The work of the UK Border Agency (July-September 2012) - Home Affairs Committee Contents


2  Focus: clearing the immigration and asylum backlog

Background

6.  The issue of most concern to us in this period has been the Agency's closure of the asylum and immigration controlled archives. The archives contained legacy asylum and immigration applications where the Agency was no longer able to trace the applicant.

7.  The controlled archives came into existence through the Agency's work on the asylum legacy programme, set up in 2007, to try and clear the enormous backlog of approximately 460,500 asylum cases that had built up throughout the 1990s. An additional 40,000 immigration legacy cases were discovered and added to the legacy programme in 2009. The Agency first told us about the existence of the controlled archives in July 2009. At our request, it has provided regular updates on the number of cases within them and the checks it claimed to be carrying out to try and trace the applicants. A timeline of the archives and their place within the legacy program can be seen from the diagram below.

 


The Agency's handling of the asylum and immigration backlog

8.  In September this year The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration reported on the Agency's handling of legacy asylum and immigration cases. His report revealed many failings, including that:

  • prior to April 2012 the Agency had not been properly carrying out its programme of checks on the legacy applications in order to try and trace applicants;
  • the Agency had repeatedly supplied this Committee with incorrect information about the programme of checks; and
  • the Agency had not informed the Committee about 33,000 asylum legacy cases being worked on by the Case Assurance and Audit Unit.

9.  The diagram on the next page gives an overview of the Agency's public statements about its tracing programme and the Inspector's findings.[

4]

Separating fact from fiction: the agency's tracing programme for the legacy cases




10.  The Inspector's report makes it clear that, contrary to its public claims, the Agency was not carrying out its full programme of checks on legacy cases either before or after they were placed in the controlled archives. The Agency has repeatedly told this Committee that it could have confidence that legacy applicants were no longer in the country as an extensive checking programme carried out over five years had not found any trace of them. We know that there are a significant number of failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants living in the UK and avoiding contact with public authorities. Recent figures from the London School of Economics put the number of illegal immigrants in the UK at 618,000 and in 2008 the Red Cross reported that it had been approached for help by 10,000 destitute asylum seekers. Therefore, no tracing programme was likely to discover everyone who had slipped through the net. The fact that a sustained and thorough tracing programme did not even take place makes it even less likely that individuals living here have been identified. It is possible that tens of thousands of individuals whom the Agency has not been able to trace are still here.

THE AGENCY'S RESPONSE TO THE CHIEF INSPECTOR'S FINDINGS

11.  There have been three Chief Executives of the Border Agency since it was established in 2006:

  • Lin Homer, now Chief Executive of HMRC (August 2005- January 2010);
  • Jonathan Sedgwick, Acting Chief Executive (January 2010 - September 2011), now Director of International Operations and Visas; and
  • Rob Whiteman (since September 2011).

All three individuals have now apologised for supplying the Committee with inaccurate information on the asylum backlog.

12.  Lin Homer has apologised for wrongly telling the Committee that the group of 40,000 immigration cases discovered in October 2009 had been immediately checked against the Police National Computer and the Watchlist. In fact, with the exception of 800 cases, The Agency did not make these checks until 18 months later between April and June 2011.[5] She has not however apologised for giving the Committee incorrect information about the size of the asylum backlog.

13.  Jonathan Sedgwick has apologised for wrongly telling the Committee that cases being placed in the controlled archives were checked against 19 databases.

I informed your committee that legacy asylum cases being placed in the controlled archive were checked against 19 databases ... it is now clear to me that this is not correct and that I should have said 'up to 19 databases'.[6]

We welcome Mr Sedgwick's apology, however, according to the Inspector's report, the majority of cases had not been checked against any databases at all.

14.  Rob Whiteman wrote to us following the publication of the Inspector's report and said that he takes the provision of inaccurate information to the Committee 'very seriously'.[7] He went on to list the actions he had taken when he realised that the tracing programme had not been carried out properly:

  • Set up an internal investigation by the Agency's Professional Standards unit.
  • Ensured a proper programme of checks was started.
  • Set up a disciplinary investigation.

