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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 792-ii
house of commons
taken before the
Home Affairs Committee
The Work of the UK Border Agency (July–september 2012)
Tuesday 18 December 2012
MR MARK HARPER MP
Evidence heard in Public Questions 50-144
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Taken before the Home Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 18 December 2012
Keith Vaz (Chair)
Mr David Winnick
Examination of Witness
Witness: Rob Whiteman, Chief Executive, UK Border Agency, gave evidence.
Q50 Chair: Could I call the Committee to order? Could I welcome the Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency? Welcome back, Mr Whiteman. Can I refer all those present to the Register of Members’ Interests, where the members of this Committee have their interests noted, and can I also declare an interest that my wife is an immigration lawyer?
Mr Whiteman, when you last came before us, we had not seen the publication of John Vine’s report. You were the first to issue a statement after the report was published, and I think you said that it made "stark reading", and to quote you: "The Independent Chief Inspector’s report demonstrates the significant failings that occurred". We welcomed your appointment last year as someone who had come from outside the service, who had joined the UKBA, and we accept your assurances that you were trying to make things better. Were you as disappointed as we were about the findings of the Chief Inspector?
Rob Whiteman: Of course, Chairman, it was a very stark report, setting out as it did the events of last year, when the Case Resolution Directorate concluded its work and handed over to the CAAU. I had given evidence to you when I joined UKBA in the following September and then in December that I believed there would be lessons for the Agency to draw upon in relation to the way the legacy had been dealt with and that the controlled archive possibly controlled live cases, but we welcome John Vine’s report. It is better that we know what went wrong at the time, in order that we can test that the measures we are now putting in place and in order to make sure it does not happen again will be sustained. As I have said to you on previous committees, I think the fundamental problem is that parts of the Agency produced their own figures, and in the way that we have now created the PCU, we believe that we are creating a form of independent validation and assurance.
Q51 Chair: Let us examine that. One of the questions I put to him was, "How is it possible that you could discover that there were 100,000 unopened letters in 150 boxes in Liverpool, and that Rob Whiteman and other senior figures could not have discovered that? How is it possible that a Chief Inspector, coming from outside, knows more about the Agency than the people sitting on the executive board?" This information clearly came, as he told us, from front-line people in your service. That is a failing that is now; it is not a historic failing under Lin Homer, is it?
Rob Whiteman: The report primarily deals with what took place last summer in July 2011. Actually, Chairman, in the way that we are now creating a very full picture of the work of the Agency, I believe that much of the information that Mr Vine will be able to draw upon in future will come from us. You will know that the Home Secretary has asked Mr Vine to look at the performance and compliance unit in order to make sure that it is fit for purpose in the way that we want it to be, and I believe that much of the evidence in time will be from us.
Q52 Chair: Yes, but should this not be your board? You have senior people sitting on that board who are responsible to Ministers, and Ministers are responsible to the House about what is happening. Ministers do not have day-to-day operational control over the UKBA. We have people like you, Jonathan Sedgwick, Mr Oppenheim and others. Are you telling this Committee that you are satisfied that in his next report he is not going to say, "Well, I have had a look and I have found that there are indeed unopened letters at the moment in any of the sections of UKBA."? Have you put in place the mechanism of tracing where these files are?
Rob Whiteman: Yes, a couple of things there. First of all, Chairman, we are in the process of creating a new board.
Q53 Chair: As of when?
Rob Whiteman: When I took over the Agency, I believe I inherited some people with energy for the future, but we have been out to advertisement for three directors.
Chair: All right. Which posts are you advertising? You came exactly a year ago.
Rob Whiteman: I am sorry I cannot give the name on this occasion; it is going through final clearances. We are about to announce a Director of Immigration and Settlement, which is the board-level role responsible for this area. We are about to announce a new Director of Enforcement and Crime. We have made an outstanding appointment with a senior figure from policing in order to lead our crime and enforcement operations. We have also made a very strong external appointment, all three being external to the Agency, for our new Director of Resources and Organisational Development, so we will have those board positions, those directors, in place in the new year, and I think that the new board will be much stronger than that that I inherited.
Q54 Chair: Your view is you have changed the senior management and therefore we will get better results, but Mr Vine’s view is, in the report that he has given us, that it is the front-line services who have given him this information. This 100,000 unopened letters does not come from members of the board. It comes from those who are on the front line, who met Mr Vine. Are you confident that you and others are going out to meet the people who are doing this work and they are telling you what is wrong with the service?
Rob Whiteman: Yes, indeed. Over the last two months, I have conducted 23 sessions with staff. They are called viewpoint sessions. They have ranged from groups of 300 to 1,500. We have held 23 sessions within the country. I did every single one, a three-hour session of questions and answers with staff. We have held 24 sessions overseas, and senior managers have held those in posts, and we have heard a huge amount from staff about the opportunities for making our work right, as well as the problems that they face.
As well as creating a new board, Chairman, I would stress again the importance of the new corporate capacity that we have put in place. Management information used to be dealt with by every part of the Agency. They dealt with their own figures. In the run-up to a Home Affairs Select Committee they would generate figures that would be consolidated into the report. We now have a centralised strategy and intelligence directorate. We have taken performance staff from all the bits across the Agency-
Q55 Chair: So there are many structural changes?
Rob Whiteman: And created a performance and compliance unit that gives assurance to any numbers that you see.
Q56 Chair: Very good. Let us go on to the one promise you made, and to other members who will come in now. You came before the Committee last year and you made me a promise, which you appear to have kept, which is that the controlled archive would be closed by 31 December. I think I owe you a cup of tea or a mince pie as a result of you keeping your promise.
Rob Whiteman: I will gladly accept both. Thank you, Chair.
Q57 Chair: You have come up with some very interesting figures, because when we published our last report you said you would close the controlled archive. As we know, the report arrived today. However, in the controlled archive-which of course is not controlled to this extent, because there were some live cases already in that controlled-in the dead files, we found some live cases. You found 6,000 on 18 September as the result of the first wave of work that you had done. Since 18 September, you will have now closed an additional 72,000 files, yes?
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Q58 Chair: How many live cases have you found in the 72,000 files that you now have closed that are absolutely dead?
Rob Whiteman: In total, of the asylum work, we now have live files totalling 33,900.
Chair: Sorry, I know that. I will come to those figures in a moment. Other members of the Committee will. I am talking about the astonishing speed with which you have cleared this backlog, which delights the Committee because we do not like backlogs, and I know you do not like backlogs. On 18 September, you came before this Committee and said, in the dead files, which you call the controlled archive-we will just call them dead files for the moment, or we maybe should call it purgatory because it is in between death and life-you found 6,000 live files in the dead files, on 18 September.
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Q59 Chair: As of today, since you have closed the rest, the thousands of other files, in the last seven weeks you have closed over 12,000 files a week. If you cleared completely-do you understand where I am going?
Rob Whiteman: I do.
Chair: On 18 September, you said you had found 6,000 live cases.
Rob Whiteman: Which I think, at the time, put the total to about 28,000.
Chair: Forget about the total; I am talking about what you found. You found 6,000 live files in the dead files that you looked at, but since 18 September you have closed 12,000 files a week; fantastic performance. How many live cases did you find since 18 September, which were sitting in the controlled archive, which people thought were dead but in fact were live?
Rob Whiteman: I am afraid I don’t have the figure to hand, and the reason for that is, Chairman, as I said to you last time, the cases that we were about to close after my last appearance up to 21 November, we had done a great deal of work on them already.
Chair: We understand that. Yes.
Rob Whiteman: In fact, we had already gone through them all at least once, and so, of course, the live files that we had found were in relation to the files that we were about to close after making a second check.
Q60 Chair: Sorry, Mr Whiteman, that is not what you told me. In April this year, you discovered-we discovered-that contrary to your public statements, "No tracing programme has been carried out on cases in the controlled archive". You are telling me that, since 18 September, no live cases have been found, even though in the report you have given us today you say that 3,077 cases were run against the Police National Computer and were returned with a positive hit, and they, therefore, must have information that relates to where these people are. Within this group you list people on the PNC for non-criminal reasons, such as owning a firearms licence, and 24 people who had an impending prosecution. You say that 1,468 cases returned a hit on the Police National Computer, which showed the individuals to have a conviction that pre-dated 2011. Are you saying there is information on the Police National Computer that is not related to living people or people who can be traced? On the report you have given us today, we seem to be missing about 4,400 people.
Rob Whiteman: No, that is not the case, Chairman. What we have given you today is our own assurance report, which sets out the two sets of checks that we have made on all of these cases before closure against the Warnings Index, the Police National Computer and a range of databases, as I have written to the Committee about before. The assurance process that we went through in order to make sure that any files we were closing were in line with those criteria. We asked Deloitte to make sure that our assurance process was correct.
Chair: Yes. We will come on to the Deloitte report in a minute.
Rob Whiteman: What we are saying in some of those cases, we are giving you the exceptions in order that there is absolute and full transparency. We are giving you the exceptions of how we did that closure programme. There were some records where we did not have sufficient name or other details. In other words, there was very poor data quality, where it was not possible to match them against the Police National Computer, the PNC. Wherever there are names and good data quality, we have carried out the checks in full. We have given you transparently where there was poor data quality.
