The work of the Immigration Directorates (Q4 2015) Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Visa applications

1.This Committee has in the past expressed concern about the way in which internal service standards operate. Since UKVI introduced its own customer service standards in 2014 we have seen the goalposts shifted, as UKVI have changed the parameters without consultation or explanation, and a lack of transparency, particularly when UKVI choose to exclude vast numbers of cases from the standards and provide only general observations to justify such action. We reiterate the conclusion from our previous report that if service standards are to mean anything their application must be transparent and the criteria on which they are based justified. Whenever UKVI wishes to amend the customer service standards, this Committee must be notified by a letter from the head of UKVI. (Paragraph 7)

2.UKVI states that it is meeting its service standards for in-country visa applications in the overwhelming majority of cases, although we note that the number of cases in progress that will not meet these service standards, while very low, is steadily increasing. We also note that, at the end of Q4 2015, the number of cases that had been received but had yet to be inputted was 85% higher than at the end of the previous quarter despite the overall number of applications being lower. We are concerned that this may be the first sign of a backlog developing. In response to this Report, the Home Office must set out the steps which UKVI is taking to address this potential backlog. (Paragraph 8)

3.In response to this report UKVI must explain why so many cases in the family reunion and refugee resettlement categories have not been progressed within the customer service standards and what steps are being taken to address this. Processing of such applications should be a particular priority given the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe. (Paragraph 9)

4.In our Report Immigration: Skill Shortages we concluded that the period of time allowed for an organisation to give further information in the event of a suspension or revocation of a licence was not long enough. We note that UKVI does not agree that the current arrangements require review. We remain concerned and will continue to monitor the system of sponsorship. We will hold UKVI to account if we find that the process of suspension and resolution is not being administered effectively. (Paragraph 11)

5.UKVI is meeting its own 40-day performance target on processing sponsor applications. We question whether that standard is sufficiently stretching, given that the average number of days taken to process an application has consistently been less than the customer service standard. (Paragraph 12)

6.Over the last 12 months the number of actions taken against sponsors has remained broadly consistent while, over the same period, the number of follow-up visits has more than halved. This suggests that UKVI has successfully improved the targeting of its post-licence enforcement work. The Home Office must explain the extent to which pre-registration visits have served to prevent potentially illegitimate sponsors from gaining sponsorship status. UKVI should also consider whether increasing its investigative actions at this stage of the process might prove an efficient use of resources over the longer term. (Paragraph 15)

7.Universities UK told us that institutions find the compliance regime around student visa sponsorship to be opaque, and that there is a lack of constructive engagement with the sector and a lack of feedback from the Home Office. This sector generates over £10 billion of export earnings for the UK economy and deserves more respect. (Paragraph 18)

8.We note the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s conclusion that the absence of direct feedback to sponsors makes it unlikely that the number of unnecessary notifications submitted each year will reduce significantly. We agree with the ICIBI that this will perpetuate the continued waste of time by academic institutions and the Home Office in processing large volumes of worthless notifications. We will add the number of unnecessary notifications to future Committee reports as a key indicator of the performance of UKVI. (Paragraph 19)

English Language Tests

9.It is extraordinary that the Home Office has carried out no independent investigation itself of the allegations of fraud in relation to English language testing and instead has relied on evidence from ETS, one of its approved providers and a party under criminal investigation. We note the failure of ETS, an organisation that has received millions of pounds in fees from those sitting the tests, to give evidence in court on this matter. (Paragraph 23)

10.It is wholly unsatisfactory that the Home Office initially informed us that it did not hold information on how many people with ‘questionable’ English language test results had been able to re-sit the test or be interviewed by the Home Office, when it was able to provide this information a few weeks later. It is also unacceptable that the Home Office was unable to tell us how many of the tests related to people who were not applying under the Tier 4 student visa process, how many cases relating to the ETS debacle were currently before a Tribunal, or how many tests ETS found to be valid. We find it deeply concerning that the Home Office was unable to provide this information given the gravity of this matter and the number of people affected. We are also not satisfied by the definitions of tests declared ‘valid’, ‘not-valid’ or ‘questionable’. (Paragraph 29)

