Home Office Providing Effective Training on Gay Asylum Cases but Unsatisfactory Questions Must be Eradicated

The Home Office’s guidance and training on asylum cases based on sexual orientation was concise and clear, and most asylum interviews complied with guidance. However, the guidance was not being applied consistently and unsatisfactory questions were found in a sample of cases. These were some of the key findings of the Chief Inspector’s investigation into the Home Office’s handling of asylum claims based on sexual orientation.

Asylum is protection given by a country to someone who is fleeing persecution in their own country. The UK recognises asylum claims based on sexual orientation – lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB). The Home Office stated that, in 2013, 1.4% (283) of all asylum claims in the UK were made on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In February 2014 the Observer newspaper published an article which included an extract from an asylum interview during which an applicant had been asked inappropriate and sexually explicit questions by a Home Office caseworker. As a result of this, the Chief Inspector was asked by the Home Secretary to investigate the Department’s handling of asylum claims made on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Chief Inspector found that:

• the Home Office had worked effectively with stakeholders to produce specific guidance and training on the handling of sexual orientation claims;

• the guidance was concise and clear, addressing difficult areas with sensitivity and, in particular, emphasising that sexually explicit questions of the type highlighted in the Observer are never acceptable;

• the quality of training for new asylum caseworkers and delivery of training on sexual orientation matters was good. Refresher training had recently been provided to more experienced staff;

• there was inconsistent practice between teams dealing with detained and non-detained applicants. The Detained Fast Track (DFT) accepted sexually explicit material submitted as evidence, whereas the non-detained areas did not. There is a risk of procedural unfairness if the Department does not have a consistent approach;

• most of the substantive asylum interviews complied with guidance. There were no questions in the sampled files of the type highlighted in the Observer article, but a fifth of interviews contained some stereotyping and a tenth contained questions of an unsatisfactory nature;

• unsatisfactory questions were more than twice as common within the DFT and included questions likely to elicit sexually explicit responses or querying the validity of same-sex relationships.

• there was no direct correlation between unsatisfactory lines of questioning and the likelihood of a claim being refused.

• despite stakeholder concerns about the difficulties of disclosing sexuality, nearly all sampled applicants had been able to disclose their sexual orientation before or at their screening interviews;

• over a third of sampled applicants, however, claimed asylum on sexual orientation grounds months or years after arrival in the UK, often following a refusal of leave on other grounds. The majority of these were rejected, with decisions upheld on appeal;

 • management information on sexual orientation claims was inadequate, and only around a third of sexual orientation cases had been recorded as such, so the Home Office had under reported the incidence of these cases; and

• the allowed appeal rate for DFT sexual orientation decisions was over double the rate for DFT asylum claims as a whole.

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

“Asylum applicants, particularly those in fear of persecution based on their sexuality, are often vulnerable individuals.

I was pleased to find that guidance and training for caseworkers was generally clear and concise and dealt with difficult and sensitive areas of questioning. I did not find any questions of the type highlighted in the Observer article, but over a tenth of interviews did contain questions of an unsatisfactory nature.

Such questions are not acceptable and the Home Office must work to eradicate them. I did not, however, identify any direct correlation between inappropriate lines of questioning and the likelihood of a claim being refused.

I was concerned to find differences in the way DFT cases were handled, with more likelihood of unsatisfactory questions being asked and sexually explicit material being considered as evidence. The allowed appeal rate in these cases was also over double that of DFT’s asylum claims as a whole.

I have recommended that the Home Office ensures that caseworkers do not ask sexually explicit questions, and equips them with the interviewing skills to cope professionally when sexually explicit responses are received.”

The Chief Inspector made eight recommendations for improvement. These included that the Home Office should ensure a consistent approach towards the handling of explicit material presented to support an asylum claim, and that all asylum claims made on grounds of sexual orientation should be accurately recorded as such.

Home Office’s Management of Immigration Allegations Improving but Opportunities to Prevent Offences Missed

The Home Office system to record and assess allegations concerning immigration and customs offences from the public provided clear benefits, but more needed to be done to ensure this intelligence was translated into effective operational action. These were the findings in the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s report into the Home Office’s Intelligence Management System (IMS).

The IMS is a Home Office database – introduced in September 2012 – used for recording and processing allegations concerning immigration or customs offences, and assessing their value in terms of combating these offences. These allegations may originate from the public, through stakeholders such as Crimestoppers or from Home Office staff. This inspection examined how effectively the IMS captured and recorded information relating to allegations made about immigration or customs offences and considered how this information was then progressed to inform operational activity.

The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:

• in 94% of cases in our sample (15) where the Home Office took action after receiving an allegation, he considered that the action taken was appropriate;

• IMS users were able to take action quickly when necessary once an allegation had been initially assessed. This resulted in effective operational work such as the disruption of a sham marriage ceremony;

• following Home Office background checks, IMS users were able to identify that seven alleged offenders in our sample had valid leave to remain and correctly closed the case;

• an advanced search function added in August 2013 has enabled users to search within the system for allegations which may be connected and enhance the overall intelligence picture;

• the public could submit allegations directly (via an online form) for the first time and planned upgrade work during 2014 will further enhance IMS functionality.

