1.Despite years of public debate and interest in immigration, the Department still does not know the size of the illegal population or have a clear grasp of the harm the illegal population causes. Immigration Enforcement has a vision “to reduce the size of the illegal population and the harm it causes”, but it has not estimated what that population is since 2005. The Department could not respond to our concerns that potentially exaggerated figures calculated by others could inflame hostility towards immigrants. It currently estimates that between 240,000 and 320,000 people per year come into contact with its immigration enforcement services, but also recognises that the quality of its information is not good enough to provide a baseline to measure progress against its vision. The Department identifies a range of harms caused by immigration crime, but it was unable to tell us how many people either caused, or were victims of, harm. Nor could it provide a figure for the impact on public services of providing services to people who should not be receiving them. It is only now starting work to understand the impact of enforcing the immigration laws on the economy and society.
Recommendation: The Department should undertake work to improve its understanding of the illegal population in the UK. This should include analysis by age, length of time in the UK, and whether they originally entered the UK legally or illegally. It should also produce clear definitions of harm, and a means to record the level of harm caused by the illegal population. The Department should write to us within three months of this report to set out us what steps it is taking to increase its understanding, including how it is working with other government departments, academics and other interested groups to establish what might be possible.
2.The Department relies upon a disturbingly weak evidence base to assess the impact of its immigration enforcement activity. The lack of reliable evidence on what works prevents it from planning and prioritising its activities effectively. The Department accepts that it cannot easily use data to measure the impact of the £400 million it spends each year in Immigration Enforcement and has a “dearth of information” in some aspects of its activities. It allocates resources between its different immigration responsibilities based on “judgements”, but if those judgements are not based on evidence, it is unclear what factors the Department is considering. Worryingly, the Department could not always provide evidence or data to support its decisions, for example on its strategy to tackle organised immigration crime, or to demonstrate understanding of the problems it faces, for example the impact of accessible and good quality legal advice on its success in returns. Although it is working to increase its analytical capabilities to learn from the challenges it faces, this work is only at an early stage.
Recommendation: Within six months of this report, the Department should put in place a detailed improvement plan for its collection, use, and analysis of data. It should write to the Committee and set out:
3.The culture and make-up of the Department have left it poorly placed to appreciate the impact of its policies on the people affected. The Department has done little to dispel accusations that its decisions are based on a lack of curiosity, preconceptions and even prejudice. The Department acknowledges how close it came to being declared institutionally racist in the Windrush lessons learned review and that it has to change its culture. It recognises the value of greater diversity for enabling better decision-making, leadership and governance, though only one member of the Department’s current executive committee comes from a BAME background. Similarly, the Department recognises that it could improve the successful management of cases through the immigration system by adopting a more people-centred approach. Yet there is little existing evidence that the Department actively seeks to identify or evaluate the impact of its actions on the individuals it encounters. This creates a risk of harm and distress to innocent people who are here perfectly legally, and we are not satisfied that the Department attaches sufficient importance to this risk.
Recommendation: Building on its response to the Windrush lessons learned review, the Department should mobilise its evidence base and evaluations to challenge its own assumptions and beliefs about the user experience within the immigration system. The Department should write to us by 31st December 2020, setting out the insights it has developed about the experience of its users, and what improvements it is making as a result.
4.The Department’s failure to develop an end-to-end understanding of the immigration system leads to problems which it could avoid. At present, there are gaps in its digital and paper trail, and it is likely these have an impact on Immigration Enforcement’s ability to remove individuals from the UK. The Department says that there is now an “active conversation” with Ministers around improving its ability to move cases through the system. In 2019, the Department released 62% of immigration detainees it intended to remove from the UK, an increase from 56% in 2018. The Department believes this rise reflects abuse of asylum claims and other protection routes, but it did not provide any systematic analysis to support this. Given the strong passions seen on all sides of the immigration debate, a Government Department making unsupported claims of this kind risks inflaming prejudices against legitimate immigrants and bona fide asylum seekers. It did, however, accept our suggestion that direct engagement and better quality legal advice at an earlier stage may influence its ability to ensure returns are successful.
Recommendation: The Department needs to develop a joined-up approach across the full end-to-end immigration system to ensure that people get the right support at the right time. It should record and assess how people move through the immigration system to understand where and how problems arise. This should include evaluating whether earlier access to good quality, affordable legal advice might help to reduce the number of late claims. The Department should write to the Committee within six months of this report, setting out progress in this regard.
5.The Department is unprepared for the challenges the UK’s exit from the EU presents to its immigration enforcement operations. The Department relies on cooperation with EU partners to support its international operations, including the return of foreign national offenders and individuals who arrive in the UK illegally via EU transport hubs. It would like this cooperation to continue after the end of the transition period for the UK’s departure from the EU but showed a worrying lack of urgency about securing the necessary agreements. When we took evidence in mid-July, the Department provided no evidence that it had begun discussions with EU partners or internally to prepare for the possible impact these changes may have on its operations. Without putting new arrangements in place successfully, there is a real risk that EU exit will actually make it more difficult to remove foreign national offenders and those who try to enter the country illegally.
Recommendation: The Department urgently needs to develop a forward plan and put in place actions to mitigate the risks to its work with EU partners. This should include consideration of reciprocal arrangements for:
6.We are not convinced that the Department is sufficiently prepared to safeguard the status of individuals while also implementing a new immigration system and managing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department faces several challenges in the immediate future. The extension of visas during the COVID-19 pandemic raises concerns that mistakes in case and data management could affect an individual’s future immigration status. The Immigration Enforcement directorate also needs to adapt to the updated vision and values the Department sets out for the UK’s future immigration system from January 2021. The Department committed again to implementing the recommendations of the Windrush lessons learned review and contacting all those who were affected, not only those from the Caribbean. Whilst we are pleased that this is the Home Office’s policy now, we note that the Department initially rejected the recommendation made by our predecessor Committee in March 2019 that the Department should extend its historical reviews beyond Caribbean Commonwealth nationals to include nationals from other Commonwealth countries. Tackling these challenges will require significant change. The Department pins its hopes on its ongoing programme of digitisation and automation to support its response to these challenges, including its implementation of Atlas, but its history of delivering such projects is patchy at best.
Recommendation: Within six weeks of this report, the Department should write to this committee to explain its priorities while implementing these significant changes. Specifically, it should set out:
Published: 18 September 2020