Q61 Chair: Finally on this, so that we are absolutely clear, as of 18 September, you found 6,000 live cases in the cases that you had closed. Since 18 September, you have found no new live cases. When we published our last report, the Minister for Immigration was on breakfast television, saying that the cases would be looked at, studied carefully, monitored and then put to one side, after you could not find the people. You are telling me that no new live cases have been found since 18 September?
Rob Whiteman: I am not telling you that, Chairman.
Q62 Chair: How many have been found?
Rob Whiteman: I have tried three times to say that is exactly not what I have said.
Chair: How many have been found?
Rob Whiteman: When we closed, the final live tally for asylum cases is 33,000. I am very sorry, but I cannot remember what the tally was in September after we had found the additional 6,000. In the final closure, we did find some more live cases.
Chair: How many more?
Rob Whiteman: I do not have that figure to hand, and I will gladly supply it to the Committee.
Chair: Could it be 3,500? You wrote to us and you said 3,500. Could it be the 3,500?
Rob Whiteman: I will refer-
Q63 Chair: Mr Whiteman, with all the great people you have on your board, you must have expected a question from the Home Affairs Select Committee, which would have been phrased, "You have closed all these files once and for all-hooray-but how many live cases did you find in them?" That must have been a question that would have been uppermost in your mind.
Rob Whiteman: It is, and the live cases we found in there total 33,000 on closing the archive, and I am referring to my letter but I do not believe I give a figure.
Chair: Sorry, 33,000? On the closure of the controlled archive, you found 33,000 live cases?
Rob Whiteman: In total, over the lifetime of its closure. You will remember, Chairman, that in the past I have advised you of the live cohort. At one stage, it stood at 21,000, and then 25,000. The final tally of the number of live cases is 33,000, or 33,900 asylum cases, and 7,000 from the migration archive. What that means, if I could just be clear on this is, to run it down, where there were once half a million legacy cases that we said would be closed, that came down to around 126,000 cases, where we said they were in the controlled archive. In other words, of the 126,000 cases that were in the two archives, both asylum and migration-
Chair: We understand, Mr Whiteman.
Rob Whiteman: The live cases are now 40,000. That half a million-plus now stands at 40,000.
Q64 Chair: We understand that perfectly, and you are not responsible for anything that went on in the past. I accept that. I have asked you, what is the figure since 18 September? Would you please tell us? Write to us and give us the live cases that you have found in the controlled archive since you last gave evidence to us. That is all I want to know.
Rob Whiteman: I will gladly do so, and I have given you the final figure, Chairman.
Chair: That is over the lifetime of the controlled archive.
Rob Whiteman: I will also give you the figure of what happened in the final movement.
Q65 Chair: Excellent. That is very helpful. You understand why we are concerned about numbers here, because this is immigration, but also because your predecessor did not give us the figures and had to come before this Committee and apologise, though she subsequently wrote and she said the figures were contained in a footnote in a letter she sent in 2008, which is not acceptable to this Committee. As you said in your response to John Vine, it is unacceptable to give information to a Select Committee that is not accurate, and you accepted that.
Rob Whiteman: I accept it in full, Chairman, and I would like to add my apology to that of Mrs Homer and Mr Sedgwick for what happened. I have said to you in writing that I believe this was not deliberate on the part of the Agency.
Chair: You did.
Rob Whiteman: I hope I can give you some assurance now that the processes that we put in place and the transparency with which we are giving you all the information means that you really should feel assured that on this occasion the records have been closed properly.
Chair: Thank you. We are grateful for that assurance.
Q66 Mr Winnick: The controlled archives have been closed, Mr Whiteman, yes?
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Q67 Mr Winnick: They have been closed, and it has been confirmed in the letter you wrote to us on 21 November, and you wrote a letter dated today, which was on the table as we came in. Can I just go through one or two other names? You see, the controlled archives are closed, the Case Audit and Assurance Unit is open, is it not?
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Q68 Mr Winnick: Yes, so that is around. Asylum cases of the past; that continues?
Rob Whiteman: That is what the CAAU is working on. It is the same thing, Mr Winnick.
Q69 Mr Winnick: It is the same. The Case Resolution Unit, that is the same, is it?
Rob Whiteman: That is the unit that closed last year by July 2011.
Q70 Mr Winnick: These names keep cropping up in contemporary papers. Live asylum cohort: is that closed, open-
Rob Whiteman: Same thing now; in other words, Mr Winnick, all the old asylum cases, the pre-2006 legacy, now stands at 33,000 live asylum cases from those half a million cases, 7,000 migration cases. Those 40,000 live cases are being worked on by the CAAU.
Q71 Mr Winnick: Yes. Just two more that crop up-and if they are closed, you will tell us: migration controlled archives?
Rob Whiteman: The migration archive is closed, yes.
Q72 Mr Winnick: And Migration Refusal Unit?
Rob Whiteman: No, that is something new, and I will gladly move on to that if you wish me to.
Chair: We will come on to that in a minute.
Q73 Mr Winnick: That is another category. What I am asking you is, with all these names that have cropped up over the last few years, which I accept you are not directly responsible for some of the designations and the units that were set up within the organisation, could you now tell us precisely which exist? We know that the Case Audit and Assurance Unit is in existence; you have told the Chair, yes?
Rob Whiteman: That is correct, Mr Winnick.
Mr Winnick: That is one. What other ones?
Rob Whiteman: All the other units that you mentioned were in the past and/or have now closed. If it helps, the Agency deals with two things, Mr Winnick. We deal with flow, new work that is coming into the system, and we deal with stock. In terms of older cases, we have now reduced all of those controlled archives to 40,000 cases, which we will now work on. While it has been very difficult closing the archives and we welcome John Vine’s report, it is good that we have closed them, because really what you want to hold me to account for are the 40,000 cases we will deal with, and they are complex cases. What does the Agency do with the 3.5 million new cases that we receive a year? As I have said to you in previous committees, it is absolutely our intention to stabilise performance this year in order that as new work comes through the system, which includes adding cases to the Migration Refusals Pool, we deal with inflow in an effective way. I do think it is a positive thing that we have closed the controlled archives because, as I have said to you on previous occasions, we had over 100 staff tied up with dealing with the controlled archives, and we now want to move on to making sure that we are up to date with new work as it comes in and that we provide a much speedier service than we have done in the past, and I think the closure of the archives is an important stepping stone from how we have worked in the past to how we intend to work in the future.
Q74 Mr Winnick: But Parliament wants to hold you to account-this Committee and Parliament as a whole-over the cases that are outstanding, whichever name is given. Controlled archives over so many years is now finished, but nevertheless we have the Case Audit and Assurance Unit. What that means to ordinary people outside, heaven knows. I wonder if it would not be far better-I do not know if the Minister or the Secretary of State ever asked you the question that I am now going to ask you. Why isn’t all this simply seen as a backlog and defined as such? Why these names? The total backlog in migration cases and asylum cases. Surely, that would be the easiest way of going about matters, without these names.
Rob Whiteman: I see. I am sorry. If it would help you-
Mr Winnick: I think it would help Parliament, and I think it would help-
Rob Whiteman: I will refer to it as a backlog of asylum work. That is clearly what it is. They are cases from pre-2006, and we are very pleased to now have that backlog of older cases down to 33,000 asylum cases from the half a million where it once stood, and we think that is a positive thing that we have the pre-2006 backlog down to that level in order that we can now concentrate on being much more effective with new work as it comes in.
Q75 Mr Winnick: As I am sure you recognise without any doubt at all, immigration-be it asylum or otherwise-is a very sensitive issue, to say the least, among the general public. It is also a matter of great concern, obviously, to this Committee, what is being done to clear up the backlog, and it would be far better, in my view, and you seem to take the point, that everything should be explained in ordinary English without terms like Case Audit and Assurance Unit, which, for the life of me, I doubt the average person and the average Member of Parliament would understand for one moment. Can I ask you this question? If you were asked by the Minister-but I will ask you this question-how many cases in either category, migration or asylum, go back further than three years?
Rob Whiteman: It is a question I am asked a great deal. In asylum work, we have the cases that I just described. Of course, in the current asylum work, which is called the asylum WIP, the asylum work in progress, three years for some work would not be considered a backlog. Dealing with some asylum claims, by the time that we receive the application and it goes through judicial processes and we receive it-
Mr Winnick: So, three years is a short amount of time?
Rob Whiteman: While we are dealing ever more quickly with asylum claims, we are logging claims and dealing with claims in the first instance, 50% of them within 30 days, but it is not unusual for some asylum work to take three years, and that would not be considered unusual.
Q76 Mr Winnick: Can I tell you, Mr Whiteman, people come and see me at my surgery-I made the point in previous sessions, not three years-they say, "Look, my case has been going on since 1999." I know it is the previous Government; present Government does not seem to make any difference in respect to these people all continuing to wait. It is not three years. In many cases, as I say, it goes back to the final years of the past century, and that continues to be the position. That is a question.
Rob Whiteman: I think, in cases that are that old, Mr Winnick, the case will be that, clearly, for it to be that old, we have considered that asylum does not apply, and of course what happens with very old cases is that people have multiple rights of appeal through the judicial system. The Agency’s position is that we only grant asylum where we think it is valid. We do not grant asylum because people have taken significant legal challenge to the Agency’s decisions over the years.
