Home Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 616

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 11 June 2013

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Michael Ellis

Dr Julian Huppert

Bridget Phillipson

Mark Reckless

Chris Ruane

Mr David Winnick

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Sarah Rapson, Interim Director General, UK Visas and Immigration Section, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: I welcome Sarah Rapson to the dais. This is the Committee’s continuing inquiry into the operation of the former UKBA, now the Home Office. On a three-monthly basis the Committee scrutinises the work of the Home Office.

I congratulate you, Ms Rapson, most warmly on your appointment as the new Director of Immigration and Visas. Was it a surprise when the Home Secretary telephoned you and said you were being offered this wonderful challenge?

Sarah Rapson: First, thank you very much for the invitation to come before the Committee so early in my tenure.

Yes, I suppose so. As the reasons were explained to me, I think we all feel that the passport service operates well, with high degrees of customer service, and, given what the Home Secretary wants to do with this command, it did seem sensible.

Q2 Chair: Obviously you did a splendid job, because in the six years that I have been Chair of this Committee you have not appeared before us. People normally are called during crises, so well done. We cannot guarantee the same thing in your new job.

Sarah Rapson: I am sure that is true.

Q3 Chair: When you were appointed by the Home Secretary, she said certain things about the UKBA when she abolished it. Have you found it, in the 54 days that you have been the head of this organisation, closed and defensive?

Sarah Rapson: Obviously, I heard the Home Secretary’s statement in the House and it has been on my mind as I have been talking with staff. When I talk to staff I say three things to them about where I want to take the organisation. The first is about being competent and that other people say we are competent. The second is about being high-performing and being transparent about that performance and therefore accountable to Ministers and to Parliament. The third is that we operate a culture of strong customer satisfaction. I say those things because what I notice is there are some gaps, so I would observe that there are lots of really good people in my part of the organisation. Have we sufficiently listened to them? Have we used them in the right way? I think there are some questions for us. I do agree with the Home Secretary’s comments about the IT and the systems; it is a very manual process, and because it is so manual and not automated, it means that the confidence in management information is lacking.

Q4 Chair: We will come on to that shortly. But you have not found it closed, defensive and secretive yet; everyone has been open and jolly and welcoming to you?

Sarah Rapson: What I will say-I will sit down with staff-I should not say on the front line because, as somebody said to me earlier, "We are not at war," but I will sit down with staff and I will ask them how does it feel and I think they are telling me the truth.

Q5 Chair: Good, that is very helpful, because you come from a 98.9% hit as far as meeting the service standards of the IPS are concerned, to an organisation where the UKBA only processed 10% of their cases in tier 1 and 21% of their cases in tier 4 on time. We are not going to hold you responsible for that, because you have just arrived. But, given the experience of the IPS and what you have done there, have you been able to bring some of those clearly outstanding staff with you, if you get service standards of 98%, in order to change the culture of the UKBA, or what was the UKBA, which is of course what the Home Secretary wants you to do, or have you inherited staff? Have you been able to bring your own people?

Sarah Rapson: I brought some private office people with me, but-no, I have not brought a job lot of folk across from the Passport Service, but I do bring an approach and I do bring a commitment to customer service that I think the organisation needs.

Q6 Chair: You told us about those talents and we recognised them, but in terms of people it is just that Mark Sedwell told us when he came to give evidence that most of you, referring to the UKBA, will still be doing the same job in the same place with the same colleagues and with the same boss. Given that everything was the same, and we know you have changed-because you certainly do not look like Rob Whiteman-what else has changed? Because, although you have a huge reputation, the fact is the organisation seems to us anyway, or to me, to be almost exactly the same.

Sarah Rapson: There are a number of questions in there.

Q7 Chair: Let us go through them one by one; no new people apart from your private office?

Sarah Rapson: No new people apart from my private office, but a very different structure and a very different way of working. If I may, I would say that, when I talked to staff in the Croydon public inquiry office, they talked to me about customer service in exactly the same way as the passport office staff do; we just have not given them the tools and systems, and the permission sometimes, to do what they are capable of doing.

Q8 Chair: So, what you are telling this Committee is just that we have sat through the appointment of Rob Whiteman when he sat in your seat, where you are sitting at the moment, and he told is when he was appointed he was going to stay where he was until the job was done. Of course, the job being done meant the abolition of the organisation that he was appointed to head, and we are obviously accepting your assurances about the things that you want. But I just wonder whether, in the old saying, you have been sent to the crease with a bat that has been broken. Because if you are the only person who is new in the organisation and you brought some people in your private office and you are telling the Committee on the basis-we admit you have only been there 54 days-it is just an issue of leadership, motivation and giving people permission to do things, it is not a lot, is it, in order to try to get this sorted out?

