Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Home Office (ASY 00)

Executive Summary

1. The UK has a proud tradition of granting asylum to those in need of protection. Every asylum application is carefully considered on a case by case basis in line with UN High Commission for Refugees guidance, and protection is given where there is a well-founded fear of persecution in the claimant’s home country. The Home Office recognises, however, that efficiencies and further improvements in quality of decision-making can be made in the system, and that is why we established a UK-wide management structure and began designing an improved asylum operating model in July 2012. Rollout of the new model began from 1st April 2013, as part of a wider Home Office transformation programme. The objective being to deliver a highly competent, continuously improving Asylum Casework Directorate that controls the UK asylum system and inspires public and Ministerial confidence by delivering asylum decisions faster, at lower cost and higher quality than ever before.

2. We will do this by:

  • controlling inflow—by cracking down on unfounded intake. We will use strategic and operational intelligence feeds to implement enhanced country plans and reduce routes of asylum abuse;
  • controlling workflow—by simplifying our systems to improve the way our teams navigate the fixed points of the asylum process; increasing our ability to deal with early grants and refusals; delivering high quality high volume enforcement referrals; delivering radically improved performance in processing and concluding asylum claims, stabilising and reducing the volume of our work in progress; and by
  • controlling costs—by taking a central grip of asylum support expenditure; moving to an Executive Officer graded casework model; and driving continuous improvement.

3. We continue to provide updates to the Chief Inspector’s previous report on Asylum, from 2011. These are provided every six months to the Chief Inspector, detailing recent progress made on the recommendations, as well as any requests to formally close specific actions. Our latest updates will be provided this month.

4. Scrutiny of the asylum system includes the identification of the individual needs of claimants as they seek asylum. The Home Office has been working hard to ensure its asylum screening processes are effective, so that only suitable cases are admitted to the Detained Fast Track process.

5. We continue to work closely with key corporate partners to drive continuous improvement in our approach to credibility assessment, including partners such as UNHCR and Still Human, Still Here.

6. Our purposefully light-touch review of the status of refugees and those with humanitarian protection following five years’ leave, gives us the opportunity to review all cases. It allows us to readily capture cases which require further investigations to determine whether the individual still qualifies for protection—for example those cases where the person has been convicted of criminal activity—whilst allowing cases where protection needs still exist and there is no behaviour which would preclude them from receiving ILR to move swiftly through to settlement.

7. The Home Office provides a properly balanced asylum support system, meeting the essential living needs of those in the asylum system. Certain aspects of the support system are currently under Home Office review, including the weekly allowances provided to asylum seekers and to certain failed asylum seekers, but we are satisfied that there is an adequate safety net for those who are destitute.

8. We are content that suitable mechanisms are in place for reporting concerns over legal practitioners.

9. We will be interested to see the outcome of the inquiry’s investigations into the balance within the media on asylum issues.

10. Home Office country of origin information is based on a wide range of external sources, and is updated regularly to provide decision-makers with accurate information with which to make informed decisions.

11. We take our obligations very seriously, and do not return anyone to a country where there is a real risk that the individual will be tortured, or face other inhumane or degrading treatment.

12. Below sets out the Home Office position in relation to the specific areas of interest outlined in the HASC press release.

The effectiveness of the UK Border Agency screening process, including the method of determining eligibility for the ‘Detained Fast Track’ procedure

13. Applicants claim asylum in one of three main ways:

  • On arrival to the UK;
  • Whilst in the UK, at the Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon; or
  • Following detection through local enforcement or police activity.

14. The applicant’s method of claiming will influence where they are screened. Those who claim asylum on arrival will be screened at port. Those who claim whilst in the UK are required to register their asylum claim at the Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) in Croydon unless their individual circumstances or vulnerability merits their claim being registered locally. Those who claim asylum following detection through local enforcement or police activity (this could include those working illegally or overstayers) will be screened either at a police station, an Immigration Removal Centre or via an Immigration Compliance and Engagement team.

15. In 2012, internal Home Office data suggests that approximately 47% of claims were registered at ASU, 11% at ports and 42% were enforcement cases. The function of screening is the same regardless of where that screening takes place.

16. The key function of screening is to:

  • Gather biometrics—fingerprints and photographs to establish identity;
  • Carry out identity and security checks; and
  • Complete a screening interview to gather: bio data, brief basis of claim, method of entry/ travel route to the UK, health information, security questions, family details, register an application for biometric residence permit and gather information to assist with onward routing of the case.

