Opinion: We must prevent another immigration “legacy”

Is there an amnesty for illegal immigrants? Keith Vaz seems determined to prove that there is, although so far without success. But the reality behind the bluster is rather more serious.

In 2007 the Home Office ‘found’ (or so the apocryphal tale goes) 500,000 asylum cases which had not been dealt with, ‘lying around’ in a room in the depths of Lunar House, Croydon.  This backlog was termed the ‘legacy’ of unresolved asylum cases.

A new department was set up and given the grisly task of looking at and resolving these cases, some of which had been untouched for over 10 years. The results were pretty grim. Thousands of people came to light who had been in a kind of ‘no-man’s land ‘for years on end, with no right to work, no home and no prospect of their situation being resolved. They were either granted leave to remain or deported according to a set of criteria so vague and complex that caseworkers struggled to apply it consistently, which led to unfair decisions and talk of an amnesty.

Although it has been a difficult and problematic process, the majority of cases have now been cleared. But we can never allow a similar backlog to develop again. Unfortunately, the signs are that the UKBA is slipping again under its new Chief Executive, Rob Whiteman.

A new backlog has developed- this time of ‘reconsideration requests’- informal appeals, where an applicant has been refused leave to remain but has asked for the decision to be looked at again. Although smaller, this backlog is worse than the legacy in some ways. Firstly, it is the most vulnerable who make reconsideration requests- single mothers who have been told to leave the UK with young children for example. Secondly, those with a reconsideration requests pending (as opposed to formal appeals or asylum claims) have absolutely no rights- not even to emergency housing if they are homeless with children. Thirdly, the department dealing with them is completely unaccountable and has no targets or system of prioritising cases- you cannot request that your case be considered a priority if you are street homeless, for example.

A second backlog is creating more immediate problems. Currently, when people apply to extend their leave to remain, they retain their right to work while their application is being considered. Employers can call a UKBA number and confirm that their employee has indeed applied and can work. However, the department in Durham that logs new applications onto the computer database now has a backlog of several months. This means that when employers call up, they are told that their employee has not applied and they cannot confirm their ongoing right to work. An email is generated setting this out in writing. You can imagine the results.

Liberal Democrats MPs have called on the government to resolve these backlogs as soon as possible. But we should be worried that they are beginning to develop again after four relatively good years under the stewardship of the UKBA’ s previous Chief Executive, Lin Homer.

Stopping backlogs developing when resources are scarce is difficult. It takes commitment, energy and a constant remembering of why the work is important. But it is worth it- in our immigration system it is essential if we are to prevent the most vulnerable from slipping into a black hole. The UKBA must employ people who understand this, and Liberal Democrats must to all that they can to encourage them when they do their job well, and hold them to account when they do not. We must not end up with another ‘legacy’.

* James Harper works for a Liberal Democrat MP specialising in Asylum and Immigration casework. The views expressed are his own.

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  • Tony Dawson 9th Jan '13 - 12:17pm

    My own experience of over 25 years of immigration casework is that the department is not and never has been ‘fit for purpose’. Those involved continue to make legally bad decisions day after day in the knowledge that many of those concerned will give up their cases. They waste resources calling in people for monitoring visits who are perfectly legal in the UK. They stop perfectly valid visitors. They employ agencies in foreign countries to process applications in a manner which many think is corrupt but more likely just inept.

    A large part of the backlog is of the agency’s own making. They waste time arguing hopeless cases which they know they will lose at tribunal. They lose documents and return them late.

    I cannot agree with James in respect of Lin Homer’s tenure at UKBA. In my view, it was as awful as ever. But the lack of fitness for purpose of this department is as much a proper assessment of the politicians who have been involved (from John Reid through Jack Straw and Phil Woolas to Theresa May and co) as of the paid management. Parliament also must share the blame by allowing the situation to get worse and worse without blowing the whistle and demanding a halt and putting in the resources necessary.

    On the bright side, there are dozens of really nice and efficient UKBA people working in MP’s casework teams up and down the country helping MP’s staff to try to put a few things right for individuals. But this is a pimple on the back of a hippo.

  • Richard Dean 9th Jan '13 - 1:22pm

    One must always remember that immigration applicants are human beings. They have the same rights as any other human being. They also have the same sorts of dependents, and the same strengths and weaknesses. The UK is a tempting destination – is the pain of experiencing a backlog being used as a way to reduce the temptation to apply spuriously?

    Our borders agency is a lot better than some. So can it really be true, after so much has been said for so many years, that a part of a UK government department is unaccountable? Surely this department has some kind of managerial head who has to report to someone who has to report … etc .. Why is the Durham issue so hard to handle?

  • James Harper 9th Jan '13 - 4:01pm

    Tony, it is all relative- the UKBA was certainly still awful under Lin Homer but my impression from meeting her was that she did want to move things in the right direction and had a respectable ethos. At least there weren’t any complete disasters under her tenure like the legacy scheme and these backlogs developing now. Completely agree with you re parliament having to share the blame. There are some nice people