Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report




The Committee requested a progress report on dealing with the difficulties identified in the report in Islamabad and New Delhi.


  11.  The management of the entry clearance operation has changed radically with the creation of the Joint Entry Clearance Unit (JECU) by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office in June 2000, staffed by personnel from both parent departments. This joined up unit has two central objectives: to use entry clearance to welcome legitimate travellers to the UK and to prevent the entry of those who do not qualify under the Immigration Rules. One of the JECU's main functions is to explore ways to develop the integration of pre-entry controls with other parts of the immigration control. The Unit will also seek to improve performance and service delivery in a cost-effective manner.

  12.  There have also been changes to the pre-entry control procedures, to make entry clearance processes fairer, faster and firmer. In October 2000 a new standard visa was introduced which, on issue, confers leave to enter the UK and allows for multiple entries during the validity of the visa. It also means that the procedures on arrival at a UK port of entry can be simplified and streamlined. In addition, the right of appeal has been reintroduced for those applicants refused a visa to visit a family member in the UK.

  13.  The Committee will be aware that Mr Keith Vaz MP is now the FCO Minister with responsibility for Entry Clearance and represents the FCO on JECU's Joint Ministerial Committee. He takes a very close interest in improving the service JECU offers. Among other initiatives he has established visa surgeries for Members who wish to raise entry clearance issues and is currently holding a series of visa fora around the UK with ethnic minority groups.

Progress report on dealing with the difficulties identified in the report in Islamabad and New Delhi.

  14.  The Government is satisfied that the entry clearance operation in New Delhi is running smoothly. The Post is now the second largest of all our visa issuing offices (after Bombay) and at present is delivering a service which meets all Best Practice and Public Service Agreement targets. New Delhi issues 100 per cent of successful visit visa applications within 24 hours (in practice on the day of application); currently 83 per cent of all such applications are successful. There are no queues for visit visas; there is no settlement visa queue for applicants with the right of abode nor for dependent relatives over the age of 65; and queues for other settlement categories are well within target times.

  15.  Improvements have also been made in meeting service delivery targets in Islamabad. New reception arrangements have been put in place which allow the Visa Section to receive 450 callers a day compared with the 1998 average of 250. Entry Clearance Section is up to full strength, with 31 Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs), four Entry Clearance Managers (ECMs) and two senior ECMs under the management of a very experienced First Secretary Head of Section. There has been a further review by a team of three independent reviewers; their recommendations have been accepted in principle and are being taken forward. The new High Commissioner is taking a very close personal interest in the operation of the section.

  16.  Islamabad made considerable progress early in 2000: all queue times met the targets set out in Best Practice. From the beginning of the summer, however, the gradual growth of applications earlier in the year became a rush. Over 50 per cent more applications were received in June, July and August than in the corresponding period of 1999. By the end of September, growth (in the year to date) had exceeded 24 per cent. Despite reinforcement in the summer, this unforeseen increase (which has also affected the operations of other Embassies and High commissions in Islamabad) meant the queue for non-straightforward visit-visa interviews extended to over 40 days (against a target of 10 days). There is a risk that settlement queues may lengthen again, but this has not yet happened and Post are confident that were this to occur, it would only be temporary. The Post are processing more applications each day, postponing field trips and delaying the completion of appeal statements to deal with the increase in demand. JECU are sending five more ECOs to help reduce the backlog.

Recommendation 7

  Discussions at both Posts revealed that entry clearance work appeared to be unpopular with Diplomatic Service staff. It was typically a first posting at DS9 level, and many staff seemed to regard it as a phase in their career that had to be endured, rather than a matter of choice. Baroness Symons had already indicated to the Sub-Committee that the Government was now trying to counter the impression that entry clearance was a "Cinderella posting" away from the mainstream of the real work of the Foreign Office and the Chief Clerk has written round FCO staff saying that a period in entry clearance would be a positive asset to their careers. We agree that entry clearance work is an important FCO function. If, however, the perception among staff is to change, FCO management will need to demonstrate that a successful period of entry clearance work really does enhance career prospects. We look forward to hearing how the FCO proposes to achieve this. (Paragraph 38)

What progress is being made?

  17.  The Government's response noted the measures being taken to improve staff attitudes towards entry clearance. These measures have made a difference with Heads of Mission becoming much more involved in the work of their visa sections.

  18.  We have had difficulty in attracting enough B3 (formerly DS9) FCO officers into entry clearance work. This has affected our capacity to fill entry clearance jobs satisfactorily. The Memorandum of Understanding between the FCO and the Home Office setting up the JECU lays down that jobs in the JECU and overseas will be filled 50:50 by FCO/Home Office staff. This gives us a wider pool of candidates to fill jobs, as well as additional expertise. In addition, JECU and the FCO Personnel Command are discussing what more they can do to encourage staff to recognise the value of entry clearance work; and to ensure that the competences entry clearance work develops are given due credit when staff subsequently bid for jobs in other parts of the FCO.

Recommendation 10

  We recommend that FCO Personnel and Security Command takes every step necessary to ensure adequate levels of staffing in entry clearance sections, having regard both to seasonal fluctuations in demand, career progression and other calls on manpower. It is clear that some of the difficulties in Islamabad last year would have been avoided if staffing levels had not been allowed to fall in the Entry Clearance Section. We hope that the financial arrangements which have been introduced this year will ensure that financial constraints do not lead to under-staffing of entry clearance sections. (Paragraph 43)

What progress is being made on staffing levels?

