The work of the Immigration Directorates (Q3 2015) Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Asylum applications

1.UKVI altered its service standards timetable so that a higher proportion of new straightforward claims for asylum are given an initial decision within six months. This is at the same time as the number of applications is rising. The total number of main applications in the year ending September 2015 was 19% higher than in the year ending September 2014. In Q3 2015 the number of main applicants and dependants reached 12,028 compared to 7,567 in Q2 2015. (Paragraph 14)

2.The number of asylum applications surpassed the number of decisions made in Q3 2015. We are concerned that the department may not be able to maintain the service levels it has set itself on initial decisions for new asylum claims within 6 months. To do so may require further funding and resources. (Paragraph 15)

3.We recommend that the Home Office reconsider its country guidance on Eritrea, taking into account the findings of the Independent Advisory Group on Country of Origin Information. We will continue to monitor closely the proportion of successful and unsuccessful asylum applications from Eritreans. (Paragraph 21)

COMPASS contracts and asylum accommodation

4.Accommodation for asylum seekers in Middlesbrough had doors that were painted a predominant colour. This was clearly wrong. We welcome the decision that the doors will be repainted, and that the repainting will be expedited, so that within a matter of weeks no single colour will predominate. Jomast and G4S must inform us when the repainting has been completed. (Paragraph 30)

5.It is appalling that asylum seekers should be required to wear wristbands. This stigmatises asylum seekers, and makes them easily identifiable and therefore open to harassment and abuse. We struggle to see how this practice could ever have been considered acceptable in the first place. It risks besmirching the UK’s reputation in relation to its asylum practices. We believe it is laughable for Mr Vyvyan-Robinson to have suggested that a wristband worn by an asylum seeker is the same as a wristband worn by someone on holiday. It is vital that organisations receiving taxpayer money should be sensitive to the needs of the work they are doing. It is also vital that private organisations who perform public functions should adhere to the same standards that the public would expect of a publicly-delivered service. (Paragraph 34)

6.We welcome Clearsprings’ decision to end the use of wristbands and move to a smart card system for monitoring entitlement to meals. The problems caused by wristbands demonstrate the importance of greater use of technology such as smart cards when dealing with asylum seeker entitlements. We expect all providers of asylum seeker support services to use technological solutions to develop more sophisticated and appropriate mechanisms to monitor entitlement. (Paragraph 35)

7.The response to both the red door and wristband episodes has been one of damage limitation and managing perceptions. A situation that was considered acceptable is now accepted as being ill-judged. It appears that the predominance of red doors in asylum seeker accommodation was inadvertent rather than a deliberate identification system; and similarly, the use of wristbands was a means of ensuring only those who were entitled to them received meals at Lynx House. There seems to be an acute lack of awareness of the particular sensitivities of asylum seekers and why making them identifiable in such ways is wrong. (Paragraph 43)

8.The complaints and inspection processes operated by the contractors and the Home Office appear to be flawed if they failed to identify the issues with red doors and wristbands. The COMPASS contract does not seem to make it clear who is accountable for making sure issues such as the red doors are acted upon when issues arise outside a formal complaints mechanism. Moreover, it is obvious that asylum seekers are unlikely to complain to an organisation that they see as having absolute control over their future. If you have been arrested, imprisoned and tortured for your beliefs in your home country, you are likely to be suspicious of someone who assures you a complaint mechanism is anonymous. The Home Office should encourage the providers to establish user-groups for asylum seekers in their accommodation. This would enable asylum seekers to present problems and complaints with the reassurance of a collective viewpoint, and without individuals feeling at risk from having to identify themselves as complainants. (Paragraph 44)

9.Delivery of the COMPASS contract has been mostly unsatisfactory to date. The only benefit so far gained from reducing the number of contracts from 22 to six—and essentially down to three because there are only three providers—has been to make managing the contracts administratively easier for the Home Office. However, these extremely unfortunate episodes of red doors and wristbands have highlighted some of the problems around oversight of the contracts, particularly in relation to ensuring that the way asylum seekers are accommodated and treated meets basic standards. (Paragraph 45)

