Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 29 - 39)




  29. Good afternoon. Welcome, Mr Boys Smith, Director General, Immigration and Nationality Directorate, and colleagues. Thank you for coming along to the Committee this afternoon. Before I ask you just to say a few words, I am going to ask Michael Buckley, the Ombudsman, if he would introduce this session based upon some cases that he has looked at in relation to you.

  (Mr Buckley) Thank you, Chairman. As you will recall, in February 2000 the Select Committee took evidence from the Immigration and National Directorate about the steps they were taking to improve their performance. IND told the Committee that they had recently put significant extra resources into this area, including the recruitment of a substantial number of additional staff. They said that, although it would take "some months" for the benefits of those additional resources to filter through, they believed that a corner had been turned. Sadly, the continuing increase in complaints received by my Office over the past year (we had received some 64 in 2000/01, more than twice the number received in the previous year) suggests that IND's move to an integrated case-working system has not yet brought the expected benefits, or at least not in full. However, I must stress, that the picture is not all negative. Over the past year, IND's continued co-operation and general readiness to admit fault has enabled my Office to resolve 34 complaints by making preliminary inquiries. Another five cases were resolved after a statutory investigation had started but without the need to issue a statutory investigation report. For many complainants, that has meant that my Office's intervention has led to a speedy and, importantly, satisfactory resolution, often after periods of unreasonable delay. IND's framework for consolatory payments, which they drew up in liaison with my Office, has also assisted the quick resolution of some cases. There has also been a change in the types of complaint against IND which have been referred to my Office over the past year. We have, for example, for the first time received a significant number of complaints about delay in deciding asylum applications; and there is some evidence that for other types of application IND's performance had started to improve in some respects. Nevertheless, problems have continued to appear. In some cases, for example, loss of files has meant that all the evidence required for my inquiries and investigations has not been available. The Committee may like to explore with IND the general issue of their poor record for file and document handling and the problems that this has clearly caused for all concerned. Secondly, while IND have made much of the increase in the number of initial decisions being taken, their statistics also show a large increase in the number of defective decisions. That appears to indicate that the complaints starting to come to me may be indicative of a much wider problem, due to quality being sacrificed to speed. If that is so, the upshot is likely to be the transference of the asylum backlogs from the application to the appeals stage. We have also received complaints where, although an application has been decided or an appeal has been allowed, IND backlogs have meant that several months have passed before the actual decision has been issued. The Committee may wish to explore with IND whether an appropriate strategic overview is being taken on the allocation of new resources, or whether a piecemeal approach is simply moving the problems from one part of the system to another. Another concern we have is that IND have in the past sought to argue that where there are backlogs of work leading to delays, such as those arising for example from the reorganisation, or from an unexpectedly high intake of case, and some steps have been taken to improve things, that is not maladministration, but "operational difficulties". Needless to say, I do not share IND's view that, just because problems routinely occur, they should not be regarded as maladministration. Nor do I believe that IND can continue to pray in aid the reorganisation or a lack of resources year after year as an acceptable reason for the problems that complainants continue to experience. In my view, IND must now accept responsibility for the consequences of the delays which applicants have been experiencing over many years now. That brings me to my final point. IND have argued in respect of delayed asylum cases that it is not for them to make ex gratia payments to cover loss of entitlement to benefit caused by their delays, because they regard such loss as a lack of opportunity to gain, rather than actual financial loss, and also because they consider benefits to be a matter for the Benefits Agency of the Department of Social Security. That is not how I see matters. If it can be shown that maladministration by IND has caused an individual to lose entitlement to a sum of money to which he or she would otherwise have been entitled, then, in my view, IND is responsible for that loss and should make it good on an extra-statutory basis. That seems to be entirely consistent with the Treasury guidance on redress, and is a concept generally accepted by other departments. I do not see why those using IND's services should be treated any differently. The Committee may wish to discuss this matter further with IND, and of course there is a later session of evidence with the Benefits Agency. That is all, Chairman.

