being decided
within 30 days. So we are absolutely on the case with early decisions
and I think if you permit people to work as a result of delay,
the risk is it will encourage people to seek delay. That is not
good for them and it's not good for the country.
Dr Huppert: It would be
helpful to have the figures on when decisions are made then.
Q24 Mr Burley: I am interested
in this six-month target and, as Dr Huppert said, whether that's
stretching enough and how that compares internationally. I've
done a bit of research and it would seem that the decision time
in New Zealand is 84 days compared with 180 here, Australia 60
days, Czech Republic 30 days and America 60 days. Is our target
Ms Homer: Our target
is the most challenging in the world. All those figures you quoted
are for decisions and our target is for conclusions. We don't
know of another country that sets itself a conclusion target.
Our target for deciding is to get the vast majority decided within
30 days, which is better than any of those that you quoted. We've
had visits from most of the countries you've mentioned to look
at our system and to see whether they can move towards adopting
Q25 Bridget Phillipson:
I'm sure we all want cases to be deal with as quickly as possible,
not simply so that the public are clear that there's transparency
and a fair process but so that the asylum seekers themselves receive
a swift decision. However, my question is probably the reverse
of Julian's: how do we make sure that the push to get a decision
quickly doesn't mean that cases aren't properly considered? Some
of the cases I've seen as a constituency MP have been the reverse
in that there have been quick decisions but arguably too quick
and I'm not confident that the case has been given due consideration.
How do we strike that balance between a quick process but a process
that doesn't disadvantage people who have a good case, arguably?
Ms Homer: Yes,
I think you are absolutely right to challenge us, that this is
a very important decision. It needs to be high quality as well
as speedy. We have undertaken a quality initiative with the UNHCR.
We funded them to work alongside us to ensure that the front end
of our asylum system had good quality decision making in it as
a matter of course. They looked with us at recruitment, at training,
at our processes and they helped us improve that system. Again,
I have to say, Mr Guterres visited Damian Green about a month
ago and he told us that he thought our system was best practice
and they are now selling that quality system for the front end
of asylum as a standard for Europe to follow. It doesn't mean
we will give up, we're still working with UNHCR to look at that,
but we have really tried to improve the front end of our system.
Q26 Alun Michael: Seeking
after clarity on another area that's not always easy, last autumn
you said that you'd found about 40,000 immigration filesimmigration
rather than asylum, just to be absolutely clearwhere you
have no formal record that the applicant has left the country
and you've closed 2,450 of those, I think was the figure you gave.
Ms Homer: Yes.
Alun Michael: The vast
majority relate to people already granted leave to remain but
whose electronic records haven't been updated. That leaves another
37,000. Can you tell us what the picture is with them?
Ms Homer: I can't
give you a full breakdown on those because we've made a judgment
on these cases that it's more efficient for our resources to pick
the cases up and work them than to go through and triage them
and sort them and then work them. In both the bigger asylum backlog
and this backlog we did an initial check for criminality and then
for the rest, we sort them as we go. But if you look at that first
2,500, we think that that probably is a reasonably good picture
of what we're going to find. So, a great majority of those relate,
we think, either to short-term applications that are effectively
finished. Those might be a working holidaymaker, somebody here
on a visit who has sought to extend, those kinds of things, spouse
applications that have been resolved.
Q27 Alun Michael: Understanding
that then, can you tell us what the implication of that is for
the immigration figures for previous years? So, will the Office
for National Statistics have to rewrite its historic records or
are these people already being counted as immigrants to the UK?
Where do they appear in the figures? Do you see what I mean?
Ms Homer: ONS is
a survey-based statistic; they don't count everything, so no,
it doesn't alter the ONS statistics at all and, yes, all of these
people will have been in the system and in the statistics. Many
of them won't have added to net migration. They will have come
and gone. But we were determined, we made a commitment to you
and to Parliament, to ensure that our recordkeeping was tidy.
Alun Michael: So they
have no effect on the figures that we're using in terms of
Ms Homer: They
won't change net migration for the past, no.
Q28 Mark Reckless: You
say MPs should contact you if there's a delay but I would much
prefer the applicant to be able to deal with UKBA. I find that
in my surgeries very often people will come to me because you've
written a letter to the applicant saying that they're not to contact
you and they're concerned that if they break that that somehow
it might negatively affect how their case is considered. So they
come to the MP and I'm having to take up a case that could very
easily be dealt with between UKBA and the applicant except for
your practice of writing these letters saying, "Don't contact
Ms Homer: I don't
think we should be writing saying, "Don't contact us".
