Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 100-119)



  100. Moving on to the Communications Directorate, can I ask what went wrong with the Customer Communication Foundation Project?
  (Mr Gieve) We have a programme of major IT projects inside the Home Office. This was one. There is a finance one and a personnel one. It was a very ambitious project, and when the offer came in, it was too expensive, so we went back to the drawing board and drew up a more restricted but still helpful system which, so far as I know, is being installed over this summer, with a view to getting it on stream by the end of the recess.

  101. Could I ask how much of the budgeted cost of the Customer Communication Foundation Project was spent before you decided to suspend the project, and at what stage the process of replying to ministerial correspondence most often becomes delayed while we are going through this period?
  (Mr Gieve) On the first point, we have a standing contract with Sirius, who are the IT company, but I do not think we paid anything towards the old project before we abandoned it.[3] We decided to shift at the point it became apparent how much it would cost to instal a new system. As to where ministerial correspondence is getting held up, at various points is the answer, and we are hoping with our new tracking system to be able to stop it sitting in people's in-trays, either officials' in-trays or later on in ministerial offices.

  102. With the benefit of hindsight, could you tell us why the replacement correspondence tracking system option was not chosen in the first place?
  (Mr Gieve) It had not been designed. It was partly designed in response to our response to the first proposition.

  103. What percentage of Home Office services are within the target group being monitored for electronic delivery? Surely you are not seriously suggesting that there everything will be available on electronic delivery?
  (Mr Gieve) I do not think Martin will be delivering his service electronically. We have a list of 80 services which we are trying to get on webs or trying to get IT-based. A lot of those are actually information services; they are about telling people things. We have got about half way on that. We have not got so far on actually allowing interaction over the net. One of the first ones there is going to be applying for passports over the net electronically. We are hoping to do that in the next 18 months.

  104. But these electronic services are in addition, are they? They are not going to replace traditional methods of communication, I trust.
  (Mr Gieve) We are not planning at present that they should. It depends on the take-up and so on.

Bridget Prentice

  105. I want to ask about the administration of IND. You remember the case of Oakington and the problems with form filling. The judge described it as a disgrace. Why did it take the Home Office 11 months to amend the form that the immigration officers were using?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I have to say, Ms Prentice, I do not know how long it did take us to change the form. We certainly have changed it. That was the particular question that survived the Court of Appeal's re-assessment of the initial judgment and, as you know, the whole question is being further appealed to the House of Lords. There has been a hearing and we await the outcome of that. I am afraid I would have to ask to be allowed to come back to the Committee because I am not aware of the precise time that it took us to change the form.[4]

  106. According to the information I have in relation to the case, it took three months for you to realise that there was a problem, and then a further eight months for you to actually amend the form. But I am happy if you want to come back to that. If I ask you what lessons you have learned from that case, are you going to say you will have to wait till after the House of Lords judgment?
  (Mr Boys Smith) No, because that case told us some things about the care with which we handle the case work going through Oakington, but it also went through the Court of Appeal, and it told us that fundamentally the system was a sound system, and although the form was important, and I do not wish to suggest that it was other than that, the fundamentals of what we were doing and how we were handling people was satisfactory. I have to say that all external observers who have been to visit Oakington, including the visiting committee that we have established, feel that it is a fair and humane and effective system for delivering what, if I may return to the thrust of some of Mr Malins' questions, we ought to be doing, which is taking quick decisions and letting people know where they stand on this important issue. In that it has been hugely successful. Again, as I touched on before, we are taking 10,000 to 11,000 decisions a year at the present rates, within 7 to 10 days, and that is a very satisfactory performance.