We understand from Mr Whiteman that a new unit, the Performance and Compliance Unit, has been set up to improve the quality of the data provided by the Agency to Parliament and the public. This unit will be subject to independent scrutiny by the Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration.[8]

15.  Mr Whiteman did not however inform this Committee that the Agency had regularly supplied it with incorrect information since 2006. This in our view is unacceptable and undermines Mr Whiteman's claims to take the provision of accurate information to the Committee seriously. No senior official in the Border Agency took any steps to alert this Committee to what had happened until the Independent Chief Inspector published his report. This is hardly the mark of a transparent organisation which recognises its accountability to Parliament. Instead the Agency appears to have tried to sweep its mistakes under the carpet in the hope that they would remain unnoticed.

16.  We are astonished that the Agency provided this Committee, and its predecessors, with information that turned out to be patently wrong on so many occasions over the last six years. If it was not attempting to mislead the Committee then it must be a sign that senior officials had no idea as to what was actually going on in their organisation. We find it very hard to believe that no one within the Agency had any idea that checks were not being carried out as they should have been and we expect the Agency to share the findings of its disciplinary investigation with us as soon as it is completed.

17.  However, we welcome the establishment of the Performance and Compliance Unit within the Agency, if indeed it will actually ensure that the data provided are robust and reliable, and really can be relied on. We also welcome the oversight that the Chief Inspector will have of its work. We expect this to mark the beginning of a move towards greater transparency on behalf of the Agency; transparency that is evidenced by accurate and clear information provided to Parliament in a timely manner.

The tracing programme since April 2012

18.  The Agency says that all the cases in the controlled archives were subject to a full checking programme between April 2012 and the closure of the archives on 21 November.[9] In total, 64,600 asylum cases and 15,700 immigration cases have been closed as the Agency cannot trace the applicants.[10] The Agency asked Deloitte to carry out assurance work on the cases in the archives to make sure that the checking programme had been completed properly. Deloitte checked a sample of 1,000 cases (810 asylum cases and 190 immigration cases). This represented only 1.2% of the total number of cases in the archives.[11] A summary of the checks the Agency said it had carried out and Deloitte's subsequent findings can be seen in the diagram below.

The Agency's final tracing programme and the findings of Deloitte's assurance work[12]



CHECKS AGAINST DWP'S DATABASES

19.  We understand from the Agency that it identified and flagged to Deloitte its failure to check some of the immigration cases against DWP's databases twice. This amounted to 19% of the cases in Deloitte's total sample but all of the cases in question came from the immigration controlled archive. On the basis of this sample there is no evidence that any of the 15,953 immigration cases received two checks against the DWP's databases prior to Deloitte's assurance work. Deloitte has verified that the cases in its sample have now been subject to two DWP checks using retrospective DWP records from June. We also understand that DWP has provided a 'statement of assurance about the data'. We expect the Agency to provide us with a copy of the Department of Work and Pensions' statement about the checks performed by the Agency against its databases. The Agency must also tell us how many of the cases this statement of assurance applies to.

20.  The Agency's and Deloitte's assurance processes showed that a number of cases with a 'matchkey three' level match against DWP's data had been wrongly placed into the controlled archives instead of the live cohort. If Deloitte's findings are extrapolated to account for the whole controlled archive this could have applied to around 300 cases in total. The Agency says it has double checked all closed cases to ensure that those with a level three match or higher have been transferred to the live cohort.[13] Deloitte has verified that this has taken place in relation to the cases in its sample. We are satisfied that misallocation to the controlled archive of cases with a 'matchkey three' against DWP data has, most likely, been corrected appropriately.

