Poorly Managed Organisational Change Leads to Backlog of Asylum Casework

A poorly managed change programme for asylum casework had resulted in the rapid loss of experienced staff, which led to a backlog of over 13,000 cases by the end of 2013. These were the findings in the Chief Inspector of Border and Immigrations inspection report on Home Office’s Cardiff Asylum Team.

Cardiff is one of ten non-detained asylum casework units across the UK. It receives approximately 8% of the UK’s annual non-detained asylum applications. In 2013, the UK received 23,507 such applications. The inspection of the Cardiff team aimed to gain an insight into the local challenges facing asylum teams, resulting from rising numbers of asylum claims and the impact of organisational change.

The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:

• staff in Cardiff were committed and took their responsibility to safeguard vulnerable individuals seriously;

• there were good communication links between asylum appeals and enforcement teams in Cardiff, this was particularly important in relation to asylum removals;

• staff praised local managers for the support they had provided during a major transition programme in 2012-13;

• recent proposals to revise targets and to improve efficiency had been developed in close consultation with staff.

However, the Chief Inspector also found that:

• proposals to restructure asylum casework announced in early 2013 were suspended in September 2013. This followed the loss of significant numbers of experienced staff, which meant the Cardiff team lost 43% of its case-owners;

• as a result, a national backlog of 13,628 cases awaiting an initial decision developed by the end of 2013 (773 of these cases were in Cardiff). Of these, 6,249 had been awaiting a decision for more than six months;

• in Cardiff, staff’s main focus was on cases they believed could be decided within 30 days. More complex cases were not being referred for interviews and decisions. Instead they joined the backlog;

• applicants, whose cases were not referred to the Cardiff asylum team in a timely manner from the Asylum Screening Unit, potentially lost the opportunity for a quick decision through no fault of their own;

• it was disappointing that the Home Office’s review of its 30 day target for asylum casework, had not happened sooner given the issues we identified had been apparent for many months;

• the Home Office’s aim to eliminate the backlog of cases awaiting initial decision by April 2015, and ensure that almost all applicants would receive a decision within six months was challenging. In order to achieve this, decisions would have to be made in 32,000 cases in 2014-15, a 60% increase in productivity compared to recent years, and with a less experienced workforce.

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

“I found that the national backlog of asylum cases awaiting initial decision had grown to over 13,000 – over 750 of which were in Cardiff – because of a poorly managed change programme in 2013. This had led to the rapid loss of experienced staff before it was suspended last September. The Home Office must draw lessons from its poor management of that change to avoid similar mistakes in future.

The Home Office aims to clear the backlog by March 2015. This will be challenging as it will require significantly more asylum decisions to be made in 2014 than have been made in recent years and with a less experienced workforce.

While the Home Office was reviewing its targets for asylum casework, I was disappointed this had not happened sooner given the issues I identified had been apparent for many months.

I intend to conduct a full inspection of asylum casework in early 2015, when I will check progress against these new targets.”

The Chief Inspector made three recommendations for improvement to the Home Office. These included, deciding all asylum applications within published service standards and informing applicants where it is unable to do so, and evaluation of its previous asylum casework change programmes in order to improve its management of future change.

No Effective Home Office Strategy to Tackle Asylum Support Fraud

The Home Office was deciding applications for asylum support fairly, but a poorly managed organisational change had led to deterioration in service, and an increase in the number of recipients of asylum support. In his report on Asylum Support the Chief Inspector also found that there was no effective strategy in place to identify and tackle asylum support fraud.

People claiming asylum in the UK can also apply to the Home Office for asylum support to help with their essential living needs. Such support consists of financial assistance, accommodation or both, with a budget of £155 million in 2013/14. At the end of September 2013, 22,022 asylum seekers were receiving support under Section 95 and 4,709 failed asylum seekers and their dependents were being supported under Section 4. This inspection examined the Home Office’s efficiency and effectiveness in its delivery of its asylum support functions.

The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:

• the decision to grant or refuse asylum support was reasonable in 90% of cases sampled. Staff assessed destitution fairly when considering applications for asylum support;

• in 12 cases where an appeal was lodged, only two (17%) were allowed by the First-Tier Tribunal;

• staff at the Asylum Screening Unit were committed to safeguarding vulnerable individuals;

• the average waiting time for an appointment had decreased between April 2012 and June 2013, although the system was showing signs of strain due to increasing numbers of applications;

• the IT systems used by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) were largely fit for purpose.