17. Suitability for the Detained Fast Track (DFT) process is assessed once the screening interview has been completed, against our published suitability policy, found here: http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/documents/policyandlaw/asylumprocessguidance/detention/guidance/detained_fast_processes?view=Binary

18. In general terms, any asylum claim may be considered suitable for DFT if, on the basis of information held, it appears that a quick decision can be made. This assessment is made on a case by case basis, and will exclude some cases, for example those where it is reasonably foreseeable that further lengthy enquiries are necessary.

19. DFT processes do not under any circumstances apply to children. Further defined exclusion factors apply, acknowledging that particularly vulnerable people should not ordinarily be detained. Such groups include trafficking victims, those with independent evidence of torture, heavily pregnant women, and those with medical conditions that cannot be satisfactorily managed in a detained environment.

20. The process operates robustly but fairly. Our focus is on getting the suitability consideration right, ensuring only suitable cases are admitted to DFT and constraining the proportion of people detained only to be released later. Where we find individuals who are subsequently shown to be unsuitable for DFT we release them as soon as possible. We seek to keep those numbers to a minimum, but of course, there will always be cases where bail is granted by the Tribunal or new evidence weighing against entry into DFT is presented after the initial decision and the applicant is therefore released, as is appropriate.

The assessment of the credibility of women, the mentally ill, victims of torture and specific nationalities within the decision-making process and whether this is reflected in appeal outcomes

21. The Home Office provides comprehensive guidance to caseworkers on how to assess credibility in asylum claims. This is supported by additional specific instructions on gender issues, victims of torture and those with mental health support needs. All asylum decision-makers undertake an intensive foundation training program which includes the assessment of credibility of vulnerable groups or individuals and they receive dedicated training on gender and sexual orientation.

22. The Home Office continues to work closely with corporate partners to drive continuous improvement in our approach to credibility assessment. In particular, we are working with UNHCR on a Hungarian Helsinki Committee project entitled ‘CREDO’ that aims to improve credibility assessment in EU Asylum procedures, and with the organisation Still Human, Still Here on their research undertaken into credibility in allowed appeals. We intend to issue improved guidance in this key area of decision-making in summer 2013. In addition, the Appeals and Litigation Directorate will be undertaking a limited analysis of credibility assessments in asylum claims and the impact on appeal win rates. This analysis will be based on a small sample of about 150 cases, and will report internally only, later in the year. Its findings will be used to further inform guidance and training within asylum and appeals. We are also working with Freedom from Torture to develop a vulnerable applicant’s course for Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) staff and with the UNHCR to develop an advanced credibility course for asylum decision-makers.

23. We have begun the implementation of an enhanced quality auditing framework called Next Generation Quality Framework (NGQF) which builds on our previous auditing experience and our work on quality with UNHCR. The marking standards within NGQF will categorise errors as critical, serious, or minor and provide more detailed information than under the current system on where processes are not being managed as efficiently as possible, where there may be opportunities for system improvements, and what caseworking staff are getting wrong and the impacts of those errors. The new framework will also provide a better mechanism for capturing very good performance and disseminating best practice.

24. The changes will include auditing more of the asylum process than has been previously the case. The Quality Audit Team (QAT) sample will follow cases through the registration, decision and appeals stages. The primary focus of the appeals marking standards and criteria is on gathering evidence regarding how the business has performed at ensuring a sustainable decision appears before the courts, and to offer a view as to why an appeal on a decision has been allowed or dismissed by analysing Immigration Judges’ determinations. Data will be analysed by nationality and case type, including gender. Furthermore the QAT will observe live appeals on a thematic basis. The QAT will report quarterly on its findings and make recommendations to the caseworking teams. The QAT will undertake targeted audits and offer practical advice to reinforce caseworking training as well as ensuring relevant information is fed back to the Home Office’s operational and strategic policy units if changes to guidance or asylum instructions may be needed. Feedback will be given to staff, managers and the training team to deal with any localised points of concern.

The effectiveness of the 5 year review system introduced in 2005

25. Prior to 2005 refugees were granted permanent residence in the form of Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). In August 2005 that policy changed and refugees were granted a period of five years limited leave after which they could apply for permanent residence and we would review the refugee’s case to determine whether the person still required, and was still eligible for, protection. We also brought the leave granted to those who qualified for Humanitarian Protection (HP) in line with these changes. Prior to this those who qualified for HP were granted three years limited leave.