However, the Chief Inspector also found that:

• in order for the information contained within the IMS to be of real value, it is important that, after it is disseminated to the relevant team, appropriate action is taken. However, he found examples where the receiving team had failed to act appropriately on IMS information;

• the Home Office had failed to adhere to the Ministerial target of two working days to process allegations in over a third (39%) of the cases. This led to some time-critical allegations not being assessed until it was too late to take preventative action;

• the details of allegations were not being routinely cross-checked against the information already on the IMS. In one category (‘No Further Action’ actionable cases), we found that almost a quarter were duplicates of others already on the system;

• management information taken from the IMS was limited and produced unreliable performance reports;

• In 12 cases in our sample we found no evidence that any background checks had been conducted on Home Office systems, despite the fact that details of the alleged offender had been provided;

• there were significant issues with data quality. An electronic form which needs to completed with details of allegations had not been completed correctly in 35 cases (28% of our overall sample);

• management assurance took place in only 14% of our sample (18 cases);

• in 14 of 38 cases (30%) where the source of the allegation submitted their details, these details were not added to the electronic form and would not be identified in a search. This could seriously undermine the ability of the National Source Unit (NSU) to mitigate source risks;

• staff demonstrated limited knowledge of the relevant guidance and legislation regarding managing source risks. This led to inconsistent practices in dealing with sources.

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

“In my 2011 report on the use of intelligence in the then UKBA, I recommended that allegations were recorded and assessed to inform operational activity relating to customs and immigrations offences. Therefore, I was pleased to find that the Home Office had acted on this and established an Intelligence Management System.

This system provides clear benefits by enabling collection and analysis of allegations to develop intelligence, inform strategy and direct operational enforcement and caseworking activity.

However, I found that more could be done to improve the quality of data entry and improve case management. I was concerned to find that opportunities to prevent or identify offences may have been missed. A number of the allegations in my file sample could have been investigated but were wrongly categorised as being of no value.

The Home Office must ensure that the value of information contained within allegations to various parts of the business is recognised and that any action taken is appropriate. It must also ensure initial assessment of allegations takes place within the 2 day Ministerial target.”

The Chief Inspector made FOUR recommendations for improvement. These included, ensuring all allegations were assessed properly and providing all intelligence staff with adequate training in handling sources.

High Quality of Decision Making at Paris Visa Section Despite an Increase in Visa Applications

Decision making in Paris was of a high quality and customer service targets were also being met. These were the key findings from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s inspection of the Home Office’s Paris visa section.

The Chief Inspector chose to inspect the Paris Visa Section because it is one of the main decision-making hubs in the Euro-Med region and has a relatively high refusal rate for Other Visitor applications.

Application numbers processed in Paris had increased markedly since 2011 and were forecast to have increased by 100% between then and 2014. This increase was due to Paris gradually assuming responsibility for applications previously decided by posts in North Africa, following the transfer of such work from Algeria and Tunisia in September 2012 and from Morocco in March 2014.

The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:

• effective resource planning had enabled Paris to cope well with the additional work generated from Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan applications;

• staff and managers in Paris were committed to making high quality decisions on applications. Overall, decision quality was good and we assessed 94% of refusals as reasonable;

• most files we sampled were in good order, with supporting documents retained in line with recommendations in our previous reports and refusal notices were generally of a good standard;

• decision-making targets in Paris were seen as stretching by staff, but we found that they still allowed staff to make well-evidenced decisions;

• the Paris Visa Section was consistently meeting its customer service targets, with 99% of non-settlement applications consistently being decided within three weeks;

• there was an excellent relationship between RALON and the Visa Section, with an ‘open door’ policy existing between the two;

• verification checks were being used to inform decision-making in Paris.

However, the Chief Inspector also found that:

• three refusals (6%) were assessed as unreasonable. These included two cases where simple enquiries could have allowed the ECO to make a better informed decision;

• though the post was conducting verification checks, we found it was encountering difficulties in securing cooperation from individuals and companies based in Tunisia when conducting checks on Tunisian applications;

• whilst service standards were being met, applicants were not given sufficient information on how these were measured;

• the post was not operating a clear desk policy and applications and files containing personal information had been left unattended rather than being locked securely away overnight.

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

“Overall, I was very pleased with the decision quality and level of customer service I found at the Paris visa section. However, the Home Office must ensure that applicants are given clear information on how service standards are measured, so that they know when they can reasonably expect a decision.

Application numbers processed in Paris had increased markedly since 2011 and were forecast to have increased by 100% between then and 2014. However, I found that effective resource planning had enabled Paris to cope well with this new work.

I was also concerned to find that the post was not meeting its obligations to protect the personal and sensitive data of applicants, including passports and bank statements, and neither was it following the Home Office’s guidance on data protection. This must be remedied immediately.”

The Chief Inspector made two recommendations for improvement. These were that the Home Office must ensure that personal data is stored securely and that it publishes clear service standards so that each visa applicant is given a reasonable expectation of when they might receive a decision.