Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration: Annual Report 2013-14

“It gives me great pleasure to present my sixth and final annual report as the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. It brings to a close my tenure which has seen me deliver over 70 inspection reports, 18 in the past year alone, in which I have made over 500 recommendations for improvement.

Whilst there has been measurable progress in some areas of immigration and border control, much remains to be done to provide the public and Parliament with assurance that the Home Office’s operations in this area are as effective as possible. Despite the abolition of the UK Border Agency and the functions being brought back under direct Ministerial control in the Home Office, many challenges persist and impact on public confidence.”

I still find too much evidence that the Home Office does not get the basics right. This includes the quality and consistency of decision making but also having caseworkers with the right skills, aligning resources to the right priorities and having high quality management information that provides a sound basis on which to make decisions on future strategy and resourcing.

There are continuing challenges in asylum. I have been able to evidence some improvements in the Home Office’s handling of asylum cases. However, the Home Office needs to ensure that it makes good quality decisions in a timely manner, treats all these vulnerable applicants with dignity and respect, and uses public money wisely.

Whilst there is a much improved picture of consistency of passport checks at ports I am concerned that this has sometimes been at the expense of appropriate levels of customs activity at the border. Both activities are vital in securing the border and in preventing and detecting those who smuggle goods and people in to the UK.

Within enforcement activity, whilst I understand the difficulties involved in identifying and obtaining temporary travel documentation for individuals, there needs to be more effective identification and removal of those who have no right to remain in the UK.

Finally, there is an ongoing need for the Home Office to maintain management grip of the quality, consistency and fairness of its work. I have repeatedly had to report on the lack of quality assurance by managers across the board and I have identified a number of backlogs of work that senior officials had not been aware of. Going forward, there needs to be improved strategic cohesion between the directorates within the Home Office in delivering a seamless immigration function, coupled with better management oversight and assurance processes to provide Ministers with confidence that policy is being delivered effectively and that guidance is being followed by staff.

The inspectorate that I have created is, as far as I can gather, the only one of its kind in the world. It has been a privilege to work with all my staff over my six and a half years in post.

I believe that independent inspection has been and will continue to be an important catalyst for improvement and I am immensely proud of the inspectorate and of what it has achieved.

Overstayer Numbers Remain the Same Despite Considerable Efforts to Tackle Migration Refusal Pool

Despite considerable efforts by the Home Office to remove those who had overstayed their time in the UK, the overall size of the post-2008 Migration Refusal Pool (MRP) has remained almost static. The outsourcing of the MRP data cleanse had not fulfilled most of the benefits that the Home Office had claimed would result and there were significant inaccuracies in the classification of MRP records. These were some of the key findings in the Chief Inspector’s report on Overstayers.

In 2012 the Chief Inspector identified a MRP of 159,313 individuals who had been refused an extension of their stay in the UK but had not departed. Since then the Home Office had signed a contract with Capita plc to review, and where possible close, the records of migrants in the MRP. This inspection focused on the Home Office’s management of MRP cases, in particular, the cleansing, case working and contact management of MRP records by the contractor Capita and the progression of MRP cases by Home Office enforcement casework.

The Chief Inspector found that:

• Capita was able accurately to identify duplicate records and to close records for 33,000 (22%) of migrants who were found to have already left the UK from the original pool of 150,000;

• Capita had also processed some 16,000 outstanding reconsideration requests and had been able to close off 7,327 of these (46%);

• Capita had identified 45,900 departures and duplicate records from a further 223,600 older MRP cases that were not included in the Home Office statistics;

• Immigration Enforcement was restructured in 2013, and additional staff were recruited to strengthen the Home Office’s capacity to deal with enforcement casework;

• the terms of the contract for management of the MRP records were defined on the basis of a pilot that had not accurately reflected the composition of the MRP. As a result, Capita’s work took longer, and cost more, than was originally anticipated;

• the MRP still contained records that should have been excluded, such as records relating to asylum applications. This not only impacted on the Home Office’s ability to pursue enforcement cases to conclusion, but also rendered the figures unreliable;

• the number of additional pre-December 2008 MRP records that the Home Office provided means that the total MRP figure has almost doubled, although this information had not been reported to Parliament at the time of our inspection;

• there were significant inaccuracies in Capita’s classification of MRP records. Sixteen of our sample of 57 records which were closed because the migrant had been found to have left the UK were completed in error, with the result that these wrongly counted towards Home Office removal statistics. In the light of this, we estimated that departures could have been overstated by more than 1,140 in 2013/14, more than a quarter of the total of 4,080 claimed by Capita in that year (28%);

• these errors arose because of incorrect use of Advance Passenger Information (API), which also meant that Capita misidentified some people as overstayers who had in fact complied fully with immigration legislation.

• the API data available to Capita was incomplete, a potentially serious issue given that this information is needed for accurate monitoring of migrant movements into and out of the UK.

• the outsourcing of the MRP data cleanse had not fulfilled most of the benefits that the Home Office had claimed would result. Despite an inflow of 185,313 cases in 2013/14, there was no overall reduction;

• the overall number of post-2008 records in the MRP had fallen by only 3.6% between April 2013 and April 2014, and there was no evidence that Capita’s work had increased the number of enforced removals that the Home Office had been able to achieve;

• the casework element of the contract had contributed little to the Home Office’s enforcement objectives. Less than 1% of those who had passed through the Capita contact management process (0.73%) had departed after contact;

• the average weekly flow of cases into Removals Core Casework exceeded outflow by 82%. We found systemic problems that we considered made the managers’ objective to bring this into balance by 2015, as unrealistic, especially given that our analysis showed that a 400% increase in output would be required;

• case progression was not being effectively managed overall. Capita processes often did not accurately identify suitable cases for enforcement. Cases were not being allocated by workflow teams in line with national priorities, and once allocated were not being progressed efficiently.