Q77 Mr Winnick: Yes, I am sorry to interrupt, Mr Whiteman, but the replies that I get from the UKBA say nothing of the kind. They say the cases are being considered, and these are cases that go back 10 years or more.
Rob Whiteman: But of course what will happen, Mr Winnick, is people put fresh applications in. What the Agency must be held to account for is that, as we receive applications, we deal with them. If a case is 10 years old, it is not that we have taken 10 years to deal with it. It is that people have made multiple applications, we will have a new application to deal with, and we will deal with it as quickly as we can.
Chair: We will come on to that later. Thank you, Mr Whiteman. That is very helpful. We will come back to that.
Q78 Karl Turner: I want to ask you about sponsor notifications, please, Mr Whiteman. The Home Secretary has said recently that since August you have received 90,000 notifications about international students who may no longer have the right to remain in the UK. How many of these have been followed up?
Rob Whiteman: Referring, if I may, to the John Vine report briefly, into Tier 4, John Vine made many positive comments in his report about the way that we are dealing with sponsorship and decision quality, which we welcome acknowledgement that we are going in the right direction. He did say in his report that there were 123,000 notifications as at the time he was writing the report. Those were followed up and they have been dealt with. What has happened now is a new amount of work that has come in, and, as the Home Secretary has said, since we revoked London Metropolitan University, we have had some 90,000 notifications from different institutions that they may have students where we should consider their details here. Of those 90,000, we are now working through them. We are creating a new team in the new year in the Liverpool area, which involves some DVLA staff who are transferring over, and those 90,000 notifications that we have received we will have processed by the end of March in terms of triaging them, making a decision on, "Is this important information or less important information?" The ones that then go through to being considered for curtailment we will act upon, but initially all those notifications will be considered by the end of March.
Q79 Karl Turner: Mr Vine also mentioned his concerns about resources as well. He said he did not think you had enough resource to assess all the sponsor notifications you received. What resources do you have now in place?
Rob Whiteman: As I cover in my letter to you, looking at the information I just gave you in my most recent letter, for Tier 2 sponsor applications, we received 3,000; Tier 4, we received 121 applications to be sponsors; Tier 5, 670 in the year to date for the quarter that I report to you. We have a team in Sheffield, the Sponsor Management Team, which deals with those applications. They deal with applications to be a sponsor; the numbers that I have just given you, Mr Turner. Of course, those sponsors then provide information to us. They give us notifications of actions. The job of the team is to process licence applications, carry out visits-we often visit, as I give you in my letter-and then we receive notices from sponsors. Because student notifications are greater than we expected, the London Metropolitan decision led to a great many notifications coming through. We have created an additional team. It is going to have up to 45 staff. We are recruiting that at the moment. We are transferring some staff over from DVLA. That will be up and running in the new year in the Liverpool area, and that will help the curtailments get up to date.
Chair: Excellent; thank you.
Q80 Bridget Phillipson: Mr Whiteman, turning to Rule 35, if I could, 231 reports under Rule 35 were made by the Agency in the third quarter of this year, but only 13 individuals were subsequently released, and the figures are very similar for the two previous quarters. Could you explain to the Committee why so few individuals are being released?
Rob Whiteman: We take Rule 35 very seriously, Ms Phillipson. Everybody who enters detention is given a health screening. In effect, that is rather akin to the primary care services that one would get from a GP. If the medical practitioner believes that there are mental health issues that he or she is not able to deal with, then they are referred to specialist NHS mental health services. At times, this may include people being sectioned. Where there are concerns around mental health, we do get these Rule 35 reports. I would say identifying 27 people in one quarter or 14 people in one quarter or 13 people in another quarter shows that we are taking this seriously and that we do identify people with mental-health problems who we decide no longer to detain. Put bluntly, the number of referrals, the number of people who claim mental health issues, is much higher than the number of people that we are advised have mental health issues by medical practitioners, so there are claims made around mental health that we disagree with when they are case-worked.
Q81 Bridget Phillipson: Do you mean that doctors, therefore, just refer anybody in? You only have to claim you have mental health problems, and the doctor would just accept that and make a Rule 35 recommendation?
Rob Whiteman: People can also refer themselves for consideration by our case worker, so the case worker may have information from a medical practitioner. They may have information from the applicant themselves. The applicant’s lawyers may have written to the case worker. The case workers receive 231 Rule 35 reports in that quarter, or they make 231 Rule 35 assessments, and the number where we have released from detention is 13. The assurance I would give you is that is not the end of it. There will be cases within these figures where people apply again for reconsideration. We do take this very seriously, and the fact that every quarter we do release some people where they deem that they should not be held in detention for immigration purposes I hope demonstrates how seriously we take it.
We are improving our processes as well. In October of this year, we gave new guidance on Rule 35. This has involved training in all our immigration removal centres, and the training involves healthcare representatives as well as our own staff, so this is clearly an area that we do take very seriously, and indeed have just issued fresh guidance and training to everybody involved.
Q82 Bridget Phillipson: Just turning to a separate issue briefly, if I may, in terms of asylum applications, female success rates at appeal remain consistently higher than those of men. Could you identify what reasons there may be for that?
Rob Whiteman: No. I don’t have any reasons here. It is a figure that we look at. We are conscious of that, and therefore we do ask our case workers to consider whether there are any differential factors that we are not taking into account. As I have just said to you with mental health issues, we are frequently updating our guidance and we discuss these issues. Within our own quality assurance systems, we have a matrix of scoring our decision quality. That is on an upward trend, so at the moment-when a case is reviewed-we are hitting 85% where, allowing for all the factors in a decision, at least 85% of them are clearly being taken into account. It does not mean only 85% of decisions are right. It means the decision quality is that 85% of all factors have clearly been taken into account in the decision. Please be assured, Ms Phillipson, in terms of our decision-quality matrix and how we make sure we are taking sound decisions, we do take gender, sexual orientation and indeed issues of mental health into account.
Q83 Bridget Phillipson: But it would suggest, because there is a discrepancy between the appeal rates, and given that men outnumber women two to one in applications, there is perhaps a problem still with the initial decision-making process. If we accept that, could I ask what guidance or training is offered to staff when their decisions are overturned on appeal? I appreciate staff make decisions in good faith and sometimes information comes to light subsequently, but where there is a suggestion that the initial decision was not the right one, are staff given any guidance or training to try to prevent this happening in future?
Rob Whiteman: Indeed. One of the loops that we have worked very hard to close over the last year or so is the information that we get from appeals, where appeals are allowed and our view is dismissed, and how we feed that back in to case workers. Every region of the country, until the summer, had their own appeals team as well as their own asylum teams, and the creation of a new appeals command-a national appeals and litigation command-is working on this very point of decision quality, so where we are losing appeals, we are feeding that back to case workers, both here and overseas.
Chair: Very helpful.
Rob Whiteman: I know, Chairman, you always take a great interest in decision quality overseas. For example, in our Beijing post, we have seen appeals allowed fall from around 50% to 13% in a year because of this very point that we are feeding back to case workers within the country and clearance officers overseas much better than we have before about appeal decisions.
Chair: Indeed; that is very helpful. Thank you.
Q84 Mark Reckless: While we are there, congratulations on that work. On your website, you say your target for processing in-country Tier 1 applications for further leave to remain is to complete 90% within four weeks, yet in a reply on 2 November this year to a Freedom of Information request, UKBA said that 58% of further leave to remain applications made between January and June are still outstanding. Is this a new backlog building up?
Rob Whiteman: I am pleased to say, Mr Reckless, it is coming down fast. The figures were going in the wrong way for us, and the reason-
Q85 Chair: Sorry, could we have that in numbers, rather than "coming down fast" or "going in the wrong direction"? What are the numbers?
Rob Whiteman: I will just get the figures for you, if you will bear with me, Chair. Sorry, I had started to look for something else. I am sorry; I don’t have those figures to hand. I will answer the question. Earlier in the year, Mr Reckless, we had some spike in work in temporary migration around policy changes that took place to settlement routes, and that did lead to an increase in work, more than we had modelled for.
Chair: You will let us have the figures? Not today. Would you write to us with the figures? We know you do not have them.
Rob Whiteman: I will do, yes.
Q86 Mark Reckless: Just a quick follow-up; also, on your website, you say you are currently working on applications made on or before 4 August. Is that correct, and anyone who has applied since 4 August, there has been no consideration of their case at all?
Rob Whiteman: On Tier 4, we are working on applications received on 7 November, and on Tier 1 applications, again, I will write to the Committee with the date of those. If I may, Chair, I do know you want the figures, but we have been through all of the figures recently in temporary migration. Where Tier 4-I said earlier, in answer to-would be up to date-Tier 1 will be up to date for January, and I will write to you with those figures.
Q87 Chair: Sorry, Mr Whiteman. The reason why we press you for numbers is because we do not want you to be in the same position as Lin Homer, coming back and apologising to us. Descriptions are great, but it is immigration. Figures are important. Write to us with the figures. We would be delighted to receive them.