I think what we do often say to applicants is that we have very
clear timescales for determining issues and that, for new cases,
we are keeping to those timescales. So it makes us more productive
if people, in a sense, wait the period of time that we do say.
If our standard is four weeks, then we will try to say to people,
"Please don't write every day", because then more time
goes into answering letters than deciding cases. But I would not
expect my staff to be saying just as a carte blanche, "Don't
write to us", and we are increasingly trying to be prompt
in our replies to applicants and to their solicitors.
Q29 Mark Reckless: Well,
your practice certainly doesn't make me more productive and I've
seen several letters where there is no reference to a particular
timescale and there's just an indefinite instruction not to contact.
Can you please give us an undertaking that those letters will
no longer be sent out?
Ms Homer: I will
give you an undertaking I will action them. There's a lot of staff
in the agency and, as I say, my reason for suggesting you send
me letters of that sort is because I wouldn't expect them to and
I will follow up if you give me the examples.
Mark Reckless: Thank you.
Chair: I will write to
you with copies of the letters that have been sent to Mr Reckless
so that you can see them for yourselves.
Q30 Mr Winnick: Every
time you've appeared before us has been like today with questions
about the backlog and so forth. Now, UKBA's budget is to be cut
by 20% by 2014. That's correct?
Ms Homer: Yes.
Mr Winnick: How will that
affect the work of the organisation?
Ms Homer: We anticipate
that we will have to become more productive. It's helpful to me
that these spending reductions are coming after a period when
we have begun to get our historic work into shape. It is very
useful for me that the legacy work will be finished before we
enter into this period of restraint and it is very useful to me
that we've begun to implement new systems in asylum, in managed
migration and at the border that allows us to automate and to
be more productive. The examples I gave earlier I would repeat:
we expect many more applications to be dealt with online and we
expect our electronic case working system to make it much easier
for case workers to be able to focus their particular and expensive
skills on the decision-making part, not on the administrative
part. At the border where, despite the recession, passenger numbers
are still going up, we would hope and expect that a significant
number of trusted and pre-checked passengers can use automatic
gates, allowing our very skilled immigration and customs officers
to focus on those places where human intervention is still required.
Q31 Mr Winnick: Going
by that reply, there's no reason why you shouldn't have a 20%
cut, because you've indicated that it's going to be a pretty painless
exercise, a more productive way of doing matters, although I don't
know why it wasn't done previously. So there's no need for this
Committee to worry about your cut in the budget?
Ms Homer: I don't
think I used the word "painless". I think it will be
Mr Winnick: Almost painless?
Ms Homer: No, I
think it will be very challenging but I think it's possible. As
to why we haven't done it before, we have been on a course of
improvement. The UK Border Agency, in relation to the part of
that that was previously IND, costs the taxpayer less now than
it did in 2006, in cash terms. This year we have made savings
of almost £200 million, so we haven't waited for the spending
review. We've been making progressive savings, but it does take
time to get an organisation fit and you can't necessarily make
wise savings if you make them all in one go or in a rush. We've
been moving progressively towards efficiency. The next four years
will challenge us to do that faster than we would otherwise but
I think the organisation is in good shape to face that challenge.
Q32 Mr Winnick: So can
we work on the assumption that when you appear before us in the
future when these cuts start to take place it will not be said
that "The work has accumulated once again, the problems are
not easy to resolve swiftly because we have less of a budget arising
from the comprehensive spending review"? We can work on that
assumption, can we?
Ms Homer: Yes,
I think you can. We have done more with less over the last four
years. We believe we can do more with less in the next four years.
Mr Winnick: We'll see
what happens, won't we?
Q33 Steve McCabe: Is
it true that part of your savings are premised on using more IT
and automation and less people at border posts?
Ms Homer: Yes,
and in case working.
Q34 Steve McCabe: Did
you see that report in the Telegraph on 28 October that
claimed there had been a number of failures with your automated
Ms Homer: Yes.
Steve McCabe: Yes. Was
Ms Homer: We've
Mr Winnick: If it appeared
in the Telegraph it must be.
Ms Homer: I wasn't
going to say that.
Steve McCabe: Was it accurate?