11.The recent judgment of the Upper Tribunal on the operation of the English language testing system raises serious questions about the conduct of the Home Office. The Home Office appears to have accepted at face value, and continues to accept, claims of widespread fraud from ETS—a company that was part of the problem, had already been discredited and is subject to criminal investigation. This is deeply troubling, particularly given that an expert witness has raised serious questions over the reliability and accuracy of ETS’s analysis and first did so well over a year ago. Despite this, arrests and removals have continued. In any circumstances the lack of independent assessment would be difficult to comprehend but when the consequences of such a decision include thousands of people suffering the trauma of detention and removal from the UK, such actions lead us to seriously question the judgement of the Home Office. (Paragraph 34)

12.We have received evidence that people were only told why their visas were being revoked after extensive requests for information, and that those affected did not have the opportunity to review and contest evidence presented against them. It does not seem to us fair that the UK is removing people from the country without, as a minimum, making them aware of the evidence against them. It is clear that, if the problem of fraud in English language testing is not handled properly, the UK risks causing extensive damage to its reputation as a leading destination for international study, not to mention the emotional and financial cost to the individuals affected. (Paragraph 35)

13.We do not condone fraud and it is right that swift and proportionate action is taken when fraud is uncovered. However, given the severity of the consequences, the Home Office must only act when it is certain that it can meet the burden of proof. The recent case in which two students appealed successfully against the Secretary of State’s decision for removal raises serious questions about the way in which the Home Office has responded to the allegations of fraud within English language test centres. This decision appears to have been a knee-jerk reaction to the Panorama documentary. The Home Office’s action is already having wider ramifications. (Paragraph 37)

14.We want to be satisfied that the Home Office’s actions are proportionate and just. The Committee has decided, given the number of outstanding issues relating to English language testing, to undertake a full inquiry into this matter. These issues include procurement and licensing, investigations, inspections and how much money has been spent. As a starting point to this inquiry the Home Office must, in response to this Report, set out the process for out-of-country appeals; the steps which will be taken to ensure a fair hearing; and whether this will include appellants being given access to the evidence against them. We will also be insisting that ETS give evidence to the Committee, something they have failed to do in court. (Paragraph 38)

Asylum cases

15.We welcome UKVI’s achievement in greatly reducing the number of asylum applications where a decision has been pending for more than six months. However, over the same period, there has been a sharp rise in asylum cases requiring further review. The Home Office must explain the reasons for this rise. We also remind the Home Office of our recommendation from our Q2 2015 Report that they should publish their service standards for making an initial decision and its performance against them, for both straightforward and non-straightforward asylum cases, which they have so far failed to do. (Paragraph 44)

16.UKVI is in danger of being overwhelmed by the extent of its asylum casework. The second half of 2015 saw the highest number of applications for asylum since 2003 and as a result the number of cases pending a decision is at its highest ever level. The ongoing migration crisis in Europe suggests that the pressures on UKVI will get worse. We need to process asylum applications as efficiently as possible, not least to prevent pressures building up elsewhere in the system, including in the demand for asylum accommodation. When the number of asylum applications increases, as it did in 2015, more staff should be allocated to dealing with asylum cases to ensure that UKVI can meet its own service standards. (Paragraph 45)

17.The high number of successful appeals against asylum decisions in respect of Eritrean nationals raises serious questions over the approach taken by the Home Office and the country guidance produced by the UK Government. We repeat the recommendation from our Report on Q3 2015 and call on the Government to reconsider its country guidance on Eritrea as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 49)

18.The Government currently includes progress with the Syrian Vulnerable Persons resettlement programme within the quarterly release of immigration statistics. We recommend that progress with the schemes to resettle ‘children at risk’ both from outside Europe and from France, Greece and Italy, as well as those resettled for family reunion reasons, be similarly included in the statistical release. (Paragraph 51)

19.Given the significance of the issue, we recommend that information on “take charge” requests received from other EU states under the Dublin Convention is included in the statistical release—including information on the number of requests from each country, the number that involve children, the length of time taken to make decisions on such requests, and the number of requests that are accepted and rejected. (Paragraph 55)

20.Unaccompanied asylum seeking children resettled in the UK have every right to expect that the UK will offer them protection. It is important that individuals are not removed to countries that are known to be unsafe when they reach 18 years of age, particularly people who have become ‘westernised’ during their time in the UK and who lack support networks in the country to which they are deported. The Government should reconsider its approach to dealing with former unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The welfare of the individual must be the overriding concern, bearing in mind that they are individuals who have already suffered and that their anxiety will only be exacerbated by an extended period of uncertainty about their future on reaching their 18th birthday. (Paragraph 58)