• basic procedures were being neglected. For example, in 22% and 29% of two file samples of cases passed to RCC casework teams for enforcement action, no attempt had been made to bring migrants into regular contact with the Home Office;

• metrics used to monitor performance were not transparent, and were sometimes misleading. RCC used the term ‘conclusion’ to cover a range of caseworking actions that did not lead to either grants or removals, but in fact were only transfers to another Home Office unit;

• there was a lack of alignment between RCC and locally-based Immigration Compliance & Enforcement (ICE) teams, to progress cases that are ready for detention and removal.;

• mechanisms for tracing individuals who were out of contact were not effective, and consistent action was not being taken to locate absconders.

Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM:

“Any failure to take action against foreign nationals who overstay their permission to be in the UK has the potential to undermine public confidence in immigration control.

At the start of this inspection I was informed of the existence of a further 223,600 records, predating December 2008, which had not previously been included within the MRP.

It is clear that considerable efforts had been made by both the contractor and the Home Office to manage the work on the MRP. However, I found that many of the expected financial and strategic benefits have not materialised, with far fewer migrants having been persuaded to depart than anticipated.

Of the 120,000 people whose cases were sent to Capita for contact to be made, I found that less than 1% had left as a result of Capita’s intervention. The overall size of the post-2008 MRP has remained almost static, standing at 173,562. However, without this intervention, the total would have been considerably higher.

I was disappointed to find a high level of inaccuracy in the classification of MRP records, with more than a quarter of departures in my sample being incorrectly recorded.

Considerable improvements in the Home Office’s capability to monitor, progress, and prioritise the immigration enforcement caseload will be needed to deliver its strategy for reducing the level of irregular migration.”

The Chief Inspector made 13 recommendations for improvement. These included the Home Office improving the quality of MRP data so that it can report accurately to Ministers and Parliament; improving the contact management process so that more migrants are persuaded to depart; re-evaluating the casework element of the Capita contract to ensure that it is a cost-effective use of public resources; and ensures effective joint working between the different units within Immigration Enforcement

Visa Interviews Adding Value to Decision-Making but Improvements Required

The Home Office’s re-introduction of interviews for visa applications globally was handled impressively and was adding value to decision-making in high-risk visa posts. However, student visa refusal rates were not increasing as expected and opportunities to improve the quality of interviews were being lost. These were among the Independent Chief Inspector’s findings in his report on Visa Interviewing.

Interviews for certain types of visas were reduced when the Points Based System (PBS) was introduced in 2008. However, subsequent abuse of the system, particularly by students, led to interviews being increased in 2012. There are two formats of interview: a video credibility interview (commonly referred to as a VTC interview) and a substantive interview . The inspection assessed the effectiveness of both video credibility interviews and substantive interviews, conducted either by agency staff in Sheffield or by Entry Clearance Officers at visa posts overseas (India, China, Nigeria).

The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:

• the implementation of video credibility interviews had been managed effectively by the Home Office;

• the installation of video technology in visa application centres in a number of global locations was an impressive feat and the Home Office managed the change programme effectively;

• substantive interviews conducted at visa posts were adding real value to the decision-making process. This was particularly important for refusal cases that would have been issued with a visa under the previous system;

• video credibility interviews were adding value to the decision-making process in high-risk locations such as Abuja and Chennai. However, this was the case in low-risk locations such as Shanghai;

• facilities at the Sheffield interviewing hub were impressive, and efficient workflow processes ensured that applicants at visa application centres overseas were dealt with effectively;

• in a large majority of cases, staff at Sheffield were correctly identifying whether applicants were credible;

• the Home Office continued to meet its customer service standards in the majority of posts.

However, the Chief Inspector also found that:

• there was no increase in the refusal rate for Tier 4 student applications, which was one of the predicted benefits of the interviewing project;

• in low-risk locations where the majority of visa applications resulted in a visa issue, the VTC added limited value. For example, in Shanghai we found only one case in our file sample where we considered the VTC to have added value;

• an absence of formal feedback mechanisms from visa posts meant that staff in Sheffield had no way of knowing whether they were conducting interviews effectively;

• the quality assessment process that was in place placed too much emphasis on presentation rather than focusing on the quality of the interview. As a result, opportunities to improve the VTC interviewing process were being lost;

• the VTC interview did not give staff the opportunity to ask relevant follow-up questions beyond those that were pre-programmed within the interview template. This meant that in certain instances staff could not fully explore key aspects of the case;

• some ECOs at visa posts were not always utilising substantive interviews when they should have;

• staff were not always recording the reasons why applicants were being invited to attend interviews at visa posts. The lack of a proper audit trail meant that managers could not be assured that the right applicants were being selected for interview.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM:

“The implementation of video interviews was a challenging programme of work. The Home Secretary target was to complete more than 100,000 interviews during 2013/14. That this target was exceeded demonstrated that the programme had been managed and delivered effectively by the Home Office.

Video interviews were adding value in high-risk locations where there were higher numbers of non-genuine students. Substantive interviews were also adding value to the visa decision-making process.

However, in low-risk locations where the majority of visa applications resulted in a visa issue, the VTC added limited value. The Home Office should consider whether a risk-based approach would deliver increased benefits that would target resources more effectively.”

The Chief Inspector made seven recommendations for improvement. These included that the Home Office re-assesses whether a risk-based approach to video teleconferencing interviews would deliver increased benefits and target resources more effectively; improves interviewing training so that ECOs are equipped with the skills to conduct interviews effectively; and widens the scope of the quality assurance regime in the Sheffield interview to include an assessment of the quality of the interview itself.