Sarah Rapson: I am currently talking both with Ministers and the Permanent Secretary about the arrangements for my top team and working through what governance arrangements we need to have and establishing how we will work effectively with the other parts of the immigration system, so Dave Wood’s new group, Charles Montgomery’s group, and also Rob Whiteman’s group. So, there is quite a lot of energy going into how we are going to make this system connect. It is not just about what I am personally bringing.

Q9 Chair: So, you want to do a little bit of a change up at the top. Let us go to some practical questions. This Committee is fascinated by the issue of backlogs, as you would imagine, as I am sure you are; and we created a super-backlog grid at the end of each of our reports, and one of the things you will be judged on is bringing this backlog down. But sadly it has gone up. When Mr Whiteman was last before us, there were 50,000 cases we discovered that had not been put on the computer. Those have now been put on the computer, but the backlog in temporary migration cases has now reached 104,000-I think the highest it has ever been. Why is it going up?

Sarah Rapson: Can I start by talking about backlogs more generally? Because I have been trying to understand for myself the nature of what the work is that we do have, and I am-

Q10 Chair: You can do in a second if you just explain why, on one of the key indicators this Committee has given the organisation, instead of the backlog going down, and assurances given by Mr Whiteman-who presumably has an office next door to you-and all the people being the same as they were before you arrived, what is going wrong that when a Committee of the House and the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister all say they want the backlog to go down, because they want cases dealt with quickly, it has gone up as far as temporary migration cases are concerned.

Sarah Rapson: My observations then would be that the organisation started the season with insufficient numbers of staff. I think we experienced unplanned-for levels of fraudulent or abusive applications in certain groups, which had not been planned for, and some policy changes were just made quite quickly, but I think that they take longer. So, there is a certain element of that. I think we do need to do something to strengthen some of the management, and the operational management if you like, of how we manage work through the system, and I think we could do a better job there. There are obviously some opportunities to improve things but I think there are some structural issues that caused it, yes.

Q11 Chair: So, you accept that one of the problems that you have at the moment is the length of time it takes to process cases? You have seen the grid I am referring to?

Sarah Rapson: Yes, I have it here.

Q12 Chair: Having looked at the grid, I am sure one of the very first things that you did was to call your senior team together and say to your senior team, "Is there anything missing from this grid that we should tell the Select Committee about?" because Mr Whiteman did not tell us about a number of these areas and it was only discovering inadvertently that these backlogs exist in some areas. I know it is only 54 days, but on the basis of what you have asked people, are you satisfied that there is nothing else on this list that we should know about today?

Sarah Rapson: No, I am not.

Q13 Chair: If you find it, would you promise to come and tell us, either by telephoning me or writing to me, and not let the Committee find out about it inadvertently?

Sarah Rapson: I start from being worried about the fact that the Committee has to try to work out what the nature of the backlogs are for itself, as opposed to having a common perspective of what the work in the organisation is. My first question is, "What else?" because I do not want to be in front of you and say, "Well, I think it is definitely these ten things," and somewhere in the organisation somebody knows there is an eleventh, because I do not want to be in that position; I do not want to be in the position for myself, because I want to lead this organisation well; I certainly do not want to be in front of this Committee saying that. I think we are awfully confused about what is a backlog, though. I think for me it is very clear; a backlog is something that is outside of service standard. Whether cases are into a system, if they are outside a service standard they are a backlog, if they are still being worked through within a committed and published service standard, that is not a backlog.

Q14 Chair: Ms Rapson, please do not go down that road, because we have had chief executives of UKBA come to redefine what backlogs are for a very long time; they have even changed the names-it drove Mr Winnick to despair when they called it funny names like the critical care unit-so please do not redefine the backlog. We know what a backlog is, and we will hold you to account on what we have done.

Sarah Rapson: Would you agree with that definition? It would help me enormously.

Chair: No, I do not agree with that definition. I think, if you have a case that takes 45 minutes to sort out, and I have seen what you can do at your best-not you personally, but the organisation-you pay the fee, you go into Croydon with an indefinite leave application and it is dealt with in 45 minutes-there is no excuse for spending 10 months or even years on asylum cases in order to decide whether people have a right to stay. That is a backlog. It is not a service standard that has been imposed by the Cabinet Office or anyone else. If it looks like a backlog and it feels like a backlog, it is a backlog.

Q15 Mr Winnick: We will come to backlog cases in due course, but you are the person that Members of Parliament write to-and we have done so in the last four weeks or so instead of your predecessor. The replies are sometimes signed by you-obviously not written-and there is no reason why you should be writing letters, but you sign them, and that is appreciated; it carries your signature rather than some official’s. But they are exactly the same because I write, as I am sure colleagues do, about people who have been here, not just two, three or four years, but in many cases as long as 10 or 12 years, and inevitably the replies now are the same as previously: "We cannot reach a conclusion, but we hope to do so in the future." When are we going to be in a position, or when is your organisation, your unit, going to be in a position, where you will be able to reply to Members of Parliament and say, "Within three months," or, "Within four months," or whatever the case may be, but certainly under six months, "this case will be concluded," certainly if the person has been here the length of time that I have just mentioned?