However, the Chief Inspector was concerned that:

• UKVI had not established an effective counter fraud regime. It did not have a strategy setting out how it would tackle asylum support fraud, nor had it determined the scale and nature of the risks it posed;

• resource management was haphazard and regional Fraud and Compliance teams (FCTs) operated autonomously, and were not suitably trained to undertake investigative work;

• 11 fraud cases failed to adhere to key aspects of guidance. This meant that cases of suspected fraud were not always investigated effectively;

• the absence of a debt recovery strategy also meant overpayment recovery was not being pursued effectively;

• only 11 out of 23 investigations (48%) were concluded within UKVI target times. In 20 of 49 cases (41%) where asylum support was granted UKVI had missed the Home Office’s target of making a decision within five days;

• 52% of the cases granted support were not being reviewed regularly in order to establish whether recipients were still eligible for support;

• an increasing asylum intake and a significant loss of staff in the Asylum Casework Directorate over a relatively short period of time, had led to a 55% increase in cases receiving asylum support under Section 4 between April 2012 and December 2013;

• the exodus of experienced staff had occurred as a result of a poorly managed restructuring exercise that was repeatedly put on hold and finally halted as UKVI had failed to realise the risks involved with such a significant organisational change;

• the introduction of the Biometric Residence Permit, had negatively affected UKVI’s ability to terminate asylum support in a timely manner;

• caseworkers found it difficult to check whether asylum support applicants were receiving benefits from other government departments, such as DWP and HMRC;

• guidance was extensive, had overlapping content and the majority of it not been updated for several years.

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

“The administration of asylum support represents a significant challenge for the Home Office. It must balance the need to provide assistance to vulnerable applicants against the public interest in deterring fraudulent support claims.

Although decision making was good in the cases I examined, once again a poorly managed organisational change had led to deterioration in service, and an increase in the number of recipients of asylum support.

I found no evidence that the Home Office had an effective strategy to identify and tackle fraud in the asylum support system. Work had not been undertaken to determine what its exposure to fraud risk was. No attempt had been made to ensure Fraud and Compliance teams operated in a consistent manner and there were insufficient resources dedicated to this work. As a result opportunities to identify and deter those wishing to commit fraud were lost.

Almost half of my recommendations in this report relate to improvements in tackling fraud. The Home Office must ensure these are implemented swiftly and effectively.”

The Chief Inspector made 11 recommendations to the Home Office. These included, urgently resolving the backlog of outstanding further submissions, particularly where asylum support is in payment, and providing sufficient resources to manage and implement effective counter fraud measures to deter abuse of the asylum support system.

Powers to Remove ‘Cleary Unfounded’ Asylum Claimants Quickly not being Fully Utilised

Removals of applicants whose asylum claims were certified as ‘clearly unfounded’ were happening quicker than others. However, the Home Office was not using these powers to their full extent. These were the key findings in the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s report on the Non-Suspensive Appeals process for ‘clearly unfounded’ asylum and Human Rights claims.

Since 2003, the Home Office has had the power to certify asylum and human rights claims that are without substance as ‘clearly unfounded’. The objective was to deter people making unfounded asylum and / or Human Rights claims by withdrawing the right to appeal whilst they remained in the UK. This is referred to as a Non-Suspensive Appeal (NSA) because an appeal against refusal can only be brought after the person has left the UK.

The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:

• where claims had been certified and the applicants removed, this occurred more quickly than in cases where claims were not certified;

• the number of people who had been removed in certified cases had increased in each of the financial years from 2010 to;.

• both staff and managers were aware of the potential significant consequences for applicants if their claims were incorrectly certified and removed as a consequence;

• the NSA Oversight Team was widely praised for the quality of the training and technical support it provided to decision makers on cases;

• Individual appeal outcomes were being reviewed by staff. There had been only one allowed appeal since 2007;

• all new decision makers were being trained in NSA powers and there were plans to train existing decision makers.

However, the Chief Inspector also found that:

• in 40% of the cases sampled in which the Home Office refused the application from a person who was entitled to reside in a designated state without certifying it, he could find no evidence that the Home Office had considered certification before serving its decision;

• the Home Office may also certify claims from applicants who do not come from a designated state, when satisfied that the claim is clearly unfounded. However, we consider that this power was not being used as often as it could have been;

• decisions relating to applicants who are entitled to reside in a designated state, as well as decisions to certify claims on a case by case basis, must be approved by an accredited ‘Second Pair of Eyes’ (SPOE). However, in 7% of these cases this had not happened;

• there was a lack of objective standards against which prospective SPOEs could be assessed;

• there was also no formal process through which the Home Office reaccredited staff to ensure that their continued to possess the necessary skills and knowledge to perform their role after their initial accreditation;

• there was a lack of a consistent understanding of the role and remit of the NSA Oversight Team;

• eight out of 22 people who had had their claims refused and certified by the Home Office and had been placed on reporting restrictions, were not reporting as required, but had not been flagged as absconders. This information could be used to identify that a person had failed to comply with their reporting restrictions if they were to come to the attention of either the Home Office or police in the future;

• the Home Office was unable to supply us with reliable data to show the number and outcome of Judicial Reviews.

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

“Removing an in-country right of appeal is a significant step. Incorrect use of the certification power can potentially result in people being sent back to countries where they face ill treatment. Conversely, a failure to certify an unfounded asylum claim may delay removal and result in unnecessary costs to the taxpayer.

I found that staff and managers were alive to the potential risks of certifying claims incorrectly. Where applicants were removed, unsurprisingly, this occurred more quickly in cases that had been certified. This underlines the importance of using the power fully.

However, I found that opportunities to make greater use of certification were being missed. This is a concern given the statutory obligation on the Secretary of State to certify such claims unless they are not clearly unfounded.”

The Chief Inspector made seven recommendations for improvement to the Home Office. These included making full use of the certification power, urgently capturing and analysing data on Judicial Reviews and taking appropriate action against individuals who have failed to report to authorities.