Security checks

21.  We are concerned that 328 cases were not able to have a Police National Computer check completed because of poor-quality data, this is equivalent to around 1,100 cases in the combined archive. We are also concerned that 28 cases were identified as having such poor data that they could not have a Watchlist check because they were missing information such as a surname, address or date of birth. We are astounded that anyone would be able to apply for a visa or for asylum without providing this information. When we asked the Agency how this was possible it said that:

'data held for these legacy cases contained errors and duplication and that records for some of the cases predated the electronic information held on the Case Information Database (CID). Incomplete records may have occurred during the migration of previously held electronic data onto CID'.[14]

22.  It is totally unacceptable for case records to be missing such fundamental data which enables them to undergo important security checks. We cannot understand how this can have been allowed to happen for so many applications. We recognise that this issue is a historical rather than a current failing on the Agency's behalf and one that should be attributed to its leadership at the time the applications were made. The Agency says it is satisfied with the action it took to try and improve the data quality by reformatting it. However, given that 328 cases were still unable to undergo a PNC check and 28 were unable to be checked against the Watchlist we regard this as a most unsatisfactory consequence.

CASES WITH A HIT ON THE POLICE NATIONAL COMPUTER

23.  Of Deloitte's sample, 29% of cases had a 'hit' on the Police National Computer, 22 were confirmed and 267 were 'possible'. The Agency says that it only required Deloitte to confirm that the check had been carried out, not to comment on the outcome of the check, therefore Deloitte has said that 'no remediation is required' as the 'relevant PNC check has been performed'.[15] The Agency tells us that in total there were 3,077 cases with previous hits on the Police National Computer but no contact information to enable the case to be progressed even after it re-ran these cases against the Computer's live database.[16] The Agency tells us these cases can be broken down into the following categories:

  • 1,502 cases had a positive hit on the PNC for 'non-criminal reasons such as holding a firearms licence. These case remain closed'.[17] We understand that these individuals are unlikely to pose a security risk but we are puzzled that there is no contact information available for any of them. In the example given by the Agency (holding a shotgun licence), licence-holders have to supply their name and address.
  • 1,468 cases had convictions that predated April 2011 and were considered as addressed as part of the Case Review Directorate's work on the controlled archives. Therefore the Agency did not re-open these cases.[18] Given the Agency's poor record in carrying out checks on legacy cases prior to April 2012 we are by no means reassured that this issue has been addressed properly. We recommend the Agency re-examines these cases individually before closing them and reports its findings to this Committee. The public has a right to know about individuals who may be living in their communities with no legal right to be here and who may have committed criminal offences whilst in the country..
  • 24 cases have been identified as having an impending prosecution, the Agency is working with the police to trace the individuals in question.
  • 83 cases had a PNC hit which post-dated April 2011, again the Agency is working with the police to trace these individuals. We are concerned to hear that the authorities do not have contact details for individuals who are awaiting prosecution or who have recently been in contact with the police. It is vital that the Agency continues to work with the police and prosecutors to try and locate these individuals.

24.  We are disappointed that even after the Inspector's discovery in April 2012, the Agency failed to carry out its programme of checks properly. This is especially worrying given that the controlled archives were to be closed upon completion. We had expected the Agency to take a thorough approach to the task, one that demonstrated awareness of its responsibility to trace all the individuals it was possible to trace and to ensure that all cases were closed appropriately.

25.  The exceptions uncovered as a result of Deloitte's and the Agency's assurance work raise concerns that, despite the remediation carried out by the Agency, there are still potentially hundreds of legacy applicants in the UK of whom the Agency has found a footprint but has not been able to locate.

26.  The uncovered exceptions aside, we find it difficult to agree with the Agency that:

'Doing these checks means we have confirmed that individuals are not working, receiving benefits, have financial products or have come into contact with the police. Where there is no trace of the individual we have to conclude that they are no longer in the UK.'[19]

27.  We know that there are a large number of failed asylum and immigration applicants living in the shadows in the UK who are unlikely to have records on many of the databases searched by the Agency. Based on evidence seen so far we do not believe that the checking programme, even when properly completed, can offer reassurance that all 80,300 applicants whose cases the Agency has now closed have left the UK.

28.  Mr Whiteman has told us that:

'if in the future...an individual from a closed case does come to the attention of the UK Border Agency, the case will be reactivated and progressed.'[20]

We are unsure as to how any matches with the controlled archive cases will be achieved. We expect the Agency to tell us what mechanisms it has in place for flagging up individuals it come into contact with who have a record in the closed archives.