  30. Thank you very much indeed for that. Mr Boys Smith, would you like to kick off with a few words?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Thank you very much, Chairman. If I may, I would just start with the phrase that Mr Buckley mentioned that I used last time, namely that I thought then that we were turning a corner, but I equally acknowledged that we had a lot of difficulties and there undoubtedly, I then thought, were going to be cases still in the system which would give rise to findings of maladministration. I think, since we last appeared before the Committee, we have made big progress. On the asylum side we have taken two and a half times more decisions in the past financial year than we did in the previous one. That is to say that we took just over 130,000 decisions. The backlog of cases, which at one point at the beginning of 2000 was just over 100,000, was down to 36,000 at the end of March and is still falling, and will go on falling, and it is now the lowest since 1990. On the nationality front, we broke the targets and took 94,000 decisions: way, way above what had been done before, and we took eight months off the waiting time, a waiting time that is too long but again has come down. On after entry cases, which were the main focus of the Committee's discussion on the previous occasion, again I think we have made good progress. We took another 50,000 more decisions last year than the year before—20 per cent up—a total, therefore, of 280,000. All cases are now sifted and allocated to a team. There is none of the unattended backlog of cases simply in store, but not looked at, to which I was referring in our previous hearing. That was cleared in July of last year. 65 to 70 per cent of after entry cases are now dealt with and responded to in three weeks. We have tight deadlines for certain other categories of cases, business ones, entry clearance cases. We have brought down and will continue to bring down the number of cases in the system. There are now just over 30,000. Bearing in mind that there are about 1,000, or rather more, coming in every working day, we hope to reduce that 30,000 to about 20,000 by July. We are, I think, also staffed to handle this work in a situation of a steady state. With more staff, with changed methods and, if I may say so, with a lot of hard work and commitment by members of staff, I believe we have made real progress, and the position is a lot stronger than when we appeared previously before this Committee. That said, I fully accept that not everything is yet perfect. We have further work to do in bringing down some of the figures to which I have referred, the backlog, and we have further work to do in refining the processes. I do recognise that there are still bad old cases in the system. In respect of that, without wishing in any way to suggest that we want to make excuses for them, because we have never wanted to do that, and I do not today, I would just point out that for the Ombudsman's cases that have been initiated, both formal and informal inquiries, since the last hearing, all of those cases have their origins before that hearing. I think, as I say, we have made considerable progress since then. Thank you, Chairman.

  31. Thank you for that. Can I just pick up a couple of things from what you have said. The Ombudsman makes the observation—and you talked about the bringing down of the numbers, which is obviously welcome—but the Ombudsman says that the rising complaints that he is observing, it may be that there is a sacrifice of quality to speed going on here, and that the backlog may then start accumulating at the appeals stage. Is that a charge that you in any way accept?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I certainly have no evidence of that, Chairman. Just to take the asylum business first, if I could, one of the figures we closely monitor is the success rate of our cases when they are taken to appeal. That success rate has held up. It is at about 80 per cent and it has been that since before the problems. If I may take that as an objective judgment of our quality, there has been no deterioration there. I do recognise that asylum has come on to the Ombudsman's desk in a way that it did not before. As I say, a lot of those cases had their origins from a year or so back when I freely admit the delays were horrendous. The backlog of over 100,000 was enormous, and I very much hope that we are now in a situation where we can bring that down. As to moving cases through the system and causing a blockage elsewhere, that is not the evidence again on asylum at the moment. We are working very closely with a greatly expanded Court Service, the Immigration Appeals Authority, which is dealing with our appeals as they come through. The cases are now managed right through the system from us straight on to the Immigration Appeals Authority. I do not pretend there are not some problems, but essentially they are now getting through the appeals. Although I do not have the figures from the LCD in my head, I am afraid, you can be sure that the appeals system is expanding commensurately with our activities. We will keep them in balance as a matter of policy. Behind that lies a lot of financial planning with the co-operation of the Treasury, between the two organisations, so that they do keep in balance.

  32. Thank you for that. What about the further point about how you cannot keeping praying in aid your internal reorganisation, which has been the centrepiece of your structure for as long as anybody can remember. The Ombudsman says it is not operational difficulties, this is now maladministration. That is a fair charge, is it not?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I certainly do not want to make excuses, and I do not want to pray in aid the reorganisation that took place at the very end of 1998 into the early months of 1999. I think, if I may say so, we have never just prayed the reorganisation in aid. We have pointed out that we were-under-resourced for the task. To take, for example, the asylum figures, the asylum intake in 1998/99 was in the mid-40,000s. It then jumped to over 70,000 in the following year. We are now, I think, resourced up to handling that task, both for asylum and indeed for nationality and after entry work. I do not want to make excuses. We should not be holding cases up. There are some cases that will take longer than others, because of their nature, and I do not pretend everything can be turned round in a few days or even in a week or two, certainly with some difficult asylum cases. What we are trying to do is to focus our efforts in a way that enables us to clear quickly those that are capable of being cleared quickly and where people are, therefore, absolutely entitled to a quick turn round, whether that is asylum or after entry. We now, through our Oakington Reception Centre can handle about 10,000 cases a year, "fast-tracked" as we call it, where they will get the initial decision within seven working days. I do not want to make excuses. We are not yet perfect. There will be some hairy old ones somewhere. I entirely admit that and people have received a poor service when those cases are uncovered.