Sarah Rapson: I have two answers to that question. The first is that the first thing I noticed when I was signing off the letters back to MPs is that we were not putting a timeline in, and so, if you have a letter signed by me that does not have a timeline in, that is my mistake, because I am sending them back. It may well be that the timeline is not quick enough, which is a separate issue, but it is an important issue. But in the first instance I want to be able to answer, and I have told the teams that I expect us to be able to say to people, "You will get your decision at a particular time." I found from working in the Passport Service that what was more important for people was knowing when they were expecting to get the passport; it did not have to be as quickly as we were doing it, but knowing when they are going to get the decision or the passport or whatever is one of the highest attributes of satisfaction. So, just being consistent and saying to the team they must put a timeline in is a change I think I am bringing about right now. But the second point is that some of these cases have taken a very long time, and that will take time to fix.

Q16 Mr Winnick: I was in the Committee when John Reid, now Lord Reid, came along and told us in 2006 that the Home Office, the immigration section, was not fit for purpose, and the present Administration said they would put things right, as the previous Administration said they were going to do after 2006. The impression simply is that it is exactly the same as in previous years. You would challenge that, would you, Ms Rapson?

Sarah Rapson: I think we are at the start of the journey of creating a customer service culture. Are we ever going to say about this really quite difficult organisation, with a set of complex things that it has to do, is it perfect? I do not think so. My intention is to make some improvements. I would be grateful for the Committee’s advice as to where you think I should be prioritising my time. But will we ever finish the job? No.

Q17 Bridget Phillipson: On the issue of correspondence with MPs, the MP account manager system is helpful, and it is good to have the opportunity to talk about issues on the floor. However, can we just make sure that when we get correspondence it is in a form that can be shared with the constituent, because we are not in the habit of paraphrasing decisions made by the UK Border Agency, as was. It is not our job to paraphrase; we need correspondence that we can share directly with constituents setting out the position.

Secondly, where an MP has been involved-and this has been raised time and time again-with cases, can we be routinely copied back into the response to constituents, because what has happened in the past is that I have raised cases only for a decision to be taken but not to have been informed the decision has been taken. My office has then continued to chase for an outcome but the decision has long been made, and that is why the constituent has not been back in touch with me.

So, we are chasing these decisions. One such example was a letter I received saying, "The decision has been sent to the constituent"; no copy of the decision. Suffice it to say, it was not a favourable decision. I could have gathered that by the fact that I had not been copied into the response. So, there is room for improvement and we keep hearing time and time again that this is going to change; it just needs to change.

Sarah Rapson: I can hear the exasperation.

Q18 Bridget Phillipson: I do not get too many immigration cases, so I dread to think what some colleagues do.

Sarah Rapson: The second one I will have a look into; I am not there yet. On the first point, I have intervened on cases where we have written a letter that possibly would not be shareable with a constituent and asked for two letters to go in, one saying to the MP, "This is what is really going on, and here is a letter that you can pass on to your constituent." In another case I asked for the account manager of the team to pick up the phone to the MP to explain why the letter had been written in a particular way, trying really hard to stand in the shoes of an MP with a constituent in front of him and giving you the tools to be able to answer the questions. But I will take the second point away, because I had not thought of that.

Q19 Chris Ruane: What are your areas of responsibility, how many staff do you have working in each area, and what is the budget for each area?

Sarah Rapson: I am responsible at the highest level for making decisions about who would come to visit our country or who would come, not to stay, who is already in the country and want to stay either permanently or temporarily. So, in a nutshell, that is my bit, as distinct from say Dave Wood’s bit, which is about removing people who ought not to be here. I have 7,400 staff in 150 countries, including ours, so across the world, and a budget of £450 million split between those.

Q20 Dr Huppert: Just a supplementary on this, were you in the previous session?

Sarah Rapson: For the last few moments.

Q21 Dr Huppert: I think just before that there was a question about where some of the country information for asylum would be, because I think Freedom from Torture have been trying to establish this; can you tell us whether that is definitely within your purview, and would you be happy to meet with them to discuss the details of how this is arranged?

Sarah Rapson: I am fairly confident it is within my command.

Q22 Dr Huppert: And all the policy areas to do with that?

Sarah Rapson: I think that the country information that we use to inform case workers who make judgments about asylum cases is within my command, and I know that there are quite a lot of important stakeholders I need to now get around and meet, including probably some of the people that you saw today.1

Q23 Dr Huppert: So, you would be happy to in principle, and they can call about it?

Sarah Rapson: Of course I would, yes.