Can I just ask about international students? A number of presidents of NUSes throughout the country have contacted this Committee because there are hundreds of international students who are trapped in the UK over Christmas because their passports are with the UKBA and they do not have their leave completed. This is a major problem for a lot of people coming here, especially after what the Home Secretary said last week about overseas students. What are we going to do about getting their passports back before 25 December, so they can spend their Christmas with their families?
Rob Whiteman: We are returning the passports, Chairman.
Q88 Chair: All of them? So they will all be done by Christmas day?
Rob Whiteman: At the moment, we are providing a 72-hour service and a 24-hour service for really urgent ones, where people had flights. We have improved that.
Chair: Christmas day is next Tuesday.
Rob Whiteman: All applications that we are receiving at the moment to return the passport we are processing within one day. All applications that we receive to return the passport by 20 December we will act upon.
Chair: "Act upon" is not, "I will give their passports back." Can you tell this Committee-
Rob Whiteman: I will confirm that all applications we receive by the 20th to have a passport back, we will return the passport.
Chair: On the 20th?
Rob Whiteman: Within a day of the 20th, we will-
Chair: So, the 21st? One day after the 20th is the 21st, normally.
Rob Whiteman: We will dispatch within 24 hours of receiving the application.
Chair: Excellent. That will reassure all the students who are watching avidly these proceedings.
Q89 Steve McCabe: Just on passports, Mr Whiteman, the Agency has an unfortunate habit of losing people’s passports. Why do you think this happens?
Rob Whiteman: As I said in an earlier answer, people make different applications for different products at different times. People may apply for a student visa and then apply for asylum, may come across our enforcement teams, and therefore different parts of the Agency are dealing with the case at any one stage. We are working very hard on this, so a central record on our record management system of where passports are being held, in order that one part of the business can know if a passport is being held for another purpose. We have worked very hard on that.
Steve McCabe: That central record now exists?
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Q90 Steve McCabe: Yes. It is just that I would have thought that in an Agency that specialises in immigration, a passport would be quite a high-value item. Can I ask specifically on that, how many passports have been lost this year, and how many people have you had to contact to say, "Sorry, we have lost your passports and your documents while you have been in the queue awaiting your further leave to remain application to be decided"?
Rob Whiteman: I am very sorry, Mr McCabe; I do not have figures on that.
Q91 Steve McCabe: Now that you have the central record, will you be carrying out a check like that so that we will know?
Rob Whiteman: I was not expecting that question. I am very sorry. I will write to the Committee with details of that.
Chair: If you could, because we are very keen to know how many passports and documents have been lost. You can provide us that information in writing; excellent.
Q92 Steve McCabe: Can I just finally ask you on a separate issue, about employee sponsors, do you think you carry out enough pre-registration checks with employee sponsors? I think you do about 25%. Is that right?
Rob Whiteman: Yes. In the figures I provided to the Committee in the year to date for the three quarters to the end of September 2012, we carried out 604 pre-registration visits on Tier 2 and 36 pre-registration visits on Tier 5. At the same time, we carry out post-registration visits. For Tier 2, we carried out 4,698 post-registration visits in the year to date, and on Tier 5, we carried out 360 post-registration visits for the year to date, including within those post-registration visits a number of unannounced visits, and 38% of Tier 2 post-registration visits that we carry out are unannounced, which we think is part of the tools that we have to hand.
Q93 Steve McCabe: I asked this because this is a controversial issue for the Government. Some people accuse the Government of not letting enough people in under this scheme, and others claim that too many people are able to slip through; a difficult one to win on. I am just wondering, do you carry out enough checks for you to be confident that the public can have confidence in what you are doing?
Rob Whiteman: Yes. We think that the numbers of checks we carry out at all stages in terms of pre-licence applications and post-registration visits is right.
Steve McCabe: So you are satisfied?
Rob Whiteman: I think that is borne out by the fact that we do suspend and revoke licences in the year to date for 2012-
Q94 Steve McCabe: Sure, but it is all about numbers. I know you suspend and revoke licences, but if you are only looking at roughly 25%, I am just trying to be confident that you are looking at enough for us to have faith in the system. That is why I am asking.
Rob Whiteman: Yes. As you say, Mr McCabe, it is an important balance to get right. We wish good employers to be able to start up quickly and create jobs, and to be able to bring foreign nationals where it is appropriate and those skills are required. The Agency takes growth very seriously. We are an immigration agency that also wishes to tackle abuse, and therefore we take a focused approach to those employers where we will carry out both pre-licence visits and post-registration visits, and the figures bear out that in the year to date. For 2012, for the three quarters, we have suspended some 469 Tier 2 sponsors and revoked 252 sponsors, and on Tier 5, 36 and 20 respectively, so I think we are getting the balance right of helping business to set up and receive licences where that is right, but we are carrying out a significant number of visits and we are also revoking licences where we think that is appropriate.
Steve McCabe: Okay; thank you.
Chair: Very helpful.
Q95 Michael Ellis: Mr Whiteman, do you know what I think? I think that possibly some cautious congratulations may be in order to you and your department, because I think it was the Labour Home Secretary, John Reid, who said, as long ago as May 2006, that your department was not fit for purpose. That is right, is it not? Would you say you are moving it now towards it being at least fit for some of its purposes? Is that the case that you are making this afternoon to this Committee?
Rob Whiteman: I think what I would say is that the Agency still has a long way to go, but because we have stabilised performance, we have closed the controlled archives, we are getting Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 5 up to date, that there is some optimism on our part that some of the changes we want to make in the next year and we are putting in place at the moment will see big improvements. The Home Secretary announced last week that next year we will carry out, in a full year, up to 100,000 extra interviews overseas in order to test the credibility of people coming through the flow.
Q96 Michael Ellis: These are interviews that are going to take place overseas, before people come to this country?
Rob Whiteman: Indeed, Mr Ellis. We think that is very important that we are doing it. At the same time, here in London, for example, we have doubled the number of arrest staff. We have recently recruited another 120 arrests team staff in London. The work that we are carrying out with the Metropolitan Police in the nine-week period since Operation Nexus was launched in October saw that, of the 43,000 people the Metropolitan Police arrested, some 28% of them were foreign nationals. We identified this because we have UKBA staff in 22 custody suites.
Q97 Michael Ellis: It is good to identify them, but are you doing more than just identifying them?
Rob Whiteman: Of those identified, we put 282 in detention, of which half have already been removed, and these are foreign national offenders. I hope, Mr Ellis, to answer your question. What you see is utter transparency that there have been problems with the Agency and the steps we are taking to try to deal with that, but getting on to a better footing for the work that we are going into next year.
Q98 Michael Ellis: So, you will accept my cautious congratulations?
Rob Whiteman: I will gladly accept them, sir; thank you.
Q99 Michael Ellis: There is more work to be done, though, is there not?
Rob Whiteman: There is indeed.
Q100 Michael Ellis: You have a highly competent ministerial team now to support you, but what I want to ask you about is a question that I have asked you about before. This is about ex-national offenders. This is a serious issue. I have asked you about this before. There are still 96% of the ex-foreign national offenders that were released in the third quarter of this year who still had their deportation cases outstanding at the end of the quarter. Why is it that we have ex-foreign national offenders, people who are not welcome in this country, who have abused their position in this country to commit offences and who are undesirable? Why are they not being deported more quickly?
Rob Whiteman: I thank you for the question, Mr Ellis. I have set out to the Committee before some of the challenges. We do have problems of judges releasing cases that we would rather not see released. Some 80% of what we call the non-detained foreign national offenders we would prefer to hold in detention, but courts release them. When people are released, it can be that some countries are difficult to remove to.
Q101 Michael Ellis: Sorry, Mr Whiteman. Is it all about the judges? If it is all about the judges, then say so, because I appreciate that if you are bringing them before the courts and the judges are saying, "We are not going to deport them," or, "We are not going to put them in custody," that is not your fault. You cannot overrule the judges. But it is not all about the judges, is it?
Rob Whiteman: No, and if I may just set out some of the more positive improvements that are taking place at the moment, first of all we are identifying a new process with NOMS. The Committee has brought to my attention in the past your concerns that foreign nationals need to be identified as quickly as possible when they enter prison. We are now providing a UKBA team to check the nationality of everybody entering into the prison estate in order that we can identify cases. We are making progress with countries where we have had difficulty receiving documents.
Q102 Michael Ellis: Which are the main countries?
Rob Whiteman: Mr Ellis, we have made a great deal of progress recently with Pakistan, for example. We have a memorandum of understanding where our counterparts, our colleagues in Pakistan, have put additional resources into the High Commission, and we are receiving more and quicker documentation, which we believe is welcome. I mentioned to you Operation Nexus in the Met, where we are catching foreign national offenders because we are putting people into custody suites.
I also believe, Mr Ellis, that we have recently seen some criticisms of the senior judiciary for legal firms making late applications to remove people from charter flights, which are spurious, or more spurious, and we have had cases recently where the senior judiciary have been very critical of legal firms for doing that.
Michael Ellis: I appreciate that.
Rob Whiteman: There are a number of factors where we think we can show you that some progress in these very difficult and complex areas is taking place.