Ms Homer: We have
had two circumstances where individuals have used our e-gates
when the gates should not have let them through and did and on
both those occasions that has led us to make some changes to the
system. That's during a period when 1.7 million people have used
those gates and it is still in its evaluation phase. Neither machine
nor, by the way, immigration officer is completely infallible
but we believe that the e-gates are very safe, not the least because
an immigration officer sits and observes them and, therefore,
can always intervene if the decision the gate reaches is not to
their professional standard.
Q35 Steve McCabe: When
you say you've had two circumstances, did those include a man
coming in using his sister's passport, and someone on the banned
list entering the country and someone on the terrorist watch list
entering the country? Is that true?
Ms Homer: The last
one is not true but, yes, certainly we have had two examples where
the machine did not recognise a face and one where the machine
did not pick up a Watchlist hit. We're not sure on that one whether
it was the machine or the entry that was wrong. So we've investigated
Q36 Steve McCabe: As
you replace people with machines, what steps are you going to
take to make sure that the number of these failures don't rise?
Ms Homer: We are
still evaluating and changing these gates. They are a new creation.
They have only been in use for a couple of years and we are constantly
testing and checking them to make sure that the level of security
they give us is high enough. As I say, in terms of the relative
failure rate, those two were both reviewed and we think the machines
are now more secure because of that evaluation. We absolutely
expect, as with all technology, for these kind of reviews and
evaluations to lead to improved systems in the future.
Q37 Mr Burley: One of
the easiest ways to cut costs is to cut salaries. You've already
stated this morning you don't expect to receive your bonus next
year but you revealed at our last session, very memorably for
us, that your annual salary is £208,000 a year. Do you think
it's morally right in an age of austerity that you are paid £66,000
more a year than the Prime Minister?
Ms Homer: You have
to make judgements about the relevant salaries for jobs relative
to their difficulty and the skills you need people to undertake
to do them.
Q38 Mr Burley: So your
job is more difficult than the job of the Prime Minister?
Ms Homer: No, but
I think you have to put people in jobs that can do them. The civil
service will, no doubt, take decisions about the pay of senior
civil servants and I am quite content to be a party to those decisions.
I don't think it makes an enormous amount of sense for those decisions
to be taken individually and bilaterally. I'm content that the
new Government will make some judgments about senior salary and
that that may well affect me.
Q39 Chair: Can I take
you back to foreign national prisoners and the prisoners who escaped
before being deported that led to the resignation of a previous
Home Secretary? How many more have we located? According to the
pie chart on page 1 of the Library note analysis of your letter,
it seems that 73 have still not been located.
Ms Homer: I think
it's 70 that haven't been located. We've located three more since
I last spoke to you and we've removed five more.
Q40 Chair: Right. So,
70 since the last letter. Five more have been found.
Ms Homer: No, five
more have been removed. We already knew where they were. We were
in the process of removing them.
Chair: Right. But we're
still looking for another 70?
Ms Homer: Yes.
Q41 Chair: What kind
of assistance are you getting to try and locate these missing
Ms Homer: We continue
to have markers on all of these 70, both within our own systems
and within the police system. We are confident now, I think, that
if they emerge in any part of the system we will make matches.
Obviously one of the issues for us is whether or not they're in
the country. If they applied for a visa, in country or out, if
they entered the criminal justice system, then we're confident
we would pick them up, and indeed that's the way that we are finding
the individuals that we're locating.
Q42 Chair: Can I now
move on to enforced removals? Of course the Committee understands
we can't ask you to clear a backlog and then ask you not to remove
people from this country, that people have to be deported. The
concern of the Committee following the Jimmy Mubenga case was
the way in which matters progressed to get him removed. I don't
want to talk about the circumstances of that case, because that's
the subject of a criminal investigation, but can you just tell
the Committee, as a matter of fact, when were you informed that
he had died during this removal?
Ms Homer: Overnight.
Chair: Overnight. And
then you informed the relevant Minister, did you?
Ms Homer: Yes.
Q43 Chair: I'm going
to pass you a photograph or drawing of a restraint technique that
has been used. Are you familiar with this technique? It's called
nose distraction. You are?
Ms Homer: I'm not
personally and technically familiar but, yes, I'm familiar with
Chair: You've not seen
it being used?
Ms Homer: No.
Q44 Chair: When you give
out contracts to people who are charged with the responsibility
of removing people, what kind of guidance exists as to the way
in which this should be done in the most humane manner?