  33. Thanks very much. Let us have the statutory soft touch exchange. When you came before us a year or so ago, I asked you if you thought that we were a soft touch or whether we were seen as a soft touch for asylum applicants, and you agreed and said that we were, which interested me at the time. Let us assume that I just ask you the same question now. Are we a soft touch?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think in a number of respects, the UK has been attractive to asylum seekers. One respect in which undoubtedly we were seen as attractive—a "soft touch" is perhaps not a term I feel quite comfortable with—was because of the timetable to reach those decisions. People, once in, had claimed asylum, they had a greatly enhanced chance of disappearing into the woodwork, so to speak, and then never being found to be removed even if their application subsequently failed. So, in that particular respect I think the position has changed. I think in a whole series of other ways it has also changed—for example, enhanced controls of the frontier, the fines on lorry drivers, the greater use of civil penalty on carriers and things of that kind. So I think the odds have changed. The whole asylum support system, of course, has changed since we last appeared. In some respects we signalled that fact as we had estimated a much higher number of people taking up the new national asylum dispersal arrangements than actually did so, which does suggest that it is not a soft touch in the sense it might have been seen as before.

  34. Less of a soft touch?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Less of a soft touch.

Mr Lepper

  35. A year ago when you were before us one of the issues which I think I raised was about what I had come to know as the "lay-by". From what you have said this afternoon, the lay-by is empty now?
  (Mr Brandon) May I? I am not quite sure what you mean by the term "lay-by". In IND, "Lay-by" is where we send all files when the action has been completed. If I understand what you are getting at, last time the Committee met us it discussed what is called a "case allocation backlog", which was where there were certainly about 40,000 files essentially in store and which were not being looked at. That was cleared totally by July last year.

  36. I think that is what meant by the "lay-by" when we discussed it last time, so I am glad to hear that that has been cleared. Could I just raise one or two issues that seem to have arisen with one of the agencies that I deal with, the Immigration Legal Service at the Brighton Housing Trust and the number of cases. I am interested, for instance, that you say that in 80 per cent of cases the view of IND is upheld on appeal?
  (Mr Boys Smith) For asylum cases?

  37. For asylum cases, yes. I know, for instance, the agency I refer to, Immigration Legal Service at the Brighton Housing Trust, in the last six months of last year they handled 25 appeals and altogether ten of those succeeded in the appeal and they were still awaiting at the end of the year eight decisions. It seems to me that maybe they have a higher success rate than IND in that case?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Well, they may, I cannot explain those cases obviously. I can assure you that approximately 80 per cent is the overall figure nationwide.

  38. One of the issues that has come up in my case work has been this question of whether the speeding up of the process leads to a "blocking up" later on. There was an article in The Guardian—and I have to say that I do not always believe everything I read in The Guardian—on 26 January that talked about a technical rebuff of 30 per cent of asylum seekers. These are people who failed to get their statement of evidence forms in within the 14 days, ten working days deadline?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Ten working days is how it is defined.

  39. Do you think that is a long enough period to complete, what is it, a 19 page form?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Forgive me, I cannot remember the precise number of pages, but indeed there are a number. That is the view that we have taken, and I should say that the Home Secretary has taken, that it is an adequate time for somebody to set down the basic details of their claim, a form which, incidentally, we firmly adhere to the view, does not require legal assistance for it to be filled in, although I appreciate that a number of applicants do seek that assistance. Yes, that remains the view of the Home Secretary that it is enough. It is not asking somebody for any understanding of the Convention or the legalities, but merely for them to give an account of the circumstances, bearing in mind that they are making a claim that they may suffer persecution on one or other of the 1951 Convention grounds.

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