Q103 Michael Ellis: I, for one, accept that point. We have seen some very high-profile deportation cases indeed; some last-minute delaying tactics by firms of solicitors. Of course, judges can always issue costs orders where they find that a frivolous application has been made, and that might have an effect. Perhaps lawyers acting for the UKBA might wish to make applications for costs orders against solicitors who are later found to have made spurious applications. Perhaps those applications would dry up a little bit.
Just finally from me, the Civil Service is telling me that over 3,000 ex-foreign national offenders are living in the community, awaiting deportation. Does that marry up with your figures?
Rob Whiteman: It does. These are figures that we have provided to the Committee where we are still monitoring people and holding them under very often quite restrictive leave, and what happens in those cases, Mr Ellis-our position, the position of the Home Office and UKBA-is that if there are people we cannot return at the moment because the conditions in the country do not allow it, we will continue to monitor those cases and act upon them.
A Sierra Leonean was in the country for 17 years. This involved 71 adjudications against him while he was in prison, dirty protests whenever removal was attempted, but actually, while originally there had been the civil war that did not allow return to Sierra Leone, he is now out. He is back. It may have taken those years while the conditions changed, but I think the message I would give is, please be assured that the Border Agency and the Home Office are absolutely determined not to let the barriers of removal mean that serious foreign national offenders are not deported when we get the opportunity to do so. Only last week, we returned a Portuguese national; very difficult circumstances. Every one of these cases can be difficult. It took six escorts of medics to take him to the consulate to get a document. He wouldn’t take his medication, Mr Ellis, for HIV, but we got a document and he is being removed.
Michael Ellis: Thank you very much, Mr Whiteman.
Rob Whiteman: Please be assured that we are absolutely determined on these cases, Mr Ellis.
Q104 Chair: We accept that determination. We will shortly have a backlog of Ministers before us because we are over time, but could you give me a yes/no answer to this? Do you know the current figure for the backlog of putting applications on the UKBA database when people make applications? Did you know that there is a now a backlog of putting the cases on?
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Q105 Chair: Yes. Do you know the figure?
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Chair: Yes. What is it, then?
Rob Whiteman: The figure of cases awaiting to be put on the system stands at around 50,000 cases. That will be up to date by the beginning of March.
Chair: Sorry, there are 50,000 cases that have not yet been put on the database?
Rob Whiteman: Yes. You asked me a straight question. Of course, some of those cases-
Chair: And you gave me a straight and astonishing answer: 50,000.
Rob Whiteman: I would point out some of those cases are very new. We work on the basis that-remember we receive 1 million applications a year.
Q106 Chair: Indeed, but that sounds like a lot, 50,000.
Rob Whiteman: We work on the basis that we want all cases logged on the system within a week.
Chair: That is great, but I am just expressing astonishment at the figure.
Rob Whiteman: Remember, we get a million applications a year.
Chair: Yes, I do, but I just thought 50,000 is a lot.
Rob Whiteman: But I gave you the answer.
Q107 Chair: You did indeed, and I am grateful for that honesty. When you last came before us, you said Serco had won the contract for the Migration Refusal Pool. You were going to give them-
Rob Whiteman: Capita.
Chair: Sorry; Capita. My apologies; Capita. I knew it was one of the two. You were going to give them £40 million. Have you now worked out what you want them to do? You said benchmarks were being worked out.
Rob Whiteman: We have initially-
Chair: Is it done?
Rob Whiteman: Yes.
Q108 Chair: Excellent. Good. Finally, in respect of the intelligence database, which Damian Green spoke about when he last came before us, is that up and running? People can now make complaints and they can be dealt with.
Rob Whiteman: Indeed, and 99% of those allegations are being dealt with within 48 hours.
Q109 Chair: Meaning what? You send an email or you actually find the people?
Rob Whiteman: We consider the intelligence that we have received. We deal with that, 99% of them within 48 hours, and indeed we have made 560 arrests and returns based on information that we have had from the allegations database.
Q110 Chair: Since-
Rob Whiteman: Since it was launched.
Chair: On which day?
Rob Whiteman: I am very careful; I don’t want to give you any incorrect dates or figures, Chair. I will write to you with the exact figures.
Q111 Chair: Finally, following on from what Mr Winnick has said and what John Vine has said in the report, please look at the names that you give to these organisations. When you go into a hospital, you know you go into Accident & Emergency, and if you are about to be very sick, you go to Intensive Care. Could we please have names that match what you are doing, rather than the CAAU or the CRU, or all these other different cohorts? It would be really helpful to the public.
Rob Whiteman: Indeed. I am grateful for your advice, Chairman, and we will look at that.
Chair: Thank you very much. A happy Christmas.
Rob Whiteman: Merry Christmas. Thank you very much for your time.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Mr Mark Harper MP, Minister of State for Immigration, gave evidence.
Q112 Chair: Thank you very much for coming. Did you learn anything new as a result of sitting through the session with your Chief Executive of the UKBA that you did not know before, or do you know all the stuff that he has told the Committee?
Mr Harper: Chairman, fortunately not. I thought it was helpful, particularly since this is my first appearance here, given what has happened in the past, to make it very clear how seriously I take both the Agency and Minister’s accountability to Parliament. I thought it was helpful to sit through the session, listening to the questioning, and you can be reassured to know that many of the questions you asked are ones that I also ask, and I ask almost as vigorously as you do.
Q113 Chair: Excellent. Can I welcome you most warmly to your post as Immigration Minister? We did not see you predecessor as often as we would have liked, but we hope to see you more often because we know, certainly in the conversations I have had with you, that you want to have a very hands-on approach. I am not saying Damian Green did not have a hands-on approach, but I know that you do.
As an accountant with your own accountancy firm before you came into Parliament, you know the value and importance of numbers, so was it a surprise to you when you heard about the John Vine report-basically, that 33,000 cases that ought to have been reported to the Committee were not reported to the Committee-and are you now confident that you have all the figures at your disposal that will enable you to make sure your policy matches the operational arm of the UKBA?
Mr Harper: Mr Chairman, one of the interesting things from a timing perspective, although the timing was not entirely welcome, to have the Vine report on the CAAU and the-by the way, I take completely the Committee’s point about the intelligibility of names of bits of the Agency and names given to pools of work. They are not as clear as they ought to be, and I will take that point and I will try, in what I do, to make sure we are clearer about what we are doing. It was helpful in one respect, though, because I think it demonstrated to me the importance of knowing the numbers, and I take that very seriously. My officials have probably got bored with me asking for numbers to be reconciled so that, when you have a starting point and a finishing point, you know what has happened in between. On the CAAU stuff, I think the numbers are clear.
One of the encouraging things that Rob Whiteman has been doing since he has been Chief Executive is pulling together work across the Agency so that he, his senior management team and the board focus on all of the Agency’s operations, rather than what had tended to happen in the past, which is where the Agency focused on a particular area that happened to be where there was a problem, took its eye off the ball in other areas, and then those other areas then became a problem. The restructuring he has done into the operational commands and cross-cutting parts of the Agency across the business and pulling some of that intelligence, numbers and the data in a consistent way is to try to get that grip across the Agency. It is a lot better than it was. I think I would probably be cautious in saying at this point we know everything there is to know about everything, just because I learned from history the unwisdom of doing so.
Q114 Chair: Indeed. In respect of the figures that you get, I presume you get them on a regular basis. We get them every three months. They usually, incidentally, arrive late, but we practically accept this is the way in which UKBA operates. You get these figures regularly, so you are aware that there is now a backlog of 50,000 cases that have yet to be put on the database, which is a surprise to me.
Mr Harper: Yes. It is just worth remembering, of course, in terms of what Rob was saying, if you get a million applications a year, that is 20,000 a week, so 50,000 is a couple of weeks’ worth that have not been entered. I am not trying to minimise it in terms of the scale.
One of the interesting things, picking up on your point you said to Rob at the beginning, about getting out and about, it is one of the things that I am very keen to do, and in the time that I have been Minister I have been to UKBA’s operations in Croydon three times. I have recently been to Sheffield, so I was able-picking up Mr Reckless’s point-to talk to some of the staff engaged in the temporary migration part of the business. What Rob said was correct. They are out of their service standards there. They have performance plans in each of the parts of the business to get back on track by March, and I was able to talk to some of the operational leads there to look at some of the work they are doing to get back on track, but I very much want to make sure I do get the opportunity to go out and talk to front-line staff to see what is going on in the business.
Q115 Chair: Which is very helpful to the Committee and, I think, to Members of Parliament because you have an operation there. These are senior figures. They are paid a huge amount of money. Some of them even get bonuses. Are you with the Committee on the point that nobody should really get a bonus in the current climate in the UKBA, or do you think that because there are Civil Service rules and they get their bonuses, you do not have a view on it?
Mr Harper: What I would say is this: I am very clear that the performance of the Agency in the past left much to be desired. Clearly, one of the things that we are now doing-we have brought in a new Chief Executive. Rob outlined for you clearly some of the changes he is making in the senior management structure. My view is, if we want to hire good people, which we do, and we want them to do a good job at turning the Agency around and delivering good performance, then we need to pay them properly. If their performance warrants it-and there are clear rules about how this works in the Civil Service-then they should be entitled to bonuses. If their performance is poor, then clearly they should not.
