Conclusions and recommendations |
Time taken to receive a decision
1. We consider it wholly unacceptable that anyone should have to wait longer than 6 months for an initial decision, let alone the delays of many years for those caught in the legacy backlog. Ministers must not allow people who claim to be fleeing persecution to be left in limbo for so long ever again.
Quality of decision making and lack of auditing
2. The task of staff examining claims for asylum is to judge fairly, not to make it as difficult as possible for asylum claims to be made. While staff should be rigorous in considering the merits of a case, and reject those which are not meritorious, it is not their role to aim to reject cases, and the culture of disbelief that has raised has no place in fair judgements.
3. The Committee are concerned that the length of time take to receive an initial decision may severely impact on the health and wellbeing of asylum applicants. Not all successful appeals are the result of poor decision making or administrative failure, but decision-makers should be encouraged to view every successful appeal as a learning opportunity. When an appeal is upheld, the decision-maker should, as a matter of course, have this drawn to their attention and be given an opportunity to discuss the reasons for the appellate decision with a more experienced peer or senior colleague. This process should be integrated into the Home Office's staff development and appraisal system. Where particular decision-makers consistently experience an appeal rate which is significantly higher than average, this should be drawn to the attention of their line management.
Everyday difficulties when dealing with the UKBA
4. We recommend that the Home Office amend its guidance to ensure that any applicant who is disabled or is pregnant be offered a screening appointment at a regional centre. In cases where the applicant is the primary carer of a child under the age of 16 child care should be made available to those who need it for their interviews, and this should be made clear in the invitation letters. Where documents can be sent by mail or online this option should always be highlighted to save time and cost for Home Office staff and applicants.
5. Whereas the provision of the right kind of interpretation can be expensive, it can also be cost-effective, particularly if it saves money being spent on unnecessary appeals. To that extent this should not be an area where the Home Office should be seeking to cut corners.
6. We recommend that where applicants are allowed to make further representations the option of doing so by post should be re-instated.
7. Lack of customer focus has been one of the main problems that has bedevilled the asylum system under the UK Border Agency. We welcome the interim Director General of UK Visas and Immigration's commitment to a more customer-focused approach to asylum applications, and her acknowledgement that this approach is all the more important because of asylum seekers' vulnerability. We recommend that the Home Office carry out regular customer satisfaction surveys among asylum applicants and the groups who support them in order to monitor progress in this area.
Concerns about the Asylum Operating Model
8. It is too early to assess the impact of the new Asylum Operating Model which was introduced in April 2013 but it is clearly a cause of concern among those who work with asylum seekers. The risk is that the model becomes too dependent on decisions made at a very early stage in the process which might, as further information becomes available turn out to have been based on mistaken assumptions. It is highly doubtful, in our view, that an initial screening interview will always provide enough reliable evidence to establish the chances of an application being granted. This could lead to the generation of further backlogs if cases are allocated to the wrong decision pathway and it is important to ensure that, where the initial decision as to the appropriate pathway proves to be wrong, the case can be moved to the correct one. We recommend that the Home Office issue clear guidance to case-handlers as to when cases should be transferred between pathways.
Country of Origin information and Country Policy
9. It is disappointing that the Home Office has to be ordered to amend its Country Policy Bulletin on Sri Lanka by the Upper Tribunal when those changes are based on a UNHCR report of which the Home Office must have been aware. We are concerned that that the previous guidance was published just a day before the UNHCR report which implies at the least a lack of effective communication with the UNHCR. We recommend that in future Home Office Operational Guidance Notes, Country Policy Bulletins and Country of Origin Information reports contain reference to the latest UNHCR publications on the relevant country where appropriate and that the Home Office and UNHCR seek to improve liaison in these matters.
10. We recommend improved integration of country of origin information provision and the country specific litigation team within the Home Office. Where possible, a particular individual should review all new guidance relating to the same country before it is issued.
Gender-related persecution and gender sensitivity
within the asylum system
11. Gender is not, in itself, one of the grounds upon which an applicant may claim asylum under the refugee convention, yet it is clear that there are many countries in the world where women do not have access to the same freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by their male counterparts. While this should not automatically qualify someone for asylum, case owners (and the Home Office in general) must improve the treatment of women who have suffered at the hands of members of their families or communities and not been able to access protection from the state. By its very nature, persecution by non-state actors is likely to be far more difficult to prove than persecution by the state and to apply the same probative criteria is both unfair and inappropriate. At a time when the criminal justice system is finally waking up to the needs of victims of domestic and sexual violence, the asylum system should be doing the same.