  19.  As a whole, Posts are adequately staffed for the anticipated level of visa demand. There will always be cases, as in Pakistan this year, where unforeseen changes in demand may cause Sections to be temporarily understaffed. In these circumstances, the JECU has set up, and will deploy, a permanent squad of six ECOs who can be sent at short notice. The squad is about to be brought up to eight by the addition of two more ECOs. In addition, since the establishment of JECU, the Home Office have agreed to make available 10 officers for emergency deployments.

  20.  Since the Committee's Report was published, the overall number of staff available for full time entry clearance work has been increased. In the financial year 1999-2000, an additional 18.5 jobs were created. This represented an increase of 7.5 per cent in staff during a period when the demand grew by 3.6 per cent. In the financial year 2000-01, 18 new full time slots have been created, an increase of 6.7 per cent. The growth in demand to the end of July 2000, compared with the same period in 1999, was 7 per cent, but we expect the full year's figures to be lower.

  21.  We have also increased the seasonal relief given to Posts. In 1999, the equivalent of 32.5 staff years' additional resources were provided; in 2000 the figure was 34.5 years. These compare with the 1998 figure of 27 years. The Government is therefore maintaining staffing levels to enable us to provide a fair, fast and firm service to applicants.

Recommendation 11

  Baroness Symons also saw a role for greater training both for ECOs and ECMs. We agree. In particular, this should focus on the circumstances, and in particular, the culture in which they will be operating. In both Islamabad and New Delhi, the contribution made in this respect by locally-engaged staff was emphasised. We recommend consideration of more formalised and greater in-post training for UK-based entry clearance staff in post-specific factors relevant to their work. (Paragraph 44)

What progress is being made on training?

  22.  The Committee's Report prompted a re-examination of the UK training programme. We have made changes: the focus of the visa operation is now on customer service, and more training is given on racial awareness, equal opportunities and dealing with aggression. More recently, there has been a global training programme on the Human Rights Act. Courses have been delivered in eight regional centres throughout the world with a further three courses in London attended by overseas staff, and a learning pack has been sent to all Posts.

  23.  General training for staff in Posts remains the responsibility of local managers. New staff are expected to receive both formal and informal induction training, covering both the professional as well as cultural aspects of the job and the country in which they are operating. We are encouraging Posts to use their locally engaged staff to brief new UK based staff on local customs etc.

Recommendation 12

  We recommend that particular care is taken over staff selection for posts such as New Delhi and Islamabad, that pre-posting training include appropriate preparation for stress management and that appropriate advice and counselling is offered to single women at the time they are offered the posting. Consideration should also be given to the possibility of shorter postings, to reduce the burden on staff. (Paragraph 46)

What progress is being made?

  24.  Shorter tour lengths in difficult Posts have already been introduced through the recommendations of the Hornby review of allowances. Several ECOs in the Indian Sub-Continent have recently asked to extend their tours of duty; (including a single female officer in Islamabad).

Recommendation 15

  We recommend a trial of tape recording of interviews at Tiers 3 and 4 in a large entry clearance section such as Islamabad. (Paragraph 49)

What developments have there been in the use of tape-recording?

  25.  A trial has taken place in Bombay of the tape recording of interviews. (Islamabad has been under such pressure that we did not want to add to the work involved in running a pilot scheme). The outcome of the trial was mixed. Staff were trained, and enthusiastic, but there were technical problems with microphones picking up too much background noise. The trial will be resumed with modified microphones. The Government continues to believe that tape recording of interviews will lead to greater efficiency. We are also exploring the option of recording digital audio files of visa interviews.

Recommendation 19

  There has been at least one case dealt with at Islamabad where the intervention of a Member played a key part in the issue of a settlement visa to the spouse of a reluctant sponsor. We cannot believe that any of our colleagues would knowingly wish to play a part in forcing a couple together in this way. This is a very difficult area for all concerned, but we urge our colleagues to be aware of the fact that on occasion there is a risk that they may unwittingly be party to bringing about such a situation. (Paragraph 56)

What steps have been taken to afford better protection to reluctant spouses?

  26.  The issue of reluctant spouses remains a sensitive one. JECU still receive correspondence from Members of Parliament who are asked to intervene in applications where, unknown to the Member, the sponsor is reluctant, reluctance JECU normally speak directly to the Member to explain the circumstances, and the Member does not usually press the issue once the full circumstances are known.

  27.  The Committee will be aware of the Action Plan agreed by FCO and Home Office Ministers to tackle the overseas dimension of forced marriages. The main objective of the plan is to assist young people whose fundamental human rights are at risk from the threat of a forced marriage. In cases where there is clear evidence of reluctance on the part of the sponsor, we will use every lawful means to avoid issuing a visa.

Recommendation 21

  We are struck by the fact that no evidence has been submitted on how effectively the entry clearance system overseas meets the objectives of immigration policy. Without such information, it is difficult to judge how effective the entry clearance operation is. We recommend that research be commissioned in this area, in order that the entry clearance operation can be focused as effectively as possible. (Paragraph 58)

Does better analysis promised in the response now allow a better assessment of effectiveness?

  28.  JECU, FCO and Home Office are considering further ways of testing the effectiveness of the entry clearance operation, for example by monitoring the numbers of visa holders who claim asylum or overstay. The Government already monitors the number of visa holders who are subsequently refused entry by Immigration Officers at UK Ports of Entry: the target (that no more than 0.04 per cent of such arrivals should be refused) is being achieved. In numerical terms, this represented 542 refusals in 1999 of the 1.33 million visas issued.

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Prepared 9 January 2001