Work of the UK Border Agency (August-December 2011) - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Committee welcomes the reduction in the number of prisoners who were released without being referred to the UK Border "Agency" and the Committee will continue to monitor the figures to make sure that this decline is maintained. The Committee notes that further processes are being implemented to ensure that all Foreign National Prisoners eligible for deportation are considered and repeat our basic view that no Foreign National Prisoner should be released without deportation being fully considered. (Paragraph 8)

2.  The Committee has long suggested that the terminology and figures used by the UK Border "Agency" can be, at best, described as confusing and at worst, misleading. It would seem that, on this occasion, even their Chief Executive had difficulty in following the data provided to the Committee. The work of the "Agency" and any discussion on immigration will necessarily involve the use of statistics. It is vital that, when providing, figures, especially to a Committee of the House, that the information is consistent, clear and accurate. The Committee expects this to be the case in future. It is difficult to see how senior management and ministers can be confident that they know what is going on if the "Agency" cannot be precise in the information it provides to this committee. As The Committee has pointed out on a number of occasions, the "Agency" is an integral part of the Home Office and is not a separate "Agency" with separate systems of accountability. This is therefore a matter for the Permanent Secretary, and as well as receiving reports from the head of the "Agency". The Committee will expect to hear from the Permanent Secretary how she intends to clean up the use of statistics within the Department. (Paragraph 12)

3.  The Committee is deeply concerned that there are 2,670 Foreign National Prisoners living in the community and still awaiting deportation after two years. The Committee recognises that some of this is due to circumstances beyond the "Agency's" control, such as the domestic political situations in some prisoners' countries of origin. However, more could be done to address the problems of false identity and lack of documentation. The Committee recommends that the "Agency" should, as a matter of routine, begin working to establish the identities of Foreign National Prisoners, and ensure that they have the necessary travel documentation, as soon as they are sentenced. The next time the Committee scrutinises the "Agency", we intend to ask how many Foreign National Prisoners were referred to the "Agency" at the point of sentencing. (Paragraph 15)

4.  Figures provided to the Committee are unclear. The Government response indicates the Case Assurance and Audit Unit is dealing with 17,000 live cases despite having concluded 7,700 of the 18,000 referred to in the "Agency's" update to the Committee in September 2011. Parliament was originally told that the backlog was a maximum of 450,000 in 2006 yet the numbers given to this Committee suggest that it has now reached 502,000. The "Agency" is providing inconsistent information. The Committee suggests that if the categories within the data differ from those previously supplied to the Committee, an explanation be given in order to avoid any confusion. The "Agency" must rid itself of its bunker mentality and focus on ensuring that Parliament and the public understands its work. Confusion over figures only risks suspicion that the "Agency" is attempting to mislead Parliament and the public over its performance and effectiveness. The only way the Home Office can allay and remove these fears is to clean up and clarify all the figures that are used in these reports. (Paragraph 21)

5.  In correspondence the "Agency" has continually referred to two controlled archives, one for asylum cases and another for immigration cases. Yet they appear to have merged live asylum and immigration cases from the two backlogs in to one 'live cases' category. This has lead to confusion during oral evidence provided by Mr Whiteman. Regardless of how the information is separated out, the "Agency" has an archive of 119,000 lost applicants and 17,000 live cases. This is an unacceptably high figure and the "Agency" should continue to aim for a swift reduction of the cases related to both the asylum and migration backlogs. The Committee welcome Mr Whiteman's commitment to reducing significantly the number of asylum cases in the controlled archive by March 2013. However, at the current rate of resolution it would take almost four years to empty the controlled archive of asylum and migration cases. The Committee has asked the "Agency" to provide us with a sample of examples of typical cases held in the controlled archive so that the Committee can better understand the process. (Paragraph 26)

6.  Trust in our asylum system is vital, both for the taxpayer and for those seeking a safe haven. Country of origin information is a key tool for those making asylum decisions yet the Independent Chief Inspector has found flaws in the system which must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The Committee welcome that the "Agency" is successful in 67% of asylum appeals, a figure higher than 44% which is the average appeal win rate—this shows that the "Agency" making the correct decision in the majority of asylum cases. However, the "Agency" must get the decision right first time in a far greater percentage of cases. A failure rate of 33% indicates a considerable waste in administrative assets, the time of the tribunal and a burden on applicants who have been given a wrong decision, so there is financial cost and human cost, both of which need to be cut to the minimum. (Paragraph 30)

7.  If the "Agency" is encountering difficulties which threaten the border security of the UK, such as the Lille loophole, these difficulties should be resolved as a matter of urgency. If the "Agency" is unable to resolve these difficulties quickly, Parliament must be informed. It is unacceptable that this issue of the Lille loophole only appeared to be resolved after a public discussion and scrutiny from this Committee. The Committee has not been told how many of the 160 people who were stopped at St Pancras last year have claimed asylum in the UK. Until this problem has been permanently resolved, the Committee considers it vital that both Ministers and Parliament be regularly updated on the situation. The Committee expects the "Agency" to provide us with full and detailed information in the next and subsequent reports, and for the Permanent Secretary to ensure that this happens in terms of reports to both Ministers and Parliament. (Paragraph 37)

8.  The Committee expects the UK Border "Agency" to comply with the request by the Children's Commissioner for further information on the 'gentleman's agreement'. The Committee also expects the "Agency" to publish full information about this and about any similar bilateral agreements. (Paragraph 42)