10.We intend to examine these matters further. In particular, we plan to investigate the following issues:

We were not able to take evidence from Serco—the other main COMPASS contractor— for the purposes of this report, but we intend to do so in the future. (Paragraph 46)

11.Both G4S and Clearsprings told us that finding sufficient accommodation for asylum seekers in parts of the country is difficult, and this is clearly made more difficult by some local authorities being unwilling to take part in the dispersal system. Clearsprings, which holds the contract in parts of the country with the most expensive rents, made it clear that they would welcome more local authorities providing dispersal accommodation. The Home Office has said it wants more local authorities to take part. Asylum seekers should be dispersed throughout the country and therefore we recommend that more local authorities take part in the dispersal accommodation system and provide suitable accommodation for asylum seekers. Local authorities who have very few, and in many instances no, asylum seekers should be actively encouraged by Ministers to volunteer in the existing scheme. As for Middlesbrough, it is clear that there is disagreement about whether the number of asylum seekers has gone down since the one in 200 ratio of asylum seeker to local resident was breached. It is not clear who holds responsibility for allowing the one in 200 ratio to be breached, nor for making sure it is reduced. (Paragraph 50)

12.The Chief Executive of G4S told us that the number of asylum seekers in their contract area had risen from 9,000 to 17,000. If these numbers keep rising, the pressure on available dispersal accommodation will remain high, and it is likely that other forms of accommodation may need to be used to provide temporary accommodation for asylum seekers. Problems have arisen with asylum seekers being accommodated in hotels where there are also paying guests, because of the different rules which apply to asylum seeker guests about meals and other issues. It seems to us that, where it is necessary to use temporary accommodation for asylum seekers, it would be sensible to designate this accommodation as hostels entirely for this purpose. However, the Home Office would need first to assess the cost implications for public funds and contractors, based on projections of the fluctuations in numbers of asylum seekers needing this type of alternative accommodation. G4S informed us that they are paid an average of £9.35 per asylum seeker per night. (Paragraph 52)

Syrian refugees

13.In our last Report on the work of the Immigration Directorates (Q2 2015) we welcomed the Prime Minister’s pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrians before the end of this Parliament. We would like to congratulate all those involved in ensuring that the Prime Minister’s commitment to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas 2015 was delivered, and in particular the Minister for Syrian Refugees and his team who hit the Prime Minister’s target and found suitable accommodation. We also expressed concern about whether the UK would be able to increase its capacity to resettle this number of refugees to such a short timescale. We reiterate that concern, particularly in light of the evidence we have heard regarding the COMPASS contracts and the problems with finding sufficient suitable dispersal accommodation. We hope that the Government will continue to explore how individual members of the public can help to provide support and accommodation for the Syrian refugees. While accepting that those who so offer will undoubtedly have genuine and generous reasons for doing so, local authorities must be satisfied about the proposed arrangements. We will continue to monitor the number of Syrians resettled under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme. (Paragraph 57)

14.In its response to this report, the Government must set out what action is being taken in relation to unaccompanied children at risk in conflict regions, following the recent discussions with the UNHCR and the Government’s announcement of 28 January 2016. This should include an estimate of the numbers of children who (a) will be resettled in the UK direct from conflict zones and (b) will be resettled in the UK from Europe. The Government should also clarify whether its plans include resettling unaccompanied children who may be in transit from conflict regions and still at risk. It should also specify where in Europe it is deploying additional resources and expertise to help protect unaccompanied children. (Paragraph 58)

Spouse visas and the £18,600 threshold

15.We agree that the same rules should apply to a British citizen and to a citizen of an EU country residing in the UK, who both wish to bring a non-EU spouse to the UK. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons that these rules had now been accepted by EU partners and we welcome the Prime Minister’s achievements. (Paragraph 65)

