UK immigration provides 'shockingly poor' customer service

The UK's chief inspector of immigration has told a UK parliamentary committee that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) provides 'shockingly poor' customer service. In his evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, he also directly contradicted evidence given to a parliamentary committee by the former UKBA head, Lin Homer.

John Vine, the chief inspector of immigration, appeared before the committee on December 4th 2012. Mr Vine told MPs that the UK Border Agency was an organisation with a systemic 'lack of transparency' that provided 'shockingly poor' customer service. He said that the UKBA had failed to deal properly with its backlog of asylum cases. It had, since 2006, established different units, such as the CRD (the Case Resolution Directorate), and the CAAU (The Case Audit and Assurance Unit) to deal with the backlog but he said they had not done so. Instead, cases had been moved from one unit to another with no checks or decisions being made in many cases. He said he could not see any reason, in many instances, why no decisions had been made and, where decisions had been made, he could see no rationale behind those decisions.

Mr Vine had been summoned to give evidence to the committee after he published a damning report about the UKBA's handling of asylum cases on 22nd November 2012. The report stated that the UKBA had failed to resolve many asylum cases, some dating back as far as 1996. It had formed the Case Resolution Directorate in 2007 to deal with some 450,000 cases that had been allowed to accumulate. It said that it would deal with them within five years.

Mr Vine's report said that the UKBA had, instead, in many instances, removed cases from the CRD case load and placed them in the 'controlled archive'. The UKBA claimed that this had only been done after cases had been checked against 19 government data bases to try to find the applicants. Mr Vine found that this had not happened in many cases.

Mr Vine also said that he had discovered a further 33,000 asylum cases that seemed to have been hidden from the committee. He said that the committee had never been told about these cases before, despite having made requests for further information on many occasions.

After he had issued this report, two former heads of the UKBA, Lin Homer and Jonathan Sedgwick, were called before the committee to give their reaction to Mr vine's report.

The UKBA was established in 2006, after a cache of some 500,000 abandoned asylum cases, some of which dated back to 1996, was discovered by Home Office officials. The then Home Secretary, John Reid, then disbanded the Immigration Directorate, which was responsible for immigration, and created the UKBA in an attempt to solve the problems in the immigration system. Dr Reid said that the Immigration Directorate, which dealt with immigration, was 'not fit for purpose' and promised that the backlog would be dealt with by 2011.

Ms Homer, who had been head of the Immigration Directorate, became the first chief executive of the UKBA. She has since become the chief executive of HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs).

On 27th November, Mr Sedgwick apologised to the committee chairman, Keith Vaz MP for having inadvertently misled the committee. He said that he had believed that all checks had been made on the files before they had been transferred to the controlled archive but now accepted that they had not. The MPs on the committee were scathing in their treatment of Mr Vine and asked him whether he felt, in the light of the poor performance of the UKBA, that he ought to return performance related bonuses he had received for working at the UKBA. Mr Sedgwick said that he did not think that and said that he had been awarded his bonuses by parliament.

Ms Homer also apologised for having inadvertently misled the committee from time to time though she was adamant that she had never deliberately done so and had always given it the correct information as soon as she had it.

Keith Vaz, the committee chairman asked her why she thought the chief inspector had said, in his report, that the UKBA had never informed the committee of the 33,000 cases referred to in the report.

Ms Homer replied that she had done so though she could not recall exactly when. When asked why the chief inspector should have said that she had not done so, Ms Homer replied that Mr Vine may not have understood the very complex figures involved. Mr Vaz asked her to clarify where and when she had told the committee about the 33,000 cases before December 4th when Mr Vine would be addressing the committee. She was asked by Mark Reckless MP why she had been promoted having presided over such a shambolic organisation. She said that she had been promoted because 'I run big organisations well'. When asked whether she had deserved her bonuses, she said that she had.

Ms Homer subsequently wrote to the committee explaining that she had told former committee member Karen Buck MP about the 33,000 cases in a footnote on a letter sent in 2008.

On 4th December, Mr Vine was adamant that he had not misunderstood UKBA figures. He said 'I stand by my report' and added that senior staff in the UKBA's Liverpool office had confirmed to him that the cases had not been revealed to the committee. He said that, in addition, he had sent his report to the UKBA for fact checking before it was published. They had not objected that his findings were false. He also said that the UKBA had issued a response to his report in which it accepted his findings and said that it was taking steps to improve its processes.

The committee chairman said that he was satisfied that the committee had never been told about the existence of the 33,000 cases as Ms Homer had claimed.

MPs questioned Mr Vine about the agency. They asked him whether he knew that Rob Whiteman, the current chief executive of the UKBA, had written to the committee to tell them that the Controlled Archive was now closed. This would mean, Chairman Keith Vaz said, that the UKBA had dealt with 12,000 cases a week for seven weeks in order to close it. Mr Vine said 'This is the first I have heard of this. I wonder whether this is just closing this (the Controlled Archive) and opening it somewhere else'. He went on to say, 'Throughout this saga, we have heard the terms closed, concluded and resolved. Whatever is happening with the Controlled Archive, you suspect they have been looked at and put somewhere else.'

Mr Vine told James Clappison MP that there was a 'lack of transparency' at the UKBA and that customer service was 'shockingly poor'. He said that an inspection had revealed that many letters to the agency from MPs, the public and legal representatives were second or third requests for information. 'By any benchmark of a public sector organisation, that is a poor level of service,' he said.

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