Q116 Chair: Should you not be the judge of that, rather than the Civil Service? Ministers for Immigration have come before this Committee. We have heard from Mr Ellis what John Reid has said about them. Mr Whiteman, to give him credit, has not taken a bonus since he has been Chief Executive, though Lin Homer and Jonathan Sedgwick, who had to come before the Committee recently, had taken bonuses of £30,000 on salaries in excess of £150,000, up to £200,000. It is not that we are sitting here feeling jealous about how much they earn. The fact is the public will want to know that it is going well, and at the moment it is not perfect, is it?
Mr Harper: No, it is not perfect, but I think we want to judge people on what they are doing to run the Agency now, so I would not want to have a blanket rule that said no one can have a bonus. It should be based on their performance. Where the Minister should decide it, it comes back to the same issue about whether Ministers should hire senior civil servants. The danger then is that you blur that line between what Ministers are responsible for and what you are hiring these people for, as you say, on good salaries, to be responsible for the operational performance of those agencies.
Q117 Chair: Let me ask you a couple of questions concerning overall policy. You are different from Immigration Ministers because in the past, certainly when I came into the House, we used to be able to write to Ministers and get a reply from them. I know one or two of my colleagues still write to you exceptionally, but the rest all of course write to Mr Whiteman or to the account manager, who is quite a junior person in an office somewhere in the regions. You do not routinely write back on immigration cases. Do you routinely see Members of Parliament who bring cases to you and ask you, for example, to intervene and overturn decisions abroad?
Mr Harper: I do, and I can say I do routinely write back to Members of Parliament on a range of immigration matters. It is, sadly, not possible for me to write back to all Members of Parliament because I would probably literally do nothing but write letters, but I think I am probably one of the Ministers in Government who writes the largest number of letters to Members of Parliament in response to their queries. Although sometimes it would be tempting not to, I find it very helpful, because reading individual cases-and I have heard some examples from Members today-is a very good test of how the Agency is performing. When Mr Winnick gave some examples of specific cases that date back many years, I read some of those and I look at them, and you do look and them and it is a very salutary lesson about why you need to have an Agency delivering good performance, because I am very conscious that in all of these cases you have real people involved in them.
I have had a number of Members come to see me or speak to me on the phone about individual cases, and I have discovered that my popularity during divisions in my time that I spend in the House has increased hugely from colleagues of all parties wanting to raise individual cases with me. In my previous job, people wanted to raise different sorts of issues with me, but in this one I take those very seriously because I recognise they are about real people-people’s constituents-and I try, where I can, to make sure the Agency does a good job as concerns them.
Q118 Chair: Can I welcome the decision taken by the Home Secretary and yourself to have face-to-face interviews abroad? This has been a recommendation of the Select Committee that has been batted back by Ministers over a number of years. We are concerned, though, how you are going to get the person power out into the hubs that you are creating. The Select Committee’s next inquiry is to look at the entry clearance operation, and we will be looking at one of the hubs. We are glad you are doing that. The face-to-face interviews are very important.
In terms of overall immigration policy, do you think there is an optimum size of the United Kingdom, in terms of the numbers of people here?
Mr Harper: No, that is not how we looked at it. You will know, two days after getting my job, we had a debate in the house about the optimum size of the UK. The pledge that the Government has made to the country, the public, is to reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, which we think is a more sustainable figure.
Q119 Chair: Are you on track to do that?
Mr Harper: I think we are. We saw in the figures published at the end of November a very welcome fall of a quarter in net migration, and interestingly, it was not just a fall in the numbers-it was achieving our other policy objectives-so we saw a fall, for example, in the number of student visas, but we saw a welcome increase in the number of students going to our excellent universities. We saw a fall in the number of people coming here to work, but an increase in the number of skilled workers. It is not just about driving down the numbers; it is about being more selective about who comes here. To use the phrase, "to have the best and the brightest", we want smart people coming here to work, we want smart students coming here to study, and of course there is no cap on the number of students that come to our excellent universities, so I think our policy is going in the right direction.
Chair: Excellent; let us move to students.
Q120 Michael Ellis: Neatly on to students, as you mentioned the international student situation. The Government has, as you have already indicated, said that it wants to reduce the number of immigrants from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, and it does not appear to be keen to take students out of the immigration figures. What is stopping you from removing them from your target to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands?
Mr Harper: The figures, of course, are produced by the Office for National Statistics, and they use the internationally agreed definition of a migrant, which is somebody who changes their country of residence for more than a year. Of course, if you take the argument that all of the universities use, which is that students come here, they do their course and then they leave, in the year they make a contribution to net migration, but over time they do not, because they arrive and as they leave, and as a new cohort of students arrives, one lot leaves. But what we found in the past was-the one study that has been done by the Home Office-we know 20% of students are here for five years. We do not know about the other 80%. Quite a lot of students stay to work after their degree course, or they stay here for other reasons. We do not want to hit our target by redefining it and pretending that we are hitting it that way. I do not think the public would find that credible, so I think the numbers need to stay in the system and we need to focus on the best and the brightest coming to our excellent universities.
Q121 Michael Ellis: It would be the easy way out-would it not?-for the Government to seek to redefine or change the goal-posts.
Mr Harper: It would, and I think it would be damaging for two reasons. One, because I think the public would see straight through it, and secondly, it would damage our credibility because people would think we were not being serious about controlling immigration. Students are a very good example. It was a sector largely outside the universities where there was a lot of abuse, and everybody knows there was a lot of abuse, and that is why we have decided to deal with it. What we have demonstrated is you can deal with the abuse and take the abuse out of the system, while still protecting our valuable university sector, and that is what we are trying to do, and I think we have been succeeding.
Q122 Michael Ellis: We want to protect our valuable university sector, and it is very valuable, but there have also been several examples of bogus colleges that the Government has acted against, and in some cases have closed themselves down. Is that right?
Mr Harper: There are a number of sponsors who did not apply to keep their sponsor licence, and then there are people who applied for licences where they were not granted them because we did not think they were delivering on their immigration commitments. That is absolutely the case, and there are something like 500 sponsors no longer on the register that were at some point before. We can see in the figures that that has started to deliver the right outcomes.
Q123 Michael Ellis: So you are quite satisfied that, without having to move any goal-posts in terms of definitions of who is a migrant and who is not, the target of reducing net migration down to tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament is fully achievable?
Mr Harper: Yes, we think we are on track to achieve that.
Q124 Michael Ellis: Do you think there are examples of cases, for example, London Metropolitan University, where it lost its licence, where genuine as well as bogus students had to find another sponsor, and what do you think about that situation?
Mr Harper: I make no apology for the fact that the UK Border Agency revoked London Metropolitan University’s sponsor licence. It was very clear, and it was literally just on the cusp of the change of Ministers. My predecessor announced to the House, either in a statement or a UQ, what had happened, and I, coincidentally, was sitting in the House, not knowing that just a few days later it would be my responsibility, so I am glad I paid attention. One of the things from that, which I have had said to me on a number of occasions, was how the genuine students were impacted, and the arrangements we have put in place now are welcome, where we have allowed all those students that were genuine to finish their course or the academic year, whichever comes first. They have all been written to and asked what they wanted to do, and we have started to work through their responses.
Q125 Michael Ellis: Finally from me, are you satisfied that this robust approach from the Government, where places of further education or higher education have seen that it is possible to lose a licence, if things are not done properly, has resonated throughout that sector?
Mr Harper: Yes, it has, and I have had some very positive meetings with Universities UK, with the Russell Group and also with some individual institutions, and one of the things we are very keen to do is to work with the university sector. They want to comply with their commitments. We want to work with them to help them meet their immigration commitments. We are not trying to catch them out. We are trying to help them comply. They have been very positive about that, and I hope we can improve that co-operative relationship in the coming months.
Michael Ellis: Thank you, Minister.
Q126 Chair: Face-to-face interviews abroad are an essential part of that because, before they even come to the UK, you will know whether they are genuine or not.
Mr Harper: Yes, and some of the piloting we have done on that has demonstrated that there are people where, effectively, the institution is being duped; it is getting people applying for it, but the level of English is not appropriate and the students are not genuine.
Chair: No, we are with you on that. That is our recommendation.
Mr Harper: I think we are completely in agreement.
Q127 Karl Turner: Minister, if the Government’s policy is to attract the brightest and the best to Britain, why is there currently a limit of 1,000 visas for people of exceptional talent?
Mr Harper: This was a new route to come to the UK that we opened up, and we are nowhere near-effectively it is not biting because we have only had, since the limit was opened, this year, 51 applications to come into the country. If we get to the point where 1,000 are biting, we will look at it. It is not going to be a staggeringly high number because, by definition, if talent is exceptional, you are not going to have hundreds of thousands of them, but we set it up as a new route into the country that did not previously exist for people of exceptional talent, and I would encourage people who meet that criteria to apply to come here to work or start businesses. Those are exactly the sort of people we want to come to Britain.
Q128 Karl Turner: What is your definition of exceptional talent?
Mr Harper: The way we have done it is we have a number of organisations-the Royal Society, the Arts Council England, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering-and we have said people they recognise in their fields as being exceptional. The last thing we want is the Government and Ministers trying to pick out in different professions and areas of talent who are exceptional. That would be absurd. It is much better to have expert bodies saying, "Here are the smart people. We think these people are exceptional," and then giving them a route to come to the United Kingdom to work or flourish.