Q24 Michael Ellis: Thank you very much. Ms Rapson, I have some sympathy with you for inheriting a considerable backlog, which pre-dates you by many years, pre-dates this Government by many years, and the reality of the matter is that clearly it may, and very well should, take only a matter of 45 minutes in current cases, but you have to deal with a substantial backlog and, however one defines it, it is going to need to be done, and that is the challenge. But it is a challenge that I think is achievable to be met. I am just wondering-your focus is very much on customer service, you have mentioned this several times, and you want to improve that. One of the main reasons for the creation of the new directorates was to ensure those applying for visas receive improved customer service. So, how are you going to ensure that customer service is of the highest possible level in all the circumstances?

Sarah Rapson: I think this is cultural change, as well as processes. From the top, I can lead by example, I can talk about how important it is and that it is not a soft option; there is also a hard edge to customer service. It is just as relevant to make a decision that is a refusal in a professional and timely and correct way as it is to give somebody leave to stay. I can pay personal attention to things like MPs’ letters, which are coming across my desk, and I can ask questions if I do not think the job is not being done properly.

There is also a bottom-up change that needs to happen, so I have asked that all members of staff in my command will have a customer service objective, and we are currently doing workshops with staff for them to create it for themselves. I am not going to decree; I am not going to say, "It has to be like this." They will shape it. I was delighted-we had 70 members of staff put their hands up to say they wanted to be part of those workshops. I am inviting other members of staff to come up with ideas for how we might create this. I have to say, they start from a position of being slightly cynical because this is another change, as no doubt some of the members of the Committee are, but I think they are optimistic because they would quite like to be offering great customer service.

Michael Ellis: I am sure they would very much like to.

Sarah Rapson: So, to be giving them permission to get on and do it is well-

Q25 Michael Ellis: It is so frequent that we have had your predecessors in and we are talking about an historical situation, but I would like to ask you about what your aims and ambitions are for your command now going forward and how you see things in a future perspective; how would you like things to develop in a positive way?

Sarah Rapson: I would like people to be saying about us that we are competent, high-performing, transparent, and that we take care of our customers; people have a good experience when they deal with us. I am currently working at my plans for how we are going to get there, but I have to be honest and say that one of my key priorities right now is to make sure that we are stabilising the current operation, so making sure that I have the right numbers of people and so on.

Q26 Michael Ellis: You are keeping your head above water at the moment, as opposed to swimming the mile?

Sarah Rapson: The licence to operate comes from the competence and that we get the backlogs under control; that people who apply through us today know that they will get whatever decision it is in a sensible amount of time. Before I lift the sights to say, "In the future it needs to be a digital, modern-" it needs to be all of those things, but in terms of my time and what I am prioritising it is frankly some of the basics.

Michael Ellis: Everybody, whatever job they are in, wants to work in a functioning and well-respected organisation and I think the people in your team will be no different from that, so I welcome your appointment and I congratulate you on it and I wish you all the very best for leading your people into an improved team.

Sarah Rapson: Thank you.

Q27 Bridget Phillipson: I welcome the focus on customer service, but can you just assure us that that focus will include perhaps groups such as asylum seekers who do not routinely have a voice in all of this and are not necessarily the most popular group in wider society-that the customer service ethos will apply to all customers?

Sarah Rapson: Yes. We grant, I think, a third of all asylum decisions, which is one of the highest in Europe, and so it must be right that the same way that we would treat customers who apply through us through different routes should be applied to asylum seekers. Possibly more so, because they are some of the most vulnerable people that we deal with, who probably do not complain, because what happens to asylum seekers if they complain? They must think about the consequences of what might be happening to them, so I do think that asylum seekers-just as much as any other people that we deal with-should be treated as customers.

Q28 Chair: One of the problems with the account manager system, which Mr Winnick and Bridget Phillipson have raised, is the fact that they are not decision makers; they are basically post boxes. You write to your account manager, they write to someone else, and if it is a case abroad, they will then go to the visa operation and they will just send back the same letter. I have seen this; a number of colleagues have seen it operate. Have you looked at the possibility of giving them a little bit more kudos and a little bit more authority? We liked what we heard from Rob Whiteman when he said that when you write to an account manager, an account manager then writes to someone more senior. They are basically standing in the shoes of the chief executive of the organisation; they ought to be treated with respect, because that is our first contact; that is our only contact, because even if we write to you it ends up with the account manager, unless it is something exceptional.

Sarah Rapson: I think I would agree with what you have described Rob has said, which is that these people need to have authority within the organisation. Whether that means they second-guess a case worker or they overturn a case decision, I am not sure, to be honest with you.

Q29 Chair: No, I am not sure about that either.

Sarah Rapson: But I think certainly having some expertise by their side-accessible, people who have done this before-it was probably worth doing. We had a conversation in my team yesterday about complaint-handling, and I said very clearly the issues around complaints are not the responsibility of the complaints team; they belong to all of us, and so I want the operational managers to think that these sorts of things are important. But we are not always going to get it right, so you must keep telling us if we are not getting it right.

Chair: We will tell you, do not worry.