26. The review element of the settlement protection system was designed to allow the Home Office to check that refugees still qualify for protection before they are granted ILR. There are three main grounds on which the Home Office can refuse settlement to a person with refugee / HP leave: criminal conviction; voluntary re-availment of the protection of the country of origin; or a significant change in the country of origin.

27. This review is purposefully light-touch. The Government did not want to create a process whereby a secondary asylum decision is required. Such a system would be overly onerous on the Home Office and with very little benefit. The review system is better viewed as a safety net which captures cases that require further investigation to determine whether they still qualify for protection, whilst allowing cases where protection needs still exist, and there is no behaviour which would preclude them from receiving ILR, to move swiftly through. For example, where through the review the Home Office identifies that a person has a criminal charge pending further investigations, the review allows us to check whether the person is convicted and thereafter whether the criminality is sufficiently serious to warrant revocation of the person’s refugee status and leave. In the vast majority of cases however, ILR is granted with no further investigations required.

28. The review process also allows the Home Office to determine whether there has been a significant change in the refugee’s country of origin to the extent where international protection is no longer required. However, given the volume of cases (approx 8,000 a year) it would be impractical to individually reconsider every case to determine whether a protection need still exists. In the vast majority of cases the need for protection will still persist. Only in instances where there has been a significant change in the country of origin, e.g. a change of regime, will there be a need to review significant numbers of refugee / HP cases. To utilise a widespread country-specific review of protection needs in these instances the Secretary of State would be required to announce to Parliament his intention to review these cases and why he considers the country to be safe. Whilst this provision has not been used to date, we cannot rule out that it may be needed in the future. Removing the active review process and either granting ILR immediately, or after five years but without a review, would inhibit the Government’s ability to use such a provision.

29. The effectiveness of the refugee / HP review system must be examined through the prism of the wider immigration system. Under the Immigration Rules all routes that lead to permanent settlement require firstly a period of residence in the UK and then a review of the case (to check the person’s character and conduct) before ILR is granted. It is right that refugees and those with HP are subjected to the same review procedure—both for the sake of creating a fair, coherent immigration system and to ensure only those with a right to permanent residence are granted it.

30. The review process provides an effective safety net to ensure those who no longer require protection or who have engaged in serious criminal activity are not granted permanent residence in the UK. The review process is also effective in quickly identifying those with a persisting protection need and whose conduct in the UK has been honourable, and rewarding them with permanent residence.

Whether the system of support to asylum applicants (including section 4 support) is sufficient and effective and possible improvements; The prevalence of destitution amongst asylum applicants and refused asylum seekers

31. The Government is committed to a UK asylum support system that is properly balanced, and able to meet the essential living needs of people in the asylum system. Automatic entitlement to support stops if the asylum claim is rejected (unless there are children in the household), but accommodation and other assistance (“section 4 support”) is available to anyone who is taking steps to leave the United Kingdom or where there is a temporary obstacle to their departure.

32. All destitute asylum seekers can access fully furnished accommodation with no utility bills or council tax to pay. A weekly allowance is also provided to cover essential living needs, with the payment rates varied to reflect the number of children and other dependants in the household. Additional assistance is provided in other circumstances such as pregnancy. A payment of £300 is made to assist with the extra costs arising from the birth of a child and suitable adjustments made to the accommodation (for example through the provision of specialist equipment and sterilising equipment).

33. The Government is currently reviewing aspects of support policy, including the weekly allowances provided to asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers. This review has included targeted consultation with a range of internal and external partners. We expect to be able to notify interested partners of any changes resulting from the review early in the new financial year.

34. It is right that we support destitute asylum seekers while they wait for the outcome of their asylum claim, but equally right that we do not support failed asylum seekers who have no reason to remain here. No person need be destitute if they comply with the law and the decisions of the courts and go home when required to do so.

35. Where a person is granted leave to remain in the UK on the basis of a need for protection, their asylum support must cease following a 28 day grace period, designed to enable them time to apply for mainstream benefits, should they be eligible. The Home Office is aware that the move from Home Office-administered asylum support to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)-administered mainstream benefits for those granted protection is not always as smooth as it should be. Since December 2012, we have been working closely with DWP on reviewing a small sample of cases to identify process improvements to be implemented individually and between both Departments to resolve issues, taking account of relevant evidence provided by key external partners. We continue to work on this, in order to improve the transition from asylum support to mainstream benefits for recognised refugees, with the support of targeted external partners.