16.We note that the minimum income threshold rules have been challenged in the courts, that the most recent decision in the Court of Appeal upheld the rules, and that the case is now before the Supreme Court. We remain open to the possibility of holding an inquiry into the minimum income threshold if these developments do not resolve the matter satisfactorily (Paragraph 66)

17.We have received representations concerning English Language testing. We will consider these matters in our next report. (Paragraph 67)

Immigration detention and the Shaw Review

18.We support the broad thrust of the Government’s overall approach to implementing the recommendations in the Shaw review. While the Government is proving elusive on which recommendations it agrees with and which it does not, we agree, in principle, on the areas of action it has chosen to pursue: detention reviews, not detaining people at risk, and improving healthcare. The remedial measures set out by the Minister for immigration should, once implemented, greatly reduce the number of people entering detention, and the length of time detainees are held. (Paragraph 79)

19.We support the recommendations of the Shaw review regarding presumptions against detention for vulnerable people. We note that this means people who are vulnerable, and who may have suffered torture, will have to be managed in the community while their claims are considered. The Minister’s statement that the mental health needs assessment and action plan will be carried out together with the Department of Health and NHS is important. Consideration needs to be given to how provision will be made available for such healthcare in the community. (Paragraph 80)

20.In the Government response to this report, the Minister should explain why he could not give this Committee an assurance that he would accept Mr Shaw’s recommendation for an absolute exclusion from detention for pregnant women. (Paragraph 81)

21.We support Stephen Shaw’s recommendation that the Home Office should close the pre-departure accommodation provided at the Cedars near Gatwick Airport, or change its use, so that it provides better value for the taxpayer. We regard the existing level of expenditure per detainee at this facility as outrageous and unsustainable. Mr Shaw referred to the accommodation as “palatial”. It is unacceptable that so much money is being expended on this establishment when the Home Office itself is being squeezed for funds. The Government should set out the cost for creating and maintaining the Cedars to date. (Paragraph 82)

22.Stephen Shaw said it should be possible to see change in the number of people detained and the length of their detention within 12 months, or possibly even by the autumn. The Minister has set out a timescale for the range of actions that he expects to take place as a consequence of the Shaw review. We regularly monitor measures relating to immigration detention, and we will return to the issue of how many people are being detained and the length of time they spend in detention. If we do not see significant progress then we will revisit the issue of a maximum time limit on detention. (Paragraph 83)

Rule 35 reports

23.The Rule 35 Reports process was heavily criticised in the Shaw review, and he recommended that the Government immediately consider an alternative to the Rule 35 mechanism. In its response to this report, the Government should set out its response to Stephen Shaw’s specific recommendation on Rule 35. (Paragraph 86)

Foreign national offenders and ex-foreign national offenders (FNOs)

24.We remain unconvinced that the process for the general public to report suspected illegal actively relating to immigration is working as effectively as it could when so many reports do not lead to removals. The Government should tell us how many individuals have been arrested as a result of immigration enforcement action, and how many removals resulted from those actions. (Paragraph 93)

25.We welcome the Voluntary Return Service initiative as a useful additional tool for encouraging removals from the UK. We request that the Government provides quarterly figures on the numbers leaving the UK under this programme, and the main countries of destination for those taking part. (Paragraph 94)

26.The Government should inform us in response to this report how many individuals are in the UK whom the UK would like to deport, whose circumstances reflect the same principles as highlighted by the case of the Zimbabwean Andre Babbage and the Moroccan CS. The Director General of Immigration Enforcement, Mandie Campbell, should note that when called to give evidence to this Committee she should have figures readily available, as her colleague Sarah Rapson has done. This would enable more effective scrutiny of the Immigration Enforcement section, rather than leading to an exchange of correspondence after the session. (Paragraph 96)

Immigration backlogs

27.Our predecessor Committee regularly expressed its concern about the immigration backlogs. The current backlog of cases reached 358,923 in Q3 2015, an increase of 7,000 from a year earlier. It is deeply concerning that there has been so little improvement and we have to return and restate the issue again. (Paragraph 97)

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Prepared 2 March 2016