Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 77)



  60. We all want that! The CSA have had such a wash of complaints from MPs and they know how to distinguish which MPs pledge to prioritise and they get into a different layer. I am not sure it is fair at all. I have done it myself, so I am as guilty as the next person. There is a conspiracy here of passing the buck, and I am not sure this is a good solution?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I do not think I am in a position, if I may say so, Chairman, to comment on the manner in which Ministers seek to react to Members of Parliament. All I am saying is that it has been a long practice over as long as I have been in public service for those cases that an MP picks up with a Minister to be pursued with additional vigour.

  61. Let me ask you: is that fair?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It is a fact, Chairman.

  Chairman: I think we're getting into very dangerous territory here!

Mr Wright

  62. I'm from Great Yarmouth and we have a number of asylum seekers within my area, as David does in Brighton, one of my concerns is the same as David's which is the travelling distance that they have to take and it costs substantially more than if they had to travel to Croydon. I would say the case may well be the same if people from Great Yarmouth had to travel the longer distance. Has there ever been a cost benefit analysis in relation to the cost of shipping the asylum seekers around the country for appeals, rather than having them in different parts of the country?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Not in quite those terms. As I mentioned earlier, the imperative has been to get the interviews done in order that we can make the decision and deliver the decision to the applicant and that will remain the case for the coming few months. That said, we have opened offices elsewhere and are spreading our interview base. I appreciate that, in saying that, I am referring particularly to Liverpool and Leeds which indeed are perhaps causing the problems as people in your constituency see them. Nevertheless, with the dispersal arrangements under the National Asylum Support Service, which is part of IND, of course there will be increasing numbers of people in the North-West, indeed the North-East as well, for which Leeds and Liverpool will be attractive locations as regards interviews in a way that Croydon would not be. So we have quite deliberately located interview facilities there in order to capture the new dispersal system.

  63. In relation to your figures, you say in 2000 the backlog was 100,000, this March 36,000, in July you are hoping to get down to 20,000, on those particular figures when would we expect to see a figure of a nil backlog?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Can I just clarify the figures, the first two you gave, the 100,000 for early 2000 and the 36,000 for the end of March, they were the asylum backlog. The 20,000 that I mentioned was for the after entry work, the non-asylum, non-nationality work, which is what we hope to come down to on that side by mid-July. Just to take asylum, the backlog is still falling. We do not have the April figures yet, but that indeed has fallen during the course of April. I have to acknowledge that we are not clear at the moment, because it is a very long time since we have been in this position, we do not quite know yet what the so-called frictional level will be for any given intake of asylum application. Our average turn-around time, and we are meeting that already and will beat it shortly, is two months. At an intake of 5,000 to 6,000, that automatically means you are going to have 10,000 or 12,000 cases in the system. In addition to that, there are always a number that are held up quite properly for some reason. I do not mean held up in a heap that nobody has looked at, but they may be queuing up under a judicial review case, they may have intrinsic difficulties, there may need to be re-interviews because factors have arisen, a number of things of that kind, which will take the working number, the number properly in the system, rather higher. That figure we think will settle at between 20,000 and 30,000, though, as I say, we cannot be specific at the moment. It will settle there on the basis of our achieving our target of 60 per cent being dealt with and having their initial decision within two months.

  64. How many of that backlog would you consider have probably disappeared? There was a very embarrassing situation two years ago when about 20 asylum seekers were sent to hotels in Great Yarmouth and only two arrived. The other 18 got off at some other station on the way through. It was a view held that at some they are going to turn up. Is this a particular problem?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Undoubtedly it is a problem. A number of asylum applicants at some time point during the system, either before the initial decision or later, go to ground, and indeed undoubtedly a number enter the country through the asylum route intending to do that, which is not to suggest of course that everybody uses that route for that purpose. It is because of that concern that part of the investment that I referred to a moment ago is to go into this greatly enhanced enforcement and removals effort, targets for removal of failed asylum seekers, in order to cut that number down. We will be increasing the number of removals with more detention, more staff, and so on, during the course of the current year.


  65. Just on that point, what percentage get lost?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I cannot tell you, not because I have not brought the right figure, Chairman, but because we do not know what percentage disappear. The size of the illegal population in the United Kingdom is, and always has been, unknown. It is something that we are now working on in order to try to fill that gap in our knowledge, but there is a gap.

  66. I understand you do not know everything, but you know the numbers that first come into your hands and you know the numbers that you lose along the wayside?
  (Mr Boys Smith) What we do not know is the number who leave the country voluntarily. That is the missing link in the equation, so to speak. A number undoubtedly do leave the country voluntarily, possibly to go and claim asylum elsewhere, having found themselves failing to obtain that status here. That is the great difficulty, because we have no embarkation control.