Q30 Dr Huppert: I have to say, I have been impressed by much of what you have said so far, and apologies if I sound a bit jaded because we have had good promises in the past, which have not always been fulfilled and we still have the same constituents who have been spending 12 years trying to get a response on an asylum claim. One case after 12 years of trying to get a response was told, "We never received an application from you in the first place," which is a bit of a surprise given the years of asking. So, good luck, and I hope you can deliver the customer service changes, because it is the right attitude, and I hope you can deliver that through the organisation.

May I ask about where we are with the service standards now? When we last heard from Mr Whiteman the in-country visa applications were spectacularly behind the service standards, four weeks was turning into months and months, and 24-hour-I think tiny fractions were being done within that time. Has that already improved, and to what standard?

Sarah Rapson: I think it is fair to say that there are three routes that jump out as being behind service standard, which have been brought to my attention. We are making progress; I have been to see the team in Sheffield myself, we are making progress on some of these routes. They are making commitments to me that they will have these in service standard by-and I am not going to say the date because I want to test the plans myself, but they are definitely making progress, not least because we have placed many more staff into Sheffield, which was part of the initial problem, as I mentioned earlier. The three that I am aware of-one is the tier 4 students, the other is the tier 1 specific entrepreneur route, and the other is the family, the human rights cases. How much detail do you want from me? Is there any particular issue?

Q31 Dr Huppert: What I want to hear is the detail that shows how it is getting a lot better, because those are exactly the routes where, I think, for quarter four 2012, we were at 10% of tier 1 within service standard, 21% for the tier 4, and what I would like to hear is that it is getting much, much better from that.

Chair: You can write to us with greater detail if you want.

Sarah Rapson: I think that the teams have plans for all of them, I want to take some time to test the plans myself, but I think you can safely assume that there is progress on each of these, and I can write to you with more detail on our projections.

Q32 Dr Huppert: I think that would be very helpful. The next aspect is about the quality of the decision making. Universities UK gave us a briefing for debate last week; they said in one case an entry clearance officer decided that somebody should not have a student visa because they felt that it was not good use of their deceased father’s money, which was lost on appeal. Presumably you will also be checking the quality of the decisions?

Sarah Rapson: Yes, and one of the benefits I think of having both the overseas operation and the in-country operation in one command is that we can make sure that we have consistency across those two decision-making functions; and one of the things that I want to set up by way of governance is to have a quality group specifically looking at the quality of the work that we do, including the decisions that we make.

Q33 Dr Huppert: That sounds like a good idea. Presumably any complaints you get from MPs could be referred to a group like that where we do find particularly bizarre cases.

Sarah Rapson: That one sounds particularly odd.

Q34 Dr Huppert: That one is particularly bizarre, but I have had a couple of others. One was first refused because they might not go back to Libya, a country they had never been to and had no connections to. But I am sure these are individual errors, which I hope you will -

Sarah Rapson: My job is not to set the policy, but if my case workers and my teams are not adhering to the policy correctly, then I do want to know and I do want to make sure that we are making good decisions.

Q35 Dr Huppert: We will make sure. When we heard from Mr Whiteman, we found that the number of asylum applications that did not receive an initial decision within six months had doubled. Has that now come down? I am sure you would agree that it is inappropriate for somebody to wait anything like that long for an initial decision on their case.

Sarah Rapson: The asylum system is in a better condition than it was this time last year. We are doing better on the 30-day decisions; we are doing better on conclusions for older cases, but I think I would concur that where we would want to get to is to make better decisions earlier and more generally across the system.

Q36 Dr Huppert: Why is it so hard to make an initial decision within six months?

Sarah Rapson: Let me come back to you on that. My initial impression would be that, in a world of finite resources, we are targeting where we think we are going to have the most effect, but let me come back to you more specifically on why we are balancing resources in that way.

Q37 Mr Winnick: A reference was made earlier to these various definitions, designations-call them what you like. May we clarify the position? Case Assurance and Audit Unit: that remains in existence?

Sarah Rapson: This, I think, is now the Older Live Cases Unit.

Q38 Mr Winnick: You have changed that designation?

Sarah Rapson: No, I have not changed it.

Chair: That is right; it was renamed.

Sarah Rapson: It was changed, and the intention was to try to describe it better.

Q39 Mr Winnick: This is a new name for it, yes. That is not to be confused with Case Resolution Directorate?

Sarah Rapson: No.

Q40 Mr Winnick: That is a different one, is it? If you are confused, so am I. If I can just clarify, Case Resolution Directorate was established to deal with an estimated backlog of 400,000 to 450,000 asylum cases. So, what is the situation there?

Sarah Rapson: Those two things do not exist any longer, and all of that work is now in the Older Live Cases Unit, deliberately described to describe the work that is in it, because they are older live cases, in an attempt, I think, to move away from the point you are making about the different ways of renaming things.

Q41 Mr Winnick: What about Controlled Archives?