Q129 Mark Reckless: Your Civil Service Director for Immigration and Migration Policy said that the higher education was a bit of a cottage industry and needed to gear up in dealing properly with Tier 4 sponsors. Do you agree with that characterisation or feel it has made any progress in that direction?
Mr Harper: Since I have been coming into the job, I have met with those that represent the universities and a number of institutions themselves. My sense is they take their responsibilities very seriously. The revocation of London Metropolitan University’s sponsor licence, as you discussed earlier with Rob Whiteman, had an effect on universities in terms of their notifications to the Agency of the seriousness with which they take this, but certainly, in the conversations I have had, universities take this very seriously. Most of them do not want people coming to their universities who cannot speak English properly, who are not adequately up to speed to benefit from their study. They want smart people coming to their universities, and the way we take those sponsors on and the way we audit them helps them to comply. We want to work closely with them to keep them up to the mark, and they are very willing to work with us to do so.
Q130 Karl Turner: Do you think what was done with London Met has had a salutary effect on other providers?
Mr Harper: I think it has. For most universities, or for a lot of universities, international students are very important to their student body but also to their financial success, and that was a lesson to them about what could happen if they did not meet their sponsorship requirements. Perhaps if they are ones that did not take that seriously before, they do now, but we want to do is use that to work with them. We have been doing a number of workshops with universities to set out for them what their obligations are and how they can meet them, but we also want them to meet them sensibly. We don’t want them to be so worried about things that they spend an absurd amount of money on it or are notifying us about things they do not need to notify us about, so we very much see a co-regulation approach, which is what they have suggested, where we work with them to help them meet their requirements, as a very sensible one, so that we hit our immigration goals but they also deliver high-quality education to people from around the world, which is to the benefit of our country.
Q131 Mr Winnick: Mr Harper, if I can turn back to what you said to the Chair just for one moment, I welcome what you said about looking at definitions or designations, and I think that would be very useful indeed. I wonder, however, if you could also look into the question of the backlog generally. It would be very helpful, I think, to the public and certainly to this Committee if we knew, for example, the number of applications that go back so many years. I mentioned three years, five years. As you know, Mr Whiteman said that when it comes to asylum, three years does not add up to anything. In other cases, and perhaps also with asylum beyond five years, that would be-I think the Chair would agree-helpful to the Committee.
Mr Harper: Mr Winnick, I am grateful for the question. I was listening very carefully to your discussion with Rob Whiteman. I am very keen on not creating complexity where it does not exist, but just trying to pick a single number and say there is a backlog can mislead as much as it can help people.
Q132 Mr Winnick: I meant the number of years. For example, how many outstanding cases-migration, if we leave aside asylum-go back further than five years, for all kinds of reasons?
Mr Harper: Yes. That, I think, puts your finger on it; I guess you would be measuring it from the very first time someone made an application. Of course, what you do not know is what has happened in between. For example, on asylum, it may be that we have done all the work; we have made a decision that the person is not entitled to asylum; but we cannot remove them from the country because of what is going on in their home country. It may be-and we inherited a number of these, which is, to use the term, "in the Migration Refusal Pool"-cases where we have made a decision, where we have refused somebody leave, and then nothing happened and we did not take any steps to remove them. We have done the work on the decision but we have not taken the steps to deal with the removal and encouraging someone to leave. The danger of just lumping them all together in a big number or looking at an age profile, whether that really tells you anything about the operations of the Agency today and how effectively it is working through the cases.
I am not adverse to looking at how we break the numbers down and how we present them to the Committee, but I think it is important to make sure we present them in a way that is meaningful and also gives you the opportunity to hold both us and the Agency to account for how we then work through those cases and deal with them. I am perfectly open to a discussion with the Committee, and I know when you write to us and ask us for a range of figures, I am perfectly open to thinking about how we can best support you and give you meaningful data that you can then question us on. I am very open to having that debate.
Q133 Chair: That is very helpful, but the issue that Mr Winnick raised, which he has always raised with immigration ministers, is you write a letter, it takes weeks to get a reply, frankly, even letters that go to the head of the UKBA, and he has staff in his office. I have made representations from people who have lost sponsorship licences and other issues, and you just do not get a reply, and people come back and say, "We have come months ago, there is no reply," so I have a separate file called the Mark Harper file, where I am giving you examples. I am not writing to you. I am writing to my account manager because I want the system to work, but I am giving you examples. Who is the client in all of this? It must be the applicant. You worked in your own accountancy firm. You were trained by KPMG. Would KPMG deal with clients who write to them in the same way? People pay very large fees. To get citizenship is £900 now.
Mr Harper: They do, and I think the correspondence issue, which I accept is not as good as it should be, is symptomatic of the performance of the Agency. The fact that the correspondence is not as timely as one would like is symptomatic of the fact there are more cases outstanding than there ought to be and that people are waiting for a long time, and if you are not careful, you end up in a process where, because you have not dealt with someone’s case, they, quite rightly, either write to the Agency themselves or, quite rightly, go to their Member of Parliament. That then generates another piece of work, which then generates some work to respond to.
Chair: Exactly; there is a paper trail.
Mr Harper: I think the real way of dealing with correspondence and the way the Agency interacts with Members of Parliament is to get the day job, the business, under control and working on a more timely basis, and then people will not have to go to their Members of Parliament. They will not feel the need to do that, and things will come back under control.
Q134 Chair: Absolutely. We have mentioned these 50,000 cases. It will take until March. I know it is two weeks’ work out of a million applications, but it will take until March to get them all on, even if we stop today, and in the meantime, constituents will have come to our surgery and said, "They haven’t replied to us," and the reason is they are not even on a database.
Mr Harper: Certainly, on the temporary migration cases, where the Agency has accepted that it is outside its performance standards and it has put in place some plans to put some extra people in place and to work through those and get back into those service standards by the end of March, clearly, in the interim, you are going to have people who have made an application, they have looked at what they should have expected that to be dealt with, the period to be dealt with. They are going to have been disappointed, and a number of them are going to then contact the Agency either directly or through their MP, and that is going to generate some more work. The Agency knows that, but the way to fix that is to fix the root cause, which is to get the business back on track.
Q135 Steve McCabe: Minister, the Agency cannot tell us how long it takes on average to follow up sponsor notifications about potential non-compliance, and they cannot reconcile those notifications with formal action because the information is recorded in two different systems. Does that surprise you?
Mr Harper: It certainly doesn’t surprise me now. One of the things that is a challenge in the Agency, which again is being worked on, is to get a much more robust IT platform and also to get a much better sense of management information, and one of the things I welcome is the Agency having set up its performance and compliance unit, to have a consistent way of producing management information that is properly checked and is robust. I also welcome the fact, as you will know, that the Home Secretary has said that she is going to ask the Chief Inspector specifically to look at that unit so that we all have-Ministers and the Committee-assurance that it is doing its job properly. Data and understanding what was going on was one of things in the past that the Agency did not do well. It was one of the reasons why operational managers did not do a good job.
When I went to Sheffield, one of the things I asked the managers there was, "Can I see what you use on a day-to-day basis to manage your business?" The encouraging thing was they do have management information and they do link it to actual people, so you can see which line manager runs a particular team of people, and they can drill down to the level of the individual case worker to see what they are doing. Trying to pull that all the way through the Agency and produce it in a nice, tidy format that you can rely on, they are not there yet, and that is one of the things that the performance and compliance unit will be looking at. It is going in the right direction, but-to quote the phrase that the Chief Executive used with Mr Ellis, there is still a long way to go, but I am very keen-one of the things I said to the Chairman privately, which I am happy to repeat, is that I think my predecessor, rightly, focused on delivering some big policy changes that I think were necessary and we are now starting to see working through in the numbers. I very much see one of my areas of focus, that job having been largely done, in really focusing on the performance both of the Border Agency and Border Force in terms of it delivering its operational commitments. One of the things I spend my time doing is asking Rob Whiteman some of the sorts of difficult questions that you do to try to make sure that the Agency gets back in shape and that, by the end of the Parliament, we have an Agency that is really performing at a very high standard.
Q136 Steve McCabe: I do not want to put words in your mouth, but should I assume that it is your intention that this Agency will develop a reliable performance measure in this area?
Mr Harper: Yes. I want to make sure that in all the bits of its business it has a good handle on what is going on and it can produce data, and in fact it does not have to produce it specially. It has access to it as part of its business as usual. I think that is getting better. They have a much better handle on the operations across the business, and that is one of the things that needs to continue developing.
Q137 Steve McCabe: Would you care to put a timescale on it? Is this something the Committee might be able to look at in a year’s time?
Mr Harper: Not in that particular one. I think, if it is helpful to the Committee, I will go away and look at coming back to the Committee with a sense of what it is reasonable for you to expect over time. That may be one of the things you then want to come back to in terms of the general performance of data, and as you said, a number of the questions you had for Rob Whiteman were about specific numbers, and he rightly, I think, wanted to take some time to write to you to make sure he was giving accurate data, rather than doing it on the fly, but this is a useful area for us to pursue. It is something I want to do, and it is clearly something that is important to the Committee.