Whether the UKBA or third sector organisations should be able to highlight concerns regarding legal practitioners to the Law Society

36. The Law Society works with its members to help them comply with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) principles, which define the professional standards expected of all firms and individual solicitors. Complaints regarding any solicitor, not just those accredited by the Law Society, relating to infringement of the SRA principles or issues of professional conduct should be raised with the SRA; complaints relating to service matters from clients should be pursued with the Legal Ombudsman.

37. The Home Office is able to raise concerns about any solicitor with the SRA. Further information can be found on their website: http://sra.org.uk/consumers/problems/report-solicitor.page

38. Where the issue of concern is a matter which may affect the Legal Aid Agency’s contract with their provider, then Home Office staff should contact the provider’s contract manager, and such mechanisms are in place.

39. Where an immigration practitioner is accredited by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), mechanisms exist for anyone to make a complaint; further information can be found on their website: http://oisc.homeoffice.gov.uk/complaints_about_immigration_advice/

Whether the media is balanced in their reporting of asylum issues

40. No formal evaluation of media coverage on asylum issues has been undertaken by the Government.

The use of Country of Origin Information and Operational Guidance Notes in determining the outcome of asylum applications

41. Country of Origin Information (COI) is compiled by the Home Office’s Country of Origin Information Service (COIS) from a wide range of external information sources, including the United Nations and its various agencies, international and domestic human rights organisations, inter-governmental organisations, non-government organisations, news media and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

42. COI assists decision-makers in assessing the legal, political, human rights, cultural, economic, and social situation as well as the humanitarian situation in countries of origin. COI reports are produced for the countries which attract most applications for international protection and are updated regularly. Decision-makers also have access to a general information request service, which provides rapid responses to specific country-based enquiries. The Home Office thus ensures that those involved in the decision-making process have the most up to date information available to them when assessing applications for international protection.

43. Operational Guidance Notes (OGNs) are produced by the Home Office’s Country Specific Litigation Team to provide an evaluation of the relevant country information and apply that together with general asylum policy and case law to provide caseworkers with clear guidance on how to deal with the common categories of claim for international protection. As with COI reports, OGNs are updated regularly,

44. The main aim of OGNs is not to replace other publicly available information or guidance but to supplement it and ensure the consistent application of law, asylum policies, and country information. It is emphasised in the introduction section of each OGN that the Home Office’s caseworkers must not base decisions purely on the information contained within the OGN, but that it must be read in conjunction with all other relevant policies and guidance. OGNs are intended therefore to be an important tool in ensuring both quality and consistency in asylum decision-making.

45. Country information and policy bulletins are produced on an ad hoc basis when the situation in a country is rapidly changing and requires urgent guidance for the Home Office’s caseworker. Bulletins will also be issued if a country issue is raised which warrants in depth consideration.

46. By these means the country policy and country information teams aim to provide timely relevant products to assist caseworkers in the decision-making process.

47. The country of origin information used in COI reports and OGNs is subject to the external and independent scrutiny of the Independent Advisory Group on Country Information (IAGCI), which was established by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in 2009.

48. Following recommendations made by the Independent Chief Inspector in his report, ‘The use of country of origin information in deciding asylum applications: A thematic review’, in July 2011, the Home Office revised guidance on considering asylum applications to include more detail on the use of country of origin information and specific links to COI reports and OGNs as part of our work to provide a more efficient and accessible suite of guidance products to support decision-makers.

The prevalence of refused asylum seekers who are tortured upon return to their country of origin and how the UK Government can monitor this

49. Applications for international protection are considered on the individual facts of the case and taking into account up to date country of origin information. The Home Office does not remove anyone to a country where there is a real risk that the individual will be tortured, or face other inhumane or degrading treatment.

50. The assessment of the risk of persecution is based upon evidence from published and wide-ranging country information obtained from reliable sources, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and other governmental sources, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR), international and national human rights organisations, and news media. To assist in assessing risk on return, information will also often be obtained from other returning states. Decisions to refuse applications for international protection are subject to a right of appeal to the courts.

51. The Home Office takes all allegations of mistreatment of returnees very seriously. Where allegations are made about the general ill treatment of returnees, the Home Office will conduct inquiries, generally with the assistance of FCO. If any allegation is found to be of substance then appropriate swift action will be taken. The Home Office does not routinely monitor the treatment of individual unsuccessful asylum seekers once they are removed from the UK. There are practical limits to our ability to do so and there is also a risk of drawing undue attention to those being removed. We believe that the best way to avoid ill-treatment is to make sure that we do not return those who are at real risk, not by monitoring them after they have returned.

Home Office

April 2013

Prepared 11th October 2013