Sarah Rapson: That is closed. That is the list of cases that Rob Whiteman closed; I do not know precisely when, but the work that was residual would have gone into the Older Live Cases Unit.

Q42 Mr Winnick: And Active Review?

Sarah Rapson: These are cases who were given a particular decision at a point in time some time ago who will come up for an extension or not going forward, as I understand it. But you make the point about the complexity and it has taken me some time, and I am not quite there probably, in understanding how we have ended up with the 40,000 that we currently have in the Older Live Cases Unit. I want to focus on how we get those cases closed moving forward.

Q43 Mr Winnick: I think it would be rather useful if we had a list sent to us, if you are not in a position to give us one now, of all the current designations, because in front of me I have at least 20 that did exist up to very recently. What I find, as I am sure many people do-if Members of Parliament find it difficult, Ms Rapson, you can imagine the general public will take an interest in these matters-the various designations that are given, basically, to older cases, would it not be much simpler if there were just one definition?

Sarah Rapson: I agree, Mr Winnick.

Q44 Mr Winnick: That is not the situation at the moment; am I right?

Sarah Rapson: No, some work is described in different ways. I think we could do a better job of, firstly, having a set of service standards that Joe Public can understand and anything that is outside of that service standard is a backlog. We could be much more systematic and transparent about both of those things.

Q45 Mr Winnick: It would be much simpler, as you have indicated, if it was just one designation of a number of cases, say over 12 months. Would that not be the position?

Sarah Rapson: I agree, I think there are other cases that are in service standard, and we agree what those service standards are-and we think they are sensible-and there are cases that are not. Then you can describe how old those cases are.

Q46 Mr Winnick: You are going to write and give us the current designations, are you not?

Sarah Rapson: Yes, I can do.

Q47 Mr Winnick: If you had to be in a position to give an answer now, what would you say was the number of designations existing at this very moment-because we are told some of these have gone out of existence or been amalgamated with another group and so on-for older cases?

Sarah Rapson: I don’t know, and I don’t want to-

Mr Winnick: You don’t know?

Sarah Rapson: What I don’t want to do is to give you a misleading answer, frankly. So, let me write to you with the number of designations that there have been and explain to you which ones are still in existence.

Mr Winnick: I do not want to press you too much, Ms Rapson, but at this moment in time you could not tell us how many designated groups there are?

Sarah Rapson: We can tell you, I just don’t have it right to my fingertips.

Q48 Mr Winnick: Could you give us now the number of designated groups, the current ones, which deal with older cases? How many?

Sarah Rapson: No, I can’t do that, because I would just want to have a think about it and I would want to get some advice. I can think of the Older Live Cases Unit, there is a group of cases called Active Review, but then I would want to come back to you and just make sure I give you a complete list because the last thing I want to do is to guess.

Chair: In answer to Mr Winnick, it would be helpful if you could produce that list for the Committee.

Sarah Rapson: We will do that, absolutely.

Q49 Chair: Maybe it would help you if I gave you this list of backlogs that we last looked at. It does not have a number of the points that Mr Winnick has on there. That is the way the Committee does it, because we found it very confusing and Mr Winnick has pointed out to every witness that we have had that these names are extremely confusing. Looking at that list that you have in front of you, which I am sure you have seen, that must be one of the first things you have seen, where are the temporary migration cases that are in progress? On the report that I have given you.

Sarah Rapson: Yes, it is the same one.

Q50 Chair: So, you have seen it before?

Sarah Rapson: Yes, I have studied this with great care.

Q51 Chair: So, where would we find the temporary migration cases?

Sarah Rapson: I don’t think they are on this list.

Q52 Chair: That was the point I put to you right at the start-that if there are cases that we do not know about, we would like to know-and you said as far as you were aware you had told us everything.

Sarah Rapson: No, I did not say that at all; I said completely the opposite. You asked me was everything on this list of backlogs, and I said no.

Q53 Chair: All right, you said no. What is missing, then? You are missing 104,094 cases, which are in the temporary migration pool. What other cases are we missing?

Sarah Rapson: You have it because you know what the service standards are,

Chair: Forget about the service standards for a minute.

Sarah Rapson: No, but they directly relate to the backlogs.

Chair: No, with the greatest of respect, we need to know the number of cases in any particular pool. We were very shocked, in the middle of an evidence session, to hear from a Minister about the existence of the migration refusal pool of 181,000 cases that we never knew about. Leave the service standards to one side; what Mr Winnick wants to know, what the Committee wants to know, is how many cases are in each pool? We will then come to how long they are in there. What are we missing from this list? We are missing temporary migration cases, are we?

Sarah Rapson: And permanent migration.

Mr Winnick: We need to know how many pools there are.

Chair: Exactly, so we are missing 104,094 cases in the temporary migration pool and we are missing how many in the permanent? What is the figure?

Sarah Rapson: The total work in progress across both permanent and temporary, which is the figure I have-and if you want more detail we can write to you-as at the end of March is 190,000. That is the total across permanent and temporary, with 10,000 that were not on the system, which is the equivalent of a couple of days’ worth of work.