Ms Homer: Do you
mean restraint generally or this particular
Ms Homer: We have
requirements within our contracts that contractors train their
employees appropriately, that they follow the guidelines for force
and, as the smaller user of detention and movement of prisoners,
the agency has always followed the rules that the Ministry of
Justice sets out. We always seek to perform to the standard that
NOMS and MoJ set out and we expect our contractors to do the same.
Q45 Chair: G4S has just
lost the contract for providing these services. Have the circumstances
of this death or any other information that you may have received
contributed to that loss of contract?
Ms Homer: No, this
was a routine retendering of a major contract. We've had good
commercial interest in it and a number of competitive bids and
this contract was awarded on the basis of value for money and
delivery. G4S remains a major provider for us in other parts of
Q46 Chair: You awarded
the contract to Reliance. Are you aware of the complaints about
the way in which Reliance deals with people in custody? Were you
aware of that when you awarded them the contract?
Ms Homer: We look
at the quality of all the major providers as one of the aspects
of award, and indeed we would expect them all to have a complaints
system and to be able to show us that that's accessible and operated
fully and fairly.
Q47 Chair: Yes. I think
you misunderstand my question. Were you aware of the complaints
made against Reliance, in particular the case of Gary Reynolds,
the subject of
Ms Homer: I'm not
personally aware but I'm sure that the people who will have evaluated
the contract will have looked at the quality standards of each
of the providers.
Q48 Chair: But are you
concerned that this company has been severely criticised by the
Independent Police Complaints Commission over the way in which
they have dealt with people in custody?
Ms Homer: We will
look at all the providers because
Q49 Chair: So you were
aware of that before the contract was issued?
Ms Homer: Yes.
Q50 Chair: You knew about
the record of Reliance before the contract was issued?
Ms Homer: Yes,
and the point I was trying to make about complaints is that I
Q51 Chair: It is hardly
a complaint if it's a judgment of the Independent Police Complaints
Commission, is it? It's not someone complaining about them; it's
Ms Homer: The point
I was trying to make is that we would expect people who are in
the process of restricting people's liberty, either in a detention
centre or in movement, to be the subject of complaints. One of
the issues that we will look at is not an absolutely blank record
because, to be realistic, that may suggest there's not a good
enough system for checking. You know we ourselves have undertaken
a major review by Dame Nuala O'Loan into the treatment. So we
will always look at these issues. The question is
Q52 Chair: You're satisfied
that G4S performed satisfactorily and that there's no problem
with the Reliance Security Group?
s Homer: I'm satisfied
in relation to G4S that where there were complaints, and a very
small number were upheld against us over this period collectively,
that action is taken and improvements are put in place. Witness:
Ms Lin Homer, Chief Executive, UK Border Agency, gave evidence.
Q53 Chair: And you have
received no complaints from any employees of G4S about their concerns
about these matters?
Ms Homer: Personally,
Q54 Mr Winnick: There
have been complaints, have there not, about the removal of detainees
prior to this tragic case?
Ms Homer: There
have been many complaints and that was why I referred to Dame
Nuala O'Loan's investigation, which the previous Home Secretary,
Jacqui Smith, put in place because many of these complaints were
made very generically and often in the media and we struggle to
get enough detail to investigate. We did investigate very thoroughly
when we were able to.
Q55 Mr Winnick:
In July 2008 Birnberg Peirce & Partners, Medical Justice and
the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaignsand
I accept obviously they have a strong viewpointpublished
a report and that said, "We have found an alarming and unacceptable
number of injuries have been sustained by those subject to forced
removals. In all cases in our dossier what may have started off
as reasonable force turned into what we consider to be excessive
force." Do you remember that report?
Ms Homer: I do
remember the report.
Mr Winnick: It was called
"Outsourcing Abuse", wasn't it?
Ms Homer: It was
the report that led Jacqui Smith to ask Dame Nuala O'Loan to conduct
her own investigation and I have to say that the original allegations
in respect of both number and type of abuse proved very difficult
to find any evidence of. Dame Nuala's report was received by us.
It contained some very important recommendations, which we have
been following through and putting in place, but it did not find
the depth of evidence that was suggested in the report that you're
Q56 Mr Winnick: So what
was written in the report you feel was not justified?
Ms Homer: I think
much of it was not capable of being evidenced by Medical Justice
or by Birnbergs, despite a very lengthy period being provided
to them to provide evidence to support that. Dame Nuala's report,
which I assume is still available in the House, details in very
significant detail both the efforts she made to find evidence
and her conclusions on that evidence and I believe that she gave
us some sound recommendations that we have followed through on.
