Despite a strong focus on customer service and police and immigration checks the Home Office was not scrutinizing applications thoroughly to ensure decisions to grant British citizenship were sound. As a result, nationality was granted to individuals who did not meet the ‘good character’ requirement.
The granting of British citizenship is an important decision which confers a number of significant benefits to successful applicants. These include the right to a British passport, unrestricted entry to and exit from the UK, the right to vote and the right to hold public office. Decisions therefore need to balance effective customer service with appropriate scrutiny. This inspection examined how effectively UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) managed these responsibilities.
The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:
• there was strong focus on providing good customer service and the customer service standard in determining applications within six months was exceeded throughout 2013.
• police and immigration checks were conducted on every applicant;
• all applications were sifted for cases of potential war crimes or security services interest and we found that decisions to deprive citizenship were evidence-based and reasonable;
• nationality Casework had created an effective partnership with local authority service providers under the umbrella of the Nationality Checking Service (NCS).This meant applications were of better quality and less likely to be refused;
However, the Chief Inspector also found that:
• applications were not scrutinised appropriately. In particular, caseworkers were not sufficiently looking for, or taking account of, evidence of character. This resulted in British citizenship being granted to applicants with very poor immigration histories;
• in some cases applicants who had very poor immigration histories over protracted periods of time, including during the qualifying period for naturalisation were granted citizenship. The poor histories included having no leave to enter or remain for long periods, working illegally and absconding;
• apart from automated police and immigration checks, virtually no other checks were conducted to establish the good character of applicants;
• no attempts were made to check an applicant’s criminal record in the country of nationality, despite Home Office guidance on how to obtain this from many countries around the world. Even where an applicant disclosed criminal convictions overseas, it could still be difficult to refuse the application if the convictions could not be confirmed by other means;
• far too much reliance was placed on self-declaration by applicants. This meant that, unless an applicant declared financial problems or that they had practised tax avoidance, benefit fraud etc, no other checks were made to verify this;
• the lack of detail on the casework database concerning previous applications, combined with the practice of not referring to paper files, meant caseworkers could be unaware of information which was relevant to the applicant’s character;
• the eligibility requirements in respect of referees were disregarded and played no part in the decision-making process;
• there was no evidence of any consideration being given to prosecuting applicants who had used deception to obtain British citizenship, other than in a small number of cases involving organised crime;
• there were significant delays in dealing with allegations concerning deception in order to obtain British citizenship. This meant that allegations which led to nullity action being taken took three years on average to progress. Decisions to revoke leave and/or pursue removal as a result of this nullity action had also not been progressed.
The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM:
“The granting of British citizenship is a profoundly significant step for both the individual and the UK. Therefore, I was concerned to find that Nationality Casework had not struck the right balance between this and the need to scrutinise applications thoroughly to ensure that decisions to grant British citizenship were evidence-based.
UKVI guidance which allowed caseworkers to disregard evasion of immigration control during the qualifying period, where there was no other evidence to cast doubt on an applicant’s good character, had resulted in a ‘blanket approach’ being adopted.
While I accept that there is a judgement to be made when interpreting the good character requirement, I believe it was wrong to disregard a poor history of evading immigration control when this occurred within the qualifying period.
The Home Office must apply the rules fairly and rigorously so that parliament and the public have confidence in the system.”
The Chief Inspector made 12 recommendations for improvement. These included that the Home Office ensures that the Home Secretary approves the overall approach concerning the use of discretion in cases where applicants do not meet the statutory requirements; ensures that good character checks are always undertaken in cases involving evasion of immigration control; ensures that, when there are serious doubts about the credibility of an application, caseworkers have the ability to call applicants in for a face-to-face interview; and introduces random checking procedures with other government departments and credit reference agencies to ensure that decision-making is not reliant solely on an applicant’s declaration.