Q54 Chair: You do realise, Ms Rapson, you are giving us some new figures today which we were not told about? This is an astonishing figure.

Sarah Rapson: These are the March 2013 figures, the work that we have in progress across temporary and permanent migration.

Chair: Yes, but that brings it to another 190,000 cases that we did not know about. We have not had this figure before.

Sarah Rapson: I am not sure about that, to be honest with you, Chair.

Q55 Chair: So, where is it on this list, then? It could be in the list somewhere.

Sarah Rapson: I can’t see that number. The live immigration cases is the one that looks the most like it but I do think we need to do a better job of-

Chair: The live immigration cases says 7,000; it does not look like 190,000.

Sarah Rapson: I think we need to do a better job of being very clear about what the service standards are and being transparent about all of those cases that are outside of the service standard so that you are not trying to second-guess the organisation; that we are being very open about the cases that we have and the work that we have.

Q56 Chair: You are, but remember the Home Secretary said that you were closed, defensive and secretive and you have come with a new broom, so you have been very open and told us there are 190,000 cases that we did not know about. What would be helpful to round this off is if we had the list from you of what you think are the names of all these pools. The service standards we do understand; we have put that to one side for a moment. We would just like to know where all these cases are-I am sure you would too-and then you will see how many are in service standard.

Sarah Rapson: Can I try just one more time, with respect, Chair, to talk about service standards?

Chair: You can in a minute, after we get Dr Huppert’s question.

Q57 Dr Huppert: I suspect my question will relate to that. I think you are feeling the brunt of some of our lack of confidence and information over many years. There are two types of things that are intriguing. One is: how many applications do you have that have not been processed? The other is: how many are there that have not been processed after the service standard? To some extent we are interested in both of those. In my view, a backlog is once it has exceeded the service standard, because I would not expect you to have already processed everything that came in this morning. That would be impressive. I do think we need the very clear statement laid out that captures everything, both the ones that are in process legitimately and the ones that are out of date. I think that would be really helpful. If you can produce something that captures all of it, you will be doing something none of your predecessors have managed.

Chair: Exactly.

Sarah Rapson: This would be my intention; the only piece of work that I want to do before I do that is to test some of these service standards, because I think some of these service standards are wrong. There is a service standard in here that is for family on temporary migration, which is something like 65% decision in four weeks. I don’t know what 65% means. If I am applying, I don’t know whether that means I am going to get a decision or I am not.

Chair: Yes, absolutely right.

Sarah Rapson: So, I want to have a look at all of those. There may well be some service standards in there for more complex cases that we want to take longer over but be open about the fact that we want to take longer about those to make a good decision. Once I have refreshed that set of service standards, what I would like to do is to be able to then look at what is the work we have in the system and where it all is. Then if it is outside of those service standards, that is a backlog.

Q58 Chair: That is your definition of a backlog; with the greatest of respect, Ms Rapson, I think you must let Parliament have its own definition. If we decide that it is a backlog, it is a backlog. You may not decide it, you may think you have a backlog of zero; we do not agree. What we would be very reluctant to see is a changing of the goal-posts, which I am worried that you are going to do.

Sarah Rapson: No, I am not going to do that. Chair, my intention is to be more transparent, not less.

Q59 Dr Huppert: I think I understand what we are trying to get to, but it still seems that you could have the figures on the current number of things that there are ahead of time. I absolutely understand and think it would be sensible to set service standards that are realistic so people know what they are getting. But people who have already applied-if we are later than what we told them, it doesn’t matter if we later say, "Sorry, we are completely wrong, it actually takes this long." We should be measuring people who have not had the service that they expected.

Sarah Rapson: I completely agree with that.

Dr Huppert: But I understand that you should also be setting service standards that are realistic and deliverable.

Q60 Chair: And that people know whether they are in the 65%, because that is often what people are told. When we ring up or we write they say, "Well, 99% of the cases are going to be dealt with in six months," only to find out that you are the 1% that is not in the six months. So, you are right to look at that.

Sarah Rapson: I think drawing a distinction, if I may, Chair, between those cases that are straightforward and we should do quickly and those cases where perhaps somebody has not completed the application form correctly or there is an issue but we will make a decision. Then those cases that are complicated and they should take longer, and then those where we think people are trying to abuse the system and they will take even longer. I think we should be transparent about it.

Chair: Absolutely. Just on that, you proved that if you pay £900 and go to Croydon and you can get a slot, you can have your indefinite leave dealt with in 45 minutes. So, there is proof that you can have your case done very quickly.

Sarah Rapson: I think that if we get the service standards broken down into straightforward and not straightforward, in the way I have just described, then what we ought to be able to see for straightforward cases, because we are processing them in the right way, is that they should be done quicker.