9.  Again, a lack of communication about working practices has resulted in a situation which is detrimental to the reputation of the "Agency" and, by extension, the Home Office. The Committee have previously recommended that the Chief Inspector of the UKBA carry out a thematic review of the internal communication of the "Agency"—the Committee reiterates the need for such work to take place. (Paragraph 43)

10.  The "Agency" is still losing almost half of the appeals brought against it, despite its previous assertions that a change in the rules regarding evidence would lead to an improvement. It indicates that the "Agency" is not obeying the law or sticking to its own rules, this is unacceptable and systems must be put in place to improve the "Agency's" appeal figures. (Paragraph 45)

11.  The Chief Inspector of the UK Border "Agency" recently found a difference of 50% between the locally-held and centrally-held data on the "Agency's" representation rate at appeals in Glasgow. The reason for the discrepancy between locally and centrally-recorded figures must be investigated and the Committee requests a full explanation for the difference when the "Agency" next gives evidence. (Paragraph 48)

12.  During the first quarter of 2011 the UK Border "Agency" has informed us that its representation rate was, on average, 83%. The aspiration to improve this figure to 90% is only a first step towards correcting the system and the Committee is disappointed that in the first quarter of 2011-12 there has been negligible improvement in the percentage of cases dismissed and allowed. It is crucial the "Agency's" success rates at appeals to increase in the next quarter. (Paragraph 51)

13.   It is difficult to see how the scheme can be applied to all rail and sea passengers by the dates detailed above, given that air passengers are still not yet fully covered. The Committee believes the assumption that the maritime and rail sectors will implement the system in under two years is overly optimistic. On the other hand, it is difficult to see the point of all these systems—and the costs and bureaucracy involved—if they are not comprehensive. The Committee certainly needs clarity both on the policy of the Home Office in this regard and on the practicalities of achieving a clear and comprehensive system, as well as on the performance of the "Agency". (Paragraph 57)

14.  The Committee has been informed that all non-EU aviation will be covered by the e-Borders scheme in time for the 2012 Olympics. The system currently covers 95% of non-EU aviation and the "Agency" hopes that it will cover 100% by April 2012. Given the vast security implications of the Olympics, the Committee will be closely monitoring progress in this area to ensure the "Agency" meets its aims. (Paragraph 58)

15.  The "Agency" needs to provide convincing evidence, for its own staff as well as the general public, that the e-Gates system is no less reliable than passport checks carried out by a person. (Paragraph 61)

16.  £9 million has been spent on an iris recognition system which has lasted only six years and its sole value appears to have been that it provided data for the e-Gates. This money could have been better spent on border staff—at least 60 immigration officers could have been employed with the money spent on IRIS. The Committee recommends that, in order to avoid another costly investment in equipment which will not last, the "Agency" publish the data it has collected on the e-Gates trials which it is currently running. The Committee would also like the "Agency" to inform the Committee as to what it intends to do with the data collected by the IRIS programme and whether the retinal scans will be destroyed following the mothballing of the scanners at Heathrow and Gatwick. (Paragraph 64)

17.  It is unacceptable that the "Agency" refuses to recognise a term which is widely recognised within both Government and Parliament. Bogus colleges are harmful to our society—they destroy trust in our immigration system, they facilitate entry to those who have dishonourable motives and they damage the UK's reputation for high quality education. The Committee recommends that the UK Border "Agency" make all inspections visits to Tier 4 sponsors unannounced. (Paragraph 70)

18.  Extrapolating the figures from August and September 2011, it appears that approximately 700,000 visa applications a year are from people who have applied previously. The Committee recommends that the "Agency" inform us as to whether an applicant could have legitimate reasons for applying for three or more visas and assesses the implications of imposing a limit on the number of times an individual can apply for a visa, within a set period. As the Committee has said previously, the best way of dealing with bogus students, reluctant spouses and sham marriages is to reintroduce face to face interviews with entry clearance officers as a matter of urgency. A major part of our next evidence session will focus on the entry clearance operation. (Paragraph 72)

19.  The Committee welcomes the reviews being undertaken by the NAO and central Home Office Finance into the "Agency's" financial and debt management processes. The Committee expects to receive a copy of both reviews and hope that the changes will be apparent in the annual report and accounts that the "Agency" produces for 2011-12. (Paragraph 75)

20.  The Committee welcomes the reduction in the number of letters sent by MPs and peers. The Committee would like to see this reduce further still. The Committee will be conducting a survey to discover how satisfied Members are with the service they are receiving and ask what more can be done to improve it further. The Committee will share the data we gather with the House and the UK Border "Agency". (Paragraph 78)

21.  Once again, the UK Border "Agency" were initially obstructive when asked to provide essential information to us, this is unacceptable. Given the criticisms the Committee has made previously about the "Agency's" refusal to provide information to this Committee and the undertakings by Mr Whiteman to work with us, it is also highly disappointing. The Committee takes our scrutiny of the UK Border "Agency" very seriously and will not be deterred by the "Agency's" attempt to circumvent our requests for information. It is in the public interest that this "Agency", charged with implementing the Government's immigration policy, is held to account by Parliament. When Mr Whiteman first appeared before us, he pledged to be to be transparent and work with us on the basis of trust. We welcome those pledges and look forward to them being fulfilled. (Paragraph 81)

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Prepared 11 April 2012