Asylum cases that were not reported to this Committee

29.  A key discovery made by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration was that 33,000 legacy asylum applications being caseworked by the CAAU were not reported to the Committee as part of the asylum legacy backlog. These cases included Active Review cases, Leave in Line cases and cases affected by data quality errors.[21] CAAU staff told the Inspector that they represented 30-40% of their work.[22] The Inspector's report said that it:

'remains unclear as to why these statistics were excluded, as the original asylum claims all fell before March 2007. We therefore....recommend that the UK Border Agency ensures that all the information it provides to the Home Affairs Select Committee is accurate and includes all legacy cases where asylum applications were made before March 2007.'[23]

30.  When he gave evidence to this Committee the Inspector told us that

'They [CAAU staff] were adamant that the cases had not been reported to you. It was something of a bugbear for the staff in the CAAU, because 30% to 40% of their work fell into this category and they felt it was not being reported or acknowledged'.[24]

He also told us that when his draft inspection report was sent to the Agency for factual checking this conclusion was never challenged.[25]

31.  When Lin Homer, the Chief Executive of the Agency from August 2005 until January 2010, came to give evidence to this Committee she told us that these cases had been reported to the Committee but not as part of the asylum backlog.[26] We challenged Ms Homer's statement on the basis of the Inspector's report but Ms Homer continued to insist throughout the session that she has reported the cases to the Committee.

'I would repeat that I don't believe those 33,000 cases were not brought to this Committee. I think they were not brought under the CRD banner'.[27]

We put it to Ms Homer that she had supplied the information:

'In such a way that we could not find it...and the Chief Inspector also didn't find it'.[28]

32.  Ms Homer undertook to write to the Committee setting out the evidence in which she had reported these cases. Her statements and our response can be seen from the diagram below.

Lin Homer's statements about the unreported asylum cases


33.  We do not believe that Ms Homer informed this, or our predecessor committees about the cohort of cases in question. The statements referred to by Ms Homer have, at best, a tenuous link with the issue and certainly do not provide evidence that she informed this Committee about the full extent of the asylum backlog. We are supported in this opinion by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, who told us that, despite Ms Homer's statements:

'I stand by my report...I do not recognise those figures as being part of this issue'.[29]

34.  It is appalling that a senior civil servant should have misled the Committee in the way that Ms Homer did and that she continues, even in the light of the Inspector's findings, to try and evade responsibility for her failings. Reference to important figures in an obscure footnote in a previous letter is not an acceptable response. The Inspector's findings about the asylum and immigration backlog are the latest in a long line of failings in the Border Agency, many of which occurred throughout Ms Homer's time as Chief Executive.

35.  When he gave evidence to us the Chief Inspector said that, in respect of dealing with the asylum and immigration backlog the Agency was not fit for purpose.[30] He also said that there was 'a lack of transparency' in the Agency and that 'customer and complaints handling ... are shockingly poor'.[31] Furthermore the Inspector commented that 'sometimes this Agency feels as though it were in silos'.[32] He went on to offer several examples of incidents where different Directorates within the Agency had been unaware of each others' work on the same cases. He cited in particular the case of an individual who, at his appeal for Further Leave to Remain in the UK, produced a letter from the Agency granting him leave to remain which the Agency's Presenting Officer was completely unaware of.[33] In fact the Inspector could only name one part of the Agency that he judged to be performing well, the International Directorate.[34]

36.  This whole episode raises serious concerns about the accountability of the most senior civil servants to Parliament. It is shocking that after five years under Lin Homer's leadership an organisation that was described at the beginning of the period as being 'not fit for purpose' should have improved its performance so little. Given this background, we are astounded that Ms Homer has been promoted to become Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and can therefore have little confidence in her ability to lead HMRC at what is a challenging time for that organisation. Indeed we note from Ms Homer's appearance before the Public Accounts Committee in January that one million letters were left unanswered at HMRC throughout 2012 and that 100,000 of these still remained unanswered on the date of her appearance before the Public Accounts Committee.