12. We were concerned to hear that the decision making process for LGBTI applicants relies so heavily on anecdotal evidence and 'proving that they are gay'. As the court determined (point i above) the test should be whether people are gay or perceived to be so. In cases such as that of Brenda Namigadde, it is not appropriate to force people to prove their sexuality if there is a perception that they are gay. The assessment of credibility is an area of weakness within the British asylum system. Furthermore, the fact that credibility issues disproportionately affect the most vulnerable applicantsvictims of domestic and sexual violence, victims of torture and persecution because of their sexualitymakes improvement all the more necessary.
13. The impact of the credibility assessment for LGBTI applicants from countries designated as safe under section 94 (4) of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act may be significant and the Committee recommends that the Government review the status of other countries on this list to protects the rights of LGBTI asylum seekers.
Detained Fast Track
14. We are concerned about the operation of the Detained Fast Track. It appears that a third of those allocated to the detained fast track are wrongly allocated and that many of those wrongly allocated are victims of torture. Such a high number of incorrect allocations should be addressed and we recommend that the Home Office implement a service standard which reflects a substantial reduction in the number of incorrect allocations per year and that annual audits be carried out and published.
15. We commend the Home Office for running such a detailed and lengthy pilot. We note that there are many positive aspects which emerge from the Early Legal Advice Project and we recommend that the Government invest in identifying how to improve the early identification of complex cases which would benefit from early legal advice, the front-loading of evidence, and the timely submission of witness statements.
Quality of legal advice
16. We are not persuaded of the benefits of imposing a residency test for refugees and recommend that the Government ensure that its legal aid proposals are compliant with the relevant provisions of the Refugee Convention. We also recommend that it introduce a system of monitoring quality within its allocation of legal aid so that the public purse is not funding (and therefore propagating the existence of) bad legal advice. We suggest that if the Government wishes to reduce the amount of money spent on legal aid within the asylum system then it ought to focus on improving the quality of decision making in both the area of asylum claims and asylum.
17. We invite the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority and the Legal Ombudsman to work together to produce guidance on complaining about solicitors who work on asylum applications and the possible outcomes of such a complaint. We recommend that such guidance is produced in 'plain English' to ensure that it is accessible to asylum applicants as well as third sector workers.
Section 4 support
18. We are not convinced that a separate support system for failed asylum seekers, whom the Government recognise as being unable to return to their country of origin, is necessary. The increasing period of time which asylum seekers have to wait for an initial decision suggests that staff resources could be better used by being allocated to asylum applications. Section 4 is not the solution for people who have been refused but cannot be returned and we call on the Government to find a better way forward.
19. We note that the Independent Chief Inspector is due to undertake an inspection of asylum support and would ask him to include the matter of allowed appeals as part of his inspection. Whilst this system is ongoing, we are also concerned by the levels of allowed appeals against decisions not to grant asylum support and will in future require the UK Visas and Immigration Section to provide us with details with the number of allowed appeals against decisions made regarding asylum support. We recommend that his recommendations are implemented fully as a matter of priority as this is obviously an area where improvement is required.
20. It is unacceptable that someone who is recognised as refugee should be reduced to a state of destitution due to the inefficiency of governmental bureaucracy. We recommend that asylum support should not be discontinued until the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed that the recipient is receiving mainstream benefits.
21. We recommend that the Government reinstate the previous level of availability of English language classes for those who have been granted asylum by the state to encourage them to be able to contribute more to Britain and the UK economy.
Accommodation and support provided as part of
the COMPASS contract
22. We were very concerned by the description of the sub-standard level of housing provided to asylum applicants. Furthermore, the length of time that witnesses report it taking to get problems resolved is unacceptable. We recommend that the Home Office publish the results of its random inspections of properties so that the public may monitor the effectiveness of the housing providersSERCO, G4S and Clearelreceiving hundreds of millions of pounds in public money. The companies awarded the COMPASS contract must prove that they are able to deliver a satisfactory level of service.
23. We are unimpressed by the assurances given to us by G4S and Serco that their representatives do not routinely enter properties without first knocking. Entering a room or a house where someone is resident without knocking is rude and intimidating and such behaviour is not appropriate. All the COMPASS contractors must provide their staff with unambiguous guidance on the very limited circumstances in which it will be appropriate for them to let themselves into somebody else's home unbidden. We also recommend that when the COMPASS contract is renewed that provisions be introduced to require that, except in emergencies, the housing provider leave a calling card the first time that they need entry with the date of another appointment on it. Then, and only then, should it be appropriate for a housing provider to gain entry without admittance by the residents.
24. We recommend that the National Audit Office's inspection in to the COMPASS contracts address the issues raised with us regarding accommodation standards and support for transition following asylum decisions. Following the publication of the results of this investigation we will revisit this matter with both the Home Office and the contract providers. We also take this opportunity to recommend that the Government ensure that any irregularities unearthed during that investigation be resolved swiftly.