Steve McCabe: Thank you.
Q138 Bridget Phillipson: Minister, we had some questions earlier to Mr Whiteman about former foreign national prisoners. On that area, in order to try to deport more former foreign national prisoners, the Immigration Rules were changed in order to qualify Article 8 rights. However, we have not seen an increase in deportation cases. The numbers of outstanding cases continue to rise. When do you expect that we will see these changes having some effect on the numbers of former foreign national prisoners that we can deport?
Mr Harper: I think it is worth remembering that we did, for example, in 2011 remove about 4,600 foreign national offenders from the UK, and people sometimes miss that we are on a regular basis removing people from the UK all the time. On the specific Article 8 issue, obviously it has taken a little while for that to work through, so there has been a number of cases decided-what you have seen over the last few months-where they have still been decided on the old basis, and they have been very frustrating, I think, for the public, who have looked at them and been appalled sometimes at the outcome, as have Ministers. Those cases have certainly demonstrated to me that we are absolutely right to make the changes.
We are now starting to see cases coming through that will have been decided on the new basis, and I very much hope that as they work their way through the system and as the tribunals makes those decisions, they listen to what Parliament said clearly in the summer and they start supporting the decisions the Agency has made on getting that balance right about the public interest and upholding our decisions to remove people. We have not really seen those coming through. There are a number of test cases in the works, and I very much hope that judges pay attention to what Parliament set out.
Q139 Bridget Phillipson: I also asked Mr Whiteman earlier about the disparity of the appeal rate at asylum between men’s and women’s cases and said that women’s cases tend to be overturned at a greater level. Obviously, there is a human cost when decisions are not right the first time around, but also there is a big cost to the taxpayer. Could you just set out what action the Government intends to take, working with the UK Border Agency, to try to get these decisions right first time?
Mr Harper: Sure. I think that is very important. Getting things right the first time is clearly what you want to do. One of the issues is monitoring how we do on appeals, making sure we do a good job defending our decisions and making sure that information is fed back. One of the interesting things, I think you raised it, and you specifically said, what happens to the information going back to the case worker? One of the encouraging things that I found on my visit to meet with front-line staff is that, notwithstanding the history of the Agency-I found this quite positively surprising, given the history of the Agency-is that a lot of the front-line staff know how important the work they do is, they are very focused on trying to do a good job and they want to know what happens to their decisions. They want to know whether their decisions get overturned on appeal. They want to understand if they have made a wrong decision, how that has happened and how they can do a better job. Often they go out of their way to find out the outcomes because they are interested and they want to do a good job, and I think we need to make sure there are systems in place to make sure that happens on a systematic basis to improve their decisions.
I listened carefully to what you said about the gender difference in appeal rates, and I know that is something the Agency takes seriously, and it is looking at making sure it properly takes into account the different things that may be relevant for making decisions in the case of women versus men, and I know it is looking at improving that performance, and that is something I think they do take very seriously.
Q140 Bridget Phillipson: Thank you. That is very helpful. Chairman, just one final area; the Committee discovered that 13 people had been granted asylum in the first six months of this year, who had been previously refused asylum and had been subsequently forcibly removed from the country, and some of these cases concerned people returned to Sri Lanka. Do you stand by the statement made by your predecessor that there is not substantial evidence of mistreatment by the Sri Lankan authorities of those who have been forcibly returned by the UK authorities to Sri Lanka?
Mr Harper: Yes. There are two different things there. We make decisions on asylum cases based on the facts of the case, so we look at the circumstances in the country and we have reports on countries where we look at all of those facts and we look at the facts on the ground, but we also look at the individual case, the threat or the risk of persecution to an individual person. We do return people to Sri Lanka. I do not think there is a reason to not do that on a blanket basis, but we look at it on a case-by-case basis in an individual case, and I would like to make sure we got decisions right, every single case, the first time. Sometimes we don’t, and we need to learn from those and do a better job the next time around, but I don’t think there is a systemic reason why we should not be returning people to Sri Lanka if we do not think they need protection because of fear of persecution.
Bridget Phillipson: Thank you.
Q141 Chair: Can I ask just a number of quick, final questions to you before the Home Secretary comes in? Did you see the reports in The Guardian about the COMPASS asylum housing contract? As you know, this was not done by you; as you are aware, this was done by your predecessor. Indeed, I think it was done by Dame Helen Ghosh. She was responsible for procurement. The contract was taken away from a lot of local providers and given to G4S. One resident, describing the accommodation, said, "The whole floor had diarrhoea and vomit on it. An ambulance comes to the building every week, and people are being housed three to a room in properties that were dirty and unsuitable, and a pregnant asylum-seeker had been evicted by the subcontractor," even though the subcontractors made it very clear, and G4S made it very clear, they always asked permission of the UKBA. Are you aware of the concerns about the way in which the COMPASS contract is being auctioned?
Mr Harper: I have seen various stories in newspapers, and we have been asked to comment on them. Having looked into the facts of those cases and looked at the response, be it from my officials in the Agency and also from the contractor, in the cases that I have seen, I have been satisfied that things have been done properly and have not always been exactly as set out in those newspaper stories.
Chair: But you know about this and you are aware of it?
Mr Harper: I am very familiar with the contract. It is something that I take seriously, and when those sorts of stories come up, I am then given suggested responses to them to clear. I always make sure I am satisfied that we are treating people properly, and as I said to you, I am very clear that in all of these cases we have real people involved; we often have families. I want to make sure that we are doing a good job to deliver that level of service that those people should be able to expect, and so far I think that G4S is performing well on delivering on that contract.
Q142 Chair: When do you think you will be in a position to announce the new Head of the UK Border Force? I assume interviews have been completed.
Mr Harper: I have met all of the candidates.
Chair: How many candidates? This is the shortlist?
Mr Harper: Yes, the shortlist. The Civil Service Commissioners are going through the interview process now, and I know this is probably your least favourite word, but we hope to make an announcement-
Mr Harper: I will not say "shortly". I will say "in due course". It is not too far away. The process is really very well under way. We are down to a shortlist.
Chair: So you, as the Minister, meet the shortlisted candidates?
Mr Harper: Yes, we followed the correct process. I have met the shortlisted candidates, together with a member of the Civil Service Commissioners.
Chair: Can you have a preference?
Mr Harper: No. The way it works is I met with the shortlisted candidates, together with a member of the Civil Service Commissioners, who will be doing the interview process, to makes sure it is completely scrupulous. I have set out for all of the candidates what Ministers expect from the Head of Border Force. That was listened to by the Commissioners and will be taken into account-Ministers’ expectations-in the same way for all of them, and they will put the candidates through their paces, and then they will come back and will recommend to myself and the Home Secretary who they think should be appointed.
Q143 Chair: What worries me is that the same process occurred before and the candidate got to see the Home Secretary, and the Home Secretary did not want to appoint the candidate, for whatever reasons. The worry for me and the Committee is that it will be a year since Brodie Clark left. You have the e-Borders programme to deal with. There is a lot of work that needs to go on. Should Ministers not be involved at an earlier stage? I know what the Civil Service rules are, but we are also conscious of the fact that the Prime Minister has rejected the candidate for the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and they have started the whole process again.
Mr Harper: Sure. Having met the candidates, I think we have a really good shortlist, and I am confident that at the end of this process we will be able to make a good appointment and Border Force will have a permanent leader to take it forward. I am confident that that is the position we will be in next time you have us before your Committee.
Q144 Chair: Good. In respect to John Vine, the Committee is very impressed with his work-so is the Home Secretary, if she has commissioned him to do more work. When he was first appointed, we were concerned that he would not be independent enough. I think he has proved everybody wrong. He is certainly independent.
The reason why we cross-examine, if you like, the Head of the UKBA so carefully is because immigration is a crucial issue for the Government and the country, and that is why we go back to this situation constantly to see how things have improved. It is not an attack on the Government. It is an opportunity to help Ministers, because obviously you do not know everything that goes on in the UKBA and we need people like John Vine to do their reports. Given that, are you confident that we now have in place a mechanism by which Ministers can be alerted if things go wrong in the future?
Mr Harper: Yes. I take your point. I certainly view Parliament as a whole, but specifically the Home Affairs Select Committee, very much as a partner in helping to deliver good performance. I welcome scrutiny in Parliament. Sometimes it is not always comfortable either for the Chief Executive of the Agency or for Ministers, but I fundamentally believe it is the right thing to do. I will always try to be as open as I can be with Parliament, with this Committee and with the House. When you do your reports, sometimes they do feel a bit like we are being beaten up, but that is actually a good thing, because we should be held to account.
I think the Chief Inspector does a good job: tough reports; goes out and does things that Ministers do not always the capacity to do. I can go out and about a lot, but I do not have a team going with me. I can’t spend all of my time out and about around the country. I think the Chief Inspector does a good job, keeps the Agency focused, produces those reports both for us and for you, and I think that is a helpful process for scrutiny and that is the way we want to proceed.
Chair: Excellent. I am not promising you that every time we will have such a comfortable time before the Select Committee, but we are very grateful for what you have said and we look forward to seeing you again; the best of luck in the job, and happy Christmas.
Mr Harper: A pleasure; thank you very much indeed, Committee.