  107. You have doubled your staff since 1999. What effect did that have in terms of the change? What sort of problems arose from the management of that change, of a doubling of staff in three years?
  (Mr Boys Smith) As a preliminary to answering that, I should say that not only were we expanding as you have described, but we were also changing the processes within IND, and I would not want to try to disentangle the one thing from the other completely, but focusing particularly on the staff expansion, firstly the mechanics of the recruitment: because this was recruitment of an order that we had never previously experienced, we were presented with some challenges. I think we overcame them, and on the whole, but not entirely, got them in at the time we wanted. I acknowledge that if we went back two years, we were facing some—fairly modest but some—slippage in terms of the actual process of recruitment. Much more fundamental was, of course, to train the people and then, having trained them, to mentor them into the system. The hardest challenge we faced, particularly for asylum decision makers, was to find, given the rate we were bringing people in, enough experienced decision makers, particularly when we were expanding away from Croydon on asylum work, to sit down beside and be constantly available to the new members of staff, who inevitably in the early period after training will require a lot of guidance and whose confidence will depend on their having access to people to whom they can turn and feel comfortable in consulting.

  108. Have you had any problems with retention?
  (Mr Boys Smith) On the whole, retention has been reasonably satisfactory, certainly as regards the decision taker level. As you will realise, retention rates vary according to the grade. On the whole retention has been satisfactory. If I had been asked a year or two years ago whether it was a big fear, I would have said yes. It has not turned out to be as bad as we feared.

  109. Can you give us any indication as to whether that burst of doubling your staff in that short period of time had any effect on the progress elsewhere within the organisation?
  (Mr Boys Smith) No. Most of the initial additional intake was focussed on asylum case working—not all of it, because we also had very severe pressures, and indeed to some extent still do, on other kinds of case working, and of course, going back to the previous Spending Review and before that, we were also planning to and did put extra staff on to port controls, not exclusively or indeed always mainly for what I might call the routine port control, but in order to reinforce the whole of the asylum process from the very moment that people arrive in the country. We were endeavouring to take a holistic view, particularly of asylum, and to reinforce, for example, initial screening as well as to reinforce the decision taking, to reinforce the intelligence work overseas, because that impacts on intake. So it was a fairly complex picture.

  110. What effect has the lower than estimated number of staff in 2000-01 had on that process?
  (Mr Boys Smith) That gets back to the point I was very briefly alluding to, that at the early stages, although we were reasonably successful in getting in staff, we did not entirely succeed. Had we got more in, I am confident we would have made a bit more progress on decisions, both for after entry work and for asylum work, and made a bit more progress on getting things up and running sooner on, for example, screening at the ports. That is not something that I can readily quantify and on the whole, although there are obviously changes taking place all the time as we learn and develop within IND, I think on the whole we have managed to bed in both the new structures and the new staff pretty satisfactorily.

  111. How do you see it in a year's time?
  (Mr Boys Smith) In terms of numbers? That is very difficult to say. There has been a modest recent growth. Any future growth will depend on the answers to questions that we continue to ask ourselves, for example, whether by introducing more staff into some part of the system it will enable us to reduce overall Exchequer costs on asylum support, and sometimes that is the case; in other words, it is cost-effective to invest in staff. A certain amount of that has taken place and no doubt will continue to take place.

  112. Just explain for the record how you prioritise these people, people who perhaps have been in the country for some time, and who seem to be going through the system on a very slow conveyor belt as opposed to ones who may very recently have arrived. How do you make the decisions as to which you deal with first?
  (Mr Boys Smith) The answer to that does depend on the category of work. In relation to our work on after entry decisions, that is to say, case work of people wishing to extend their stays, marrying British people and settling and issues of that kind, we take them as they arrive and deal quickly—and on the whole pretty quickly though not as quickly as we would like—with those that are simple. Some of those are quite simple, for example, students staying on for another year. We take rather longer over those that are intrinsically difficult. Sometimes, for example, we have doubts about certain marriage applications, as to whether it is a legitimate case or a spurious one. With asylum, we deal with them as fast as we can in order to meet the target. With nationality, more than a year ago now we changed the arrangement whereby initial applications now are submitted with all the supporting documentation, and we deal with them as they come in, in the order of arrival, on what we call a fast track process, not yet fast enough—it still takes six months, but that is a fraction of what it used to be—and we have separate teams dealing separately with the older cases. So there are in effect two streams of work: the older cases that were submitted without the supporting application and for which we then ask when the case is activated. That second queue of work will of course gradually diminish and, we hope, disappear by the end of this calendar year, and everybody will then be fast track. So the answer does depend on the work.