37.  We recommend that Parliament be given a stronger role in the pre-appointment scrutiny of civil servants who will be leading government departments and we believe this strengthens the case for select committees to be given the power of veto. The status quo, in which catastrophic leadership failure is no obstacle to promotion, is totally unacceptable. We recommend that in future any failures of this nature should have serious consequences for the individual's career.

38.  Rob Whiteman has since written to this Committee and told us that the Agency did not continue to include these asylum cases in the legacy backlog because:

'On expiry of their limited leave these individuals will need to make a fresh application for further leave to remain should they wish to remain in the UK and therefore no action was required by the CRD and CAAU teams working on the legacy cases.'[35]

39.  This statement appears to be at odds with the report from the Chief Inspector which found that these cases represented 30-40% of the CAAU's casework and that staff were upset that this substantial element of their work was not being reported to this Committee. It is difficult to see how both the Chief Inspector's findings and Mr Whiteman's statement can be correct and we expect Mr Whiteman to clarify the issue immediately.

40.  Mr Whiteman also told us that, having analysed the Active Review cases

'We estimate that there are currently 11,000 Active Review cases. These cases will be managed as part of a new Directorate, Complex Casework Directorate, which will be established early next year to manage the Agency's older and complex cases'.[36]

We expect the Agency to tell us how these 11,000 Active Review cases relate to the group of 33,000 cases uncovered by the Chief Inspector. We also note that, far from having cleared the backlog, the Agency appears to be setting up a new directorate, the Complex Casework Directorate, to solve the more difficult cases which still remain outstanding. The Agency needs to tell us how this new Directorate is related to the CAAU and the backlog casework that they are currently concluding. Further comments on the Agency's use of changing terminology to disguise unresolved problems can be found in the section below.

Other issues about the clearing of the asylum and immigration backlogs

USE OF TERMINOLOGY

41.  The Agency's target for the legacy programme was to conclude all legacy cases by the summer of 2011. However, as shown by the diagram below, when it became clear that it wasn't going to make this target the Agency simply changed its definition of 'conclusion' and set up a new directorate to deal with un-concluded cases.

Changes to the Agency's definition of 'conclusion'[37]


42.  The Agency did not conclude its work on the legacy programme within its original target time. Rather than admit this, it simply sent the cases which it had reviewed but not yet concluded off to a new unit, the Case Assurance and Audit Unit (CAAU). We are disappointed that the Agency chose to address the issue in this way. The Agency's action in setting up a further Directorate, the Complex Casework Directorate, to conclude difficult older cases suggests to us that, despite its claims, the Agency has no intention of taking a more transparent approach to terminology and reporting in the future.

43.  It is unclear as to what genuinely new purpose the CAAU was set up to achieve. The handover of cases between units led to unnecessary confusion, resulting in extra work and delay. The Chief Inspector found that:

  • There was no strategic oversight of the transition from the CRD to the CAAU and that management of the change was 'fundamentally flawed;'[38]
  • over 9,000 cases that had not even been reviewed by the CRD were transferred to the CAAU in error;
  • the CAAU was inadequately resourced for the task it was given;[39]
  • and, as discussed below, the Agency's correspondence handling over this period was seriously flawed.

44.  Keeping the cases in the Case Resolution Directorate and concluding them properly would have been a more prudent and transparent approach than establishing the Case Assurance and Audit Unit to take on cases which were not concluded by the Case Review Directorate.

CORRESPONDENCE WITH APPLICANTS, LEGAL REPRESENTATIVES AND MPS

45.  The Inspector's report found that throughout the handover of cases from the CRD to the CAAU the Agency was completely overwhelmed with correspondence from affected individuals, their legal representatives and MPs. The Inspector found that, throughout July and August 2011 there were in excess of 100,000 pieces of post in the CAAU which were inherited from the CRD in March 2011. At one point, he said, over 150 boxes of post from applicants, Members and legal representatives ' lay unopened in a room in Liverpool'.[40] The Inspector told this Committee that much of the correspondence was generated by the Agency and its commercial partner rushing to chase up cases before the closure of the CRD. In his opinion, this led to many cases being put into the controlled archives erroneously.[41]

46.  As regards terminology, it is indeed very confusing the way in which designation is given to what is essentially a very large backlog. In this report, we have mentioned the controlled archives, the Case Assurance and Audit Unit, Case Review Directorate, Active Review cases, and now a new one, Complex Casework Directorate, leaving aside the Performance and Compliance Unit mentioned earlier. What all this means cannot be clear to the public, the legal profession, or for that matter the media, who want to know the latest and accurate situation of outstanding applications to UKBA, and how long they have been outstanding.