So I think we learned lessons but, no, I don't think the original
report was correct in the scale of its description.
Q57 Mr Winnick: Do you
accept that your organisation has overall responsibility for what
Ms Homer: Absolutely.
Q58 Dr Huppert: You commented
that you follow Ministry of Justice advice but presumably you
accept that there are particular categories of people who you
deal with with the use of force. How do you keep track of what
is happening on what best practice is in a whole range of services,
particularly with vulnerable people such as childrenand
I'll come on, if I may, Chair, to ask some more questions on thatand
people who are detained for an extremely long time?
Ms Homer: Yes.
We utilise the forums that the Ministry of Justice creates as
our best practice network and we follow the advice they already
have but we also utilise that environment to seek advice. So we
proactively ask for advice in circumstances where they might be
more unique to the agency. For instance, the use of restraint
on aircraft is something we rather than others do. We tend to
still go back into the Ministry of Justice expertise so that they
will then do specific work for us and that includes advice on
medical approaches and training and review and evaluation. We
also, because of the vulnerable nature of some of our clients,
ensure that CCTV is used in many circumstances. We do our best
to create an environment in which best practice can be followed
and the standards can be evidenced.
Q59 Dr Huppert: You will
presumably be aware of the evidence of psychological problems
children get as a result of being detained for any period of time
and you'll know that the Government made it very clear that child
detention would be ended to deal with that. There's a story in
the Guardian today suggesting that that is being delayed
and, reading between the lines in the comments here and elsewhere,
that UKBA don't seem to be able to come up with alternatives to
child detention and, as a result, are not doing what the Government
has said. What is happening about that?
Ms Homer: The coalition
Government made a very strong commitment to end child detention.
The Minister put in place a review to undertake that work very
quickly after taking office. We've undertaken that review with
a large number of groups from the voluntary and other sectors,
so other Ministries of Government and many organisations, Citizens,
and so forth, the Diana Trust. I think we've had a very productive
working arrangement so far and we've been identifying improvements
and changes we can make at every step of the way. We have improved
the interaction with families at the beginning of the process;
we've improved the mentoring and community support they get; we've
worked with NGOs to look at the way we offer voluntary return
and counselling. I think we've already made enormous changes and
strides. There is an ongoing debate about the end. So, what do
you do with a family who've gone all the way through the system
many times, the courts have said they don't have a right to protection,
we've offered them voluntary return, we've offered them self-check-in
numerous times? That is very difficult and so that is the bit
that we are still working on with those groups.
Q60 Dr Huppert: As I
understand the relationship, Ministers set the policy and then
you deliver that policy. So when will I be able to ask the question,
"Have we ended child detention?" and get the answer
from you or the Minister, "Yes"?
Ms Homer: I think
the question has been put to my Minister on the Floor of the House
already and he has already seriously altered the amount of detention,
the length of time we're keeping children, so that there's far
smaller use already than there was. The question about when weYarl's
Wood has no children in it at the moment, has had very few in.
So I think it would be wrong to suggest it's just as it was until
a point when a switch is thrown, but I think what Ministers have
also said across the Government is that this has to be a system
that's sustainable and that achieves the results that Government
and the courts have said need to happen. So that's why, I think,
there is a difficulty of what do you do when a family, in a sense,
just say no, where they don't have a right to protection. We are
looking to find ways to make it easier for those families to accept
the weight of Government decision-making and to go under their
Q61 Nicola Blackwood:
The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture have
raised with me some concerns about the poor implementation of
rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules. These concern victims of
torture and others with special illnesses and conditions. They
tell me that on 12 October, UKBA agreed to conduct an audit of
the implementation of rule 35 and the processes associated with
that. They told me that this was going to be released on 12 June.
The release was then delayed to 9 July, then to the end of August
and it now stands at before the end of 2010. They're understandably
frustrated, as an FOI request to see the results of this audit
was refused on the basis that it will be available, but since
we've had now five months of delay, and potentially six months
of delay, they are concerned that they may still not have this
by next year. I wonder if you could provide for the Committee
a copy of the audit, including the scope and terms of reference,
the methodology and the interim and final results that you have
Ms Homer: I'll
check what the delay is on the FOI and certainly if we're going
to put an FOI out it's important that we make sure the Committee
sees that detail.