  113. On the asylum decisions, does the adjudicator just have to make his own judgment on whatever facts the applicant gives him, or is any checking ever done? When a fact is easily checkable, does anybody ring up one of our officials in the appropriate country and invite him to nip down the road to have a look?
  (Mr Boys Smith) When you say the adjudicator, do you mean at the appeal stage therefore?

  114. No, at the initial stage. I often have asylum seekers come to me where there are perfectly basic facts disputed, where the adjudicator has taken an educated guess, whereas a little bit of investigation—not very much; a telephone call or two here and there—would have settled the matter definitely one way or the other.
  (Mr Boys Smith) For the initial decision, all our decision takers have access to an extensive knowledge base, which includes information about the country that we ourselves have written and also to information that is available, for example, from the UNHCR, and all that is publicly accessible.

  115. Yes, I understand that. "I live in Bulawayo. My house was burned down." It only takes somebody in Bulawayo to walk down the road and see whether number 270 or what-have-you is burnt down.
  (Mr Boys Smith) We do not routinely do that, but we will make inquiries, if, for example, it is alleging that membership of a certain group is exposing somebody to danger. If need be, we will then clarify the position of that group, but we would be most unlikely to follow up the sort of burnt house example which you gave. Likewise, the adjudicators at the appeal stage have access to the same body of information as we do, but of course in addition can hear both the case from the appellant and the case offered on behalf of the Secretary of State by our presenting officer.

  116. It just seems to me that sometimes—not always—a few simple inquiries at an early stage would short-circuit the huge appeals process which then follows, and perhaps save a lot of money.
  (Mr Boys Smith) I do not think it is our experience, if I may continue with your example of the burnt house, that things are in practice hanging on that. They are wider issues to do with the exposure of certain ethnic groups, political groups, religious groups and so on to risk, and it is on that basis essentially that decisions will be taken. The challenge for us is to update that material.

  117. "I live in Bulawayo, and my house was burnt down by people who were oppressing me." "Who can confirm your story?" "My two neighbours." So you walk down the road and you talk to the neighbours.
  (Mr Boys Smith) A crucial issue there—and I do not want to be drawn too speculatively into the particular hypothetical case—would not be just whether somebody's house had been burned down, because that can happen anywhere, but whether people in that position are capable of securing the protection of the state, in other words whether the state has the machinery available to protect people. That will be a key test for us. Somebody who had suffered an attack but in circumstances where that was wholly exceptional and where they could secure protection internally, that might well mean—and I choose my words very carefully—that the application would not succeed.

  118. Yes, but if the allegation is an attack by forces of the state, which are supposed to be protecting them, that obviously would carry a bit more weight.
  (Mr Boys Smith) Absolutely, and that sort of information we will have, and have in an up-to-date form from our embassies and High Commissions, from the UNHCR and a whole variety of international sources, because the Americans, the French, the Germans, are all making these assessments.

David Winnick

  119. Is it not the case at these appeals where adjudicators have to make decisions that the Home Office will send along a presenting officer, who will be armed with as many facts as possible to try and persuade the adjudicator that the appellant has no case or very little case, and therefore it is the responsibility presumably of the Home Office to ensure that the presenting officer will do his or her utmost to get the adjudicator to uphold the decision of the Home Office?
  (Mr Boys Smith) No. If I may say so, Mr Winnick, I think that suggests that at the appeal stage our presenting officer is simply there to win by hook or by crook, and that is not the case.

3   Note by witness: "We paid about £1 million for a strategy study from them." Back

4   See Ev 39-40. Back

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