Mr Wright

  67. Presumably they would still be recognised as one of the backlog cases?
  (Mr Boys Smith) There may well be some people in the backlog who are no longer in the country, cases where perhaps they have been interviewed. It was the case when we had that huge backlog. There were cases that had been interviewed many, many months before on whom a decision had not been taken. Some of those people might well have left the country. We have no means of telling if they decided to leave voluntarily, because, as we all know, you leave the UK without any form of check.

Mr Trend

  68. You must know the number of people who have got lost along the way irrespective of whether they have left the country or not. What percentage do not turn up again?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I do not have to hand the number, the figure, for example, of people who do not turn up for an interview, though we can happily obtain that and give it to the Committee. I fear that is not in my head. When you say we must know the number who do not turn up, we know the number who apply and we know the number of decisions we take. We do not know, and no Government has ever known, the number of people who may have left the country during the course of that process or after that process, whether or not their claim was granted. There is nothing new in that.

  69. What is the percentage of the number of cases which are determined compared to the number of people who enter the system?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Well, the number we actually remove—that is to say escort out of the country in some way or other, or at least see on the plane—is very small. We removed about 9,000 people, failed asylum seekers, last year, which is a higher figure than on any previous year. We have a target for removing 30,000.

  70. If 100,000 people come in and you know that they have entered the system, how many of them do not get their cases determined because they have vanished over a year?
  (Mr Boys Smith) What I am trying to say, Mr Trend, is we cannot tell if they have vanished.

  71. They have disappeared from the system?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Well—


  72. Just that you lose contact with?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I am sure we can give you a figure or an approximate figure for those we lose contact with. What I am trying to explain is that if they have been interviewed and their papers are on the file we will not then subsequently know if, for example, a letter—either a refusal or an acceptance—fails to be received because they have left the country. That is all I am saying. There is nothing new about that.

  73. It would be helpful and I think in the public interest if we were to find exactly how many you do lost contact with, for whatever reason, accepting what you have said to us. Would you be able to provide that?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think it would be a very approximate figure, but we will do our best.

Mr Turner

  74. A couple of quick questions. Could you tell us why such a backlog had built up and what you think the position would be now, had you not undertaken the reorganisation and been given the additional resources that you have?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It had been built up for a number of reasons. The organisation was under-resourced. In particular, in the last few years, a number of assumptions were made about efficiencies that might have been delivered by the computer system, of which there was much public discussion, the computer system that has not arrived. That was so in terms particularly of experienced resource; just having people is not enough. We need people to know the job. The numbers had actually declined of experienced people. That, together with the upheaval of the organisation—I am very anxious Mr Buckley does not think I am trying to blame former colleagues, because I am not. That was the real reason. If we had not taken the measures, the resourcing, the reorganisation that we have gone through and all the process changes that I mentioned—to do some very quick mental arithmetic—instead of having a backlog of 30,000, if we had managed to do the same number of decisions that we did in 1999/2000, we would have a backlog of 150,000. I would rather not be held to my mental arithmetic too precisely. I could calculate it better with a little more time, if I may, if it really needs it.

  75. That is fine, it is a broad brush figure that I was interested in. One other issue which was raised by the Ombudsman and that is when the Ombudsman finds in favour of a case you do not pay the loss of benefit and he has criticised you for that. I would agree with his criticism. What would your answer be?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It is the position that Ministers have taken, that loss of benefit, I have to say for the reasons that Mr Buckley himself outlined, that is the view that Ministers have taken. It is not a loss of benefit. Whilst people are in the asylum application process, if they are destitute in the terms of the Act they are entitled to receive benefit under the new arrangements, albeit I appreciate not quite the same. The position on benefit of course is very complicated with the changeover from the old to the new, but people can obtain support if they want while they are applicants, including of course whilst they are going through appeals if they decide to make an appeal.

  76. I appreciate that, but the amount of money they would get had their appeal been properly dealt with would have been greater than they did get, and there is no making up of that difference. I have to say I think that is wrong. If it was in another area then there would be no question but that the difference would be made up.
  (Mr Boys Smith) I do not wish to weave in front of the Committee. That is the position that Ministers have taken as the policy that should be followed. I appreciate that there is room for debate about it, and indeed there is from time to time.


  77. I can understand that one might argue for integration of policy. Is it an area you can give us your view on?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think I would do so with some difficulty, in the sense that that is the policy that Ministers have adopted. I am the servant of Ministers, Chairman. If it is the wrong policy, I am not the person to sit here and say I think it is the wrong policy.

  Chairman: We are going to stop now. Thank you very much indeed for coming along. There is a virtue in having you back from time to time because we can see how things are going. I think we are grateful to hear about improvements that are being made, and you will not mind if we continue to look at your work to make sure this continues, serviced as ever by the Ombudsman who I hope will not see too much business from you.

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