Q62 Steve McCabe: I just
wanted to go back to the issue of children in detention. I can't
imagine any of us are excited at the prospect of children being
detained but I wonder if you could give us some idea of the numbers
we're talking about and if you could say anything about the problem
of people who claim to be children who turn out to be older than
they are and the problem of children who are under the control
of organised criminal gangs and what you would recommend might
be an alternative way of dealing with that?
Ms Homer: Gosh,
there's quite a lot in there.
Steve McCabe: Would it
be possible to write to us about it? I'm trying to understand
why this is a problem and what other elements of it might exist.
So, if it would be easier to write
Ms Homer: Just
very briefly, there are two forms of children that the agency
looks after. One is the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children,
and we do find a proportion of young men claiming to be 16 or
17 who we believe are older. We use a social work-led assessment
on age-disputed cases. We have a number of those and we have had
circumstances where subsequently courts have decreed that a young
man is an adult when he has claimed to be under 18. We are continuing
to look for ways to safely determine a youngster's age when it
might be something between 16 and 24. That's largely young men.
They're all unaccompanied.
The number of families with children removed from
UK from detention has dropped steadily over the period where we
have been trying to find more humane and voluntary means of removing
them. So we were removing about 30 units a month in November 2009.
It's down in single figures now and this is one of the challenges
that we face, that it's very difficult to incentivise a family
to go if they believe that there are not consequences of saying
no. So we are struggling to remove families. Nonetheless, we have
continued to remove a number and in the period June to October
this year we removed 22 families. That is only about 20% of the
same number as we removed last year.
Q63 Chair: Could you
write to us on the points that Mr McCabe has raised?
Ms Homer: Yes.
Q64 Bridget Phillipson:
G4S told us that UKBA are responsible for conducting a comprehensive
health review prior to handing people over for removal.
Ms Homer: Yes.
Bridget Phillipson: Can
we see a copy of the form that is used?
Ms Homer: Yes.
I have brought one with me and I would be happy to electronically
send that to the Committee as well if you would like.
Q65 Chair: So that means
before people are removed their health conditions are checked?
Ms Homer: It's
quite a full form. The easiest thing is for me to let the Committee
look at it. If there are further questions once you've looked
at it, we'd obviously be very interested to hear from you but
I can undertake to do that.
Q66 Dr Huppert: In 2006,
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons recommended that responsibility
for healthcare in immigration detention centres be transferred
from the Home Office to the Department of Health, as happened
for prison healthcare, and I'm sure you'd accept that the Department
of Health knows a bit more about healthcare than the Home Office.
What progress has happened with that? How are we ensuring that
there is proper healthcare available?
Ms Homer: Anne
Owers' advice on healthcare was taken very seriously and we've
entered into arrangements where we've at least sought to get Department
of Health oversight of all our healthcare arrangements, even if
we were still paying for them through private providers. We have
brought in the Department of Health in that capacity. Obviously
the Department of Health is keen that the agency continues to
shoulder its responsibilities for funding healthcare and so it's
not quite that we've just lifted and moved our responsibilities
but they're now much more significantly involved, as are social
care, because we accept in the same way that we're not social
care experts and should not be taking those decisions unaided
by the professionals.
Q67 Chair: In respect
of that form that you very kindly have brought to the Committee
today, who looks at this form?
Ms Homer: This
is a form that has to be filled in before
Chair: By whom?
Ms Homer: By both
our own staff who are detaining and the people that they're handing
over. So, it becomes part of the record.
Chair: They fill in the
Ms Homer: The people
who have been responsible for detention fill in the form and its
aim is to ensure that there is a full understanding of the individual
as they are transferred.
Q68 Chair: Then who looks
at the form and assesses, because obviously it's quite technical?
It talks about what kinds of medical risks there are, health risk.
Is it looked at by a doctor?
Ms Homer: The medical
parts of it are filled in by medical experts and
Chair: Sorry, medical
experts? By a doctor?
Ms Homer: Well,
those would be doctors, nurses, it could be dentistry. So, you
know that in our detention centres there is access to healthcare,
and indeed on our charters we more often than not have medical
escorts as part of the charter removal.
Q69 Chair: So in Mr Mubenga's
case there would be a copy of this somewhere in the file?
Ms Homer: Yes.
Q70 Chair: Excellent.
Ms Homer, as usual, it has been a long session but we're always
very grateful to you for the information you provide. I wonder
if you could take away the template that we have produced for
Ms Homer: I will.
Chair: And if your next
letter could follow that template we'd be most grateful.
Ms Homer: Happy
to do so.
Thank you very much for coming.