Think tank says scrapping UK immigration authority could be a mistake

The Institute for Government, a London think tank which aims to encourage more effective government, has questioned whether the abolition of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) announced last week is a good idea.

Sir Ian McGee, a former senior civil servant and now a fellow at the Institute, has issued a statement saying 'Restructuring creates an impression, superficially, of action to solve problems. The acid test is will performance improve as a result? It is unclear that the organisation…will be significantly improved simply by shuffling the pieces'.

Last week on 26th March 2013, Home Secretary Theresa May announced the abolition of the UKBA which is an independent agency that was established in 2008 to deal with the UK's immigration administration.

'Secretive and defensive culture'

She appeared before MPs in the House of Commons and said that she had taken her decision because the UKBA was 'not good enough' and had developed a 'secretive and defensive culture'. She also said that it 'struggles with the volume of its casework' and that this had led to 'historical backlogs running into hundreds of thousands [of cases]'.

Mrs May told the functions of the UKBA would be taken on by the Home Office directly. She also said that the work of the UKBA would be taken on by two new directorates within the Home Office; one would deal with issuing visas and the other would deal with finding and removing those with no permission to be in the UK.

Later, on the afternoon of the 26th March, the new senior civil servant at the Home Office, Mark Sedwill faced a committee of MPs who questioned him about the changes.

Bridget Phillipson MP welcomed the split but said that there was a danger that the change to the name would not lead to a change in the culture within the organisation.

Two new directorates within the Home Office

Mr Sedwill said that the split would enable the two new directorates to develop new cultures.
  • The visa issuing section would develop a 'customer service culture' and work with UK Trade and Industry and VisitBritain to try to encourage people to come to the UK and
  • The law enforcement section would develop a 'law enforcement culture' enabling it to liaise better with the National Crime Agency and police forces.

The MPs questioned Mr Sedwill about an email he had sent to UKBA staff telling them about the changes but informing them that they would continue to do the same jobs, working for the same boss with the same colleagues. MPs wondered how there could be both cultural change and the sort of continuity that Mr Sedwill talked about in his email.

Mr Sedwill told the MPs that it was true that there would be no immediate change but said that UKBA staff would, over time, be asked to do their jobs 'in a different way'.

Sir Ian's objections

But Sir Ian questions whether splitting the agency is the right way of changing the way UKBA procedures and cultures change. He raises several objections to the plan.
  • Research shows that departmental reorganisations cost about £15m.
  • The Home Secretary said that she was abolishing the UKBA because of 'a lack of transparency and accountability' but the UKBA, in fact, had a very clear accountability structure. He suggests that a failure to hold the UKBA and its chief executive to account may have happened because of failures within the Home Office.
  • The Home Secretary says that she wants to create two new cultures by splitting the UKBA but 'experience and evidence suggests that where 'white space' exists in government, between or within departments' common focus on objectives somehow becomes more difficult.
  • The Home Secretary said that the UKBA's IT systems had been inadequate but Sir Ian suggests that the real problem is likely to be 'a lack of common infrastructure so that information can readily be shared across all parts of the system which need it'. That is likely to involve sharing an IT system throughout the whole of the Home Office and with external organisations such as police forces. There is no estimate of how much this could cost.

The UKBA's research director, Tom Gash, appeared on the BBC to talk about the changes and said that there is also a 'productivity dip' that tends to happen when organisations are restructured. He questioned whether UK immigration could afford such a dip given that backlogs are already long and growing.

The Home Affairs Committee issued a report on 25th March 2013 which said that the UKBA currently has a backlog of some 312,000 cases which, at the current rate of progress, will take 24 years to clear.

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