21.We are disappointed that far fewer legacy asylum cases were concluded in 2015, compared with previous years. The Home Office must explain why the rate of cases being concluded has reduced, and what the overall target is for clearing the remaining backlog. (Paragraph 65)

The Migration Refusal Pool and curtailment of leave

22.The Government has accepted the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration‘s recommendation to take the steps necessary to locate and identify those individuals amongst the more than 71,000 curtailment not pursued (CNP) cases who have remained in the UK illegally, with a view to effecting their removal. As with the process with Older Live Cases we expect statistics on progress in dealing with this issue to be published on a quarterly basis. (Paragraph 76)

Immigration detention

23.Immigration detention is costly, as is the compensation which has to be paid when detention is found to be unlawful. The adverse effects of detention on an individual’s mental health are also well-established. We support the recommendations of the independent reviewer, Stephen Shaw, that the Home Office should both do more to reduce the length of time that detainees are held and investigate alternatives to detention. Particular attention should be paid to those who are held in detention for the longest periods. We welcome the Government’s commitment to an independent case review after three months’ detention, and the new statutory automatic presumption of bail after four months’ detention. We will closely scrutinise the impact of these changes. We recommend that the Government publish a timetable for implementation, as well as a date for Stephen Shaw’s short follow-up review. We share Stephen Shaw’s view that further legal interventions, such as a statutory time limit on detention, will need to be considered if there has not been a significant impact on the length of detention. (Paragraph 80)

24.The Government’s decision to move some way towards the recommendation in the Shaw review to end the detention of pregnant women is welcome. However, it falls short of the absolute exclusion recommended by Stephen Shaw. We expect any future instances of pregnant women being detained to be a last resort; and the occurrences and length and circumstances of detention must be recorded in future data releases so that we can properly assess whether the new safeguards are being adhered to in practice. (Paragraph 85)

25.We welcome the increase in the number of people who are considered unfit for detention being released. However, it is disappointing that a large majority of detainees subject to Rule 35 Reports remain in detention. Stephen Shaw’s independent review observed that such a high level of rejection showed that the system designed to safeguard the welfare of vulnerable people was failing and recommended that an alternative be immediately considered. The Government has committed to addressing this with a new ‘adult at risk’ policy. We look forward to seeing the details of the new policy, but in the meantime the Government must do more to provide protection for vulnerable people, including seeking alternatives to detention. (Paragraph 88)

Foreign national offenders (FNOs)

26.The Committee agrees with the Prime Minister that the Government ‘should have done better’ in deporting foreign national offenders from EU countries. The failure to remove these individuals from the UK has been disappointing, and undermines confidence in the immigration system. Whilst there has been a slight improvement in the numbers being deported per year, progress has been too slow and the number of foreign national offenders currently in the United Kingdom is over 13,000, the size of a small town. The Home Office must set out the practical steps it intends to take to significantly reduce this figure. If it fails to do so we will begin setting targets to be monitored in future reports. (Paragraph 91)

27.It is deeply concerning that there are 5,789 FNOs living in the community, the highest number since 2012. Over half of these have been living in the community for more than two years. This is unacceptable, and the Government should set out how many individuals are in the community whom they have decided to keep in the UK, and how many they would seek to deport. (Paragraph 92)

28.There are too many Foreign National Offenders from European Union countries still in the United Kingdom. The public is entitled to expect a more efficient process for prisoner transfers and removals between Member States. It is surprising that of the predominant foreign nationalities in UK prisons, the top three are from EU countries: 983 from Poland, 764 from Ireland, and 635 from Romania. The Home Office has failed to tackle this issue sufficiently, as EU prisoners should be the first to be removed and accepted by their countries of origin. In her evidence to the Committee, the Home Secretary was unconvincing in suggesting that remaining a member of the EU will make it easier to remove these individuals from the UK. The clear inefficiencies demonstrated by this process will lead the public to question the point of the UK remaining a member of the EU. (Paragraph 93)

Voluntary removals

29.In response to this Report we request that the Home Office provides an update on the Voluntary Removal Service operated by Immigration Enforcement. (Paragraph 95)

Conclusion

30.We have regularly expressed concern about the size of the immigration backlog. The current backlog is lower than in Q3 2015 but still over 16,000 cases higher than a year ago. It is deeply concerning that there has been so little improvement. (Paragraph 99)





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27 May 2016