Q61 Chair: Yes, and would you like to see an amnesty in this sense? Not an amnesty giving people the right to stay willy-nilly; would you like the Committee to be saying to the Government, "Actually, this is a one-off backlog that we have to clear, they cannot do it with the resources they have, they need additional resources to get it moving"? Or can you do it on the staff that you have? Mr Whiteman proved that he could not. When he moved the staff from dealing with one set of cases to putting people on computer, another backlog went up. Would you like additional resources to deal with this, or are you happy with the resources you have?

Sarah Rapson: I am 54 days in. I think we need the staff that we currently have; we must do because we are still not at service levels across the group. I am currently working with HR colleagues on a workforce plan, and I need some time to be able to do that. I don’t think, though, it will come up that I need a lot less people.

Chair: No, we don’t think so.

Sarah Rapson: But there will probably be a trade-off.

Chair: Absolutely.

Q62 Mr Winnick: To revert to what the Chair said at the beginning-this is certainly not personal in any way whatsoever and I genuinely mean that-why should we have confidence that under the new arrangements the UK visa and immigration section will be able to do better than all its predecessors? In other words, how successful do you believe the new arrangements will be when you consider what has happened in the past and that led to the abolition of UKBA?

Sarah Rapson: I think there are reasons to be optimistic. I would not have taken the job if I didn’t feel slightly optimistic that I might be able to make a difference. The in-country performance is getting better and I have just shared with you the work that is on the shelves at the moment. The overseas operation is very good. I think the commitment from staff is very high. Some of the innovation that I have seen, for example, to develop new products and services, extending opening hours in the public inquiry office-there are lots of people in the organisation who have ideas about how we can make things better. Is it ever going to be fixed? I think I answered that question from you earlier. I don’t think so.

Chair: Yes, you said no.

Sarah Rapson: Yes.

Q63 Bridget Phillipson: On a different area, we heard today serious concerns about women in the asylum process and changes that need to happen so that we have a more gender-sensitive system. Is it your responsibility to implement the "Violence Against Women and Girls Action Plan", and if so, will those commitments be implemented in time, which is, I believe, by March 2014?

Sarah Rapson: It is my responsibility. We take that very seriously. The team tell me that we are on track to deliver the commitments to March 2014. Have I spent time personally looking at it? No, but I will in the next weeks and months.

I do take gender very seriously. I am a member of the Two Percent Club, which is about getting more women into business. It is not quite the same thing, but I take a clear interest in gender issues. I am also the Home Office Executive Management Board representative for a:gender, which is the transgender group. So, I spent quite a bit of time talking with that group particularly on passports, birth certificates and proving identity. I suppose that is just to share with you some credentials that I am concerned about these issues.

Bridget Phillipson: I really welcome that. There have been some very clear ideas and recommendations as to how we can improve the system, and I hope that as you are someone new coming in with the kind of background that you are talking about, we can look seriously at implementing them and making some changes.

Q64 Chair: Very quick final questions; yes or no answer. The Capita contract that was given out before you got there; do you know how many people have now left the country as a result of Capita getting their contract, sending their SMSs to people?

Sarah Rapson: I don’t; that is probably a question for Dave Wood.

Chair: Enforcement, is it?

Sarah Rapson: Yes.

Q65 Chair: In terms of overseas cases, you have now started face-to-face interviews in Sheffield, which we thoroughly approve of, obviously, because it is one of our recommendations. Are you satisfied that you have put in place the necessary resources to deal with the abolition of the rights of appeal that will come this year or next year? There will be more correspondence from Members of Parliament because people cannot appeal any more. Are you aware that that will be an issue?

Sarah Rapson: I have been to see the team in Sheffield doing the interviewing, and I am pretty confident about their capacity plans. The confidence is very high; the system looks very good to me. I know that you are concerned about the abolition of the appeal rights on family visit visas, and in fact we will talk about this at the MPs’ event that we have tomorrow in the House, where we will do a presentation particularly on this topic. I will watch it carefully, because it has been raised.

Chair: We are very pleased with the application centres, the overseas posts; as you have said, they are going extremely well. Finally, we wish you well in your job.

Sarah Rapson: Thank you.

Chair: We have had assurances from your predecessor. We have seen four chief executives of UKBA or heads of immigration visas in the last six years. We hope that you will stay there and finish the job, even though you think the job can never be finished. We urge you to be open and transparent with this Committee. If you find that there is a problem, it is much better that you tell us, unlike some of your predecessors who decided not to tell us, so that we can work with you to try to make sure that the system works. We are basically on your side here; we want to make sure it does work. We hope to see you in the near future with some good positive news. Thank you very much for coming in.

Sarah Rapson: Thank you very much.


[1] Currently, Operational Policy Rules Unit is under the command of Rob Whiteman in Operational Systems Transformation (part of Strategy Transformation Group). There is the Country of Origin Information Service (COIS) and Country Specific Liti gation Team (CLST).

Prepared 7th November 2013