47.  We agree that this shambolic approach to correspondence is likely to have led to many cases being placed in the controlled archives when in fact the applicant was trying to make contact with the Agency. The deluge of correspondence was no doubt the result of the Agency publicly claiming to have cleared its backlog when it had not done so and a poorly timed mail merge exercise to the nine thousand or more individuals whose cases were passed to the CAAU without even being reviewed by the CRD. On this issue alone, of totally misplaced boxes of correspondence involving thousands of cases, we can only conclude the organisation has been poorly led and mismanaged. We hope that the Agency will learn from this episode and undertake to finish programmes properly in the future instead of fudging its terminology to meet targets.



4   Sources: Home Affairs Committee, The Work of the UK Border Agency, Second Report of the Session, 2009-2012; Lin Homer, Letter to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, 19 July 2010; The Home Affairs Committee , The Work of the UK Border Agency November 2010-March 2011, Ninth report of the session 2010-2012; Home Affairs Committee , The Work of the UK Border Agency December 2011-March 2012, Fifth report of the session 2012-2013 and the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An Inspection of the UK Border Agency's handling of legacy asylum and migration cases Back

5   Home Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, Provision of information to the Committee by the UK Border Agency, HC 781-i, Q37 and Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An Inspection of the UK Border Agency's handling of legacy asylum and migration cases. Back

6   HC 781-i, Ev14 Back

7   HC 781-i, Ev12 Back

8   Ev 37 Back

9   Ev 38 Back

10   UKBA, Controlled Archives Closure Report, p9 Back

11   Deloitte, Independent Review of Controlled Archive Process Prior to Case Closure, 12 December, p1 Back

12   Information taken from Deloitte, Independent Review of Controlled Archive Process Prior to Case Closure, 12 December 2012 and from the UK Border Agency, Controlled Archives Closure Report, December 2012. Back

13   UKBA Controlled Archives Closure Report p7 Back

14   Ev 38 Back

15   Deloitte, Independent Review of Controlled Archive Process Prior to Case Closure, p3 Back

16   UKBA Controlled Archives Closure Report, p7-8 Back

17   UKBA Controlled Archives Closure Report, p5 Back

18   UKBA Controlled Archives Closure Report, p6 Back

19   UK Border Agency, Controlled Archives Closure Report, p4 Back

20   HC 781-i, Ev14. Back

21   Active Review cases are cases where an individual has been granted a temporary form of humanitarian protection or Discretionary Leave to Remain and has applied for further leave to remain. Leave in Line cases are cases where there has been a change in the applicant's circumstances which mean that dependents now also need to be taken into consideration. Back

22   Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, Report into the Agency's handling of the legacy asylum and migration cases, p58 Back

23   Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, Report into the Agency's handling of the legacy asylum and migration cases, p52 Back

24   Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, evidence to HASC, 4 December, Q3 Back

25   Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, evidence to HASC, 4 December, Q3 Back

26   HC 781-i, Q48 Back

27   HC 781-i, Q64 Back

28   HC 781-i, Q75 and 76 Back

29   Q3 [John Vine] Back

30   Q12 [John Vine] Back

31   Q12 [John Vine] Back

32   Q14 [John Vine] Back

33   Q24 [John Vine] Back

34   Q27 [John Vine] Back

35   Ev 37 [18 December letter] Back

36   As above. Back

37   Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An Inspection of the UK Border Agency's handling of legacy asylum and migration cases, p14-15 Back

38   Q2 Back

39   Q9 Back

40   Chief Inspector of Borders and immigration, An Inspection of the UK Border Agency's handling of legacy asylum and migration cases, p2 and p6 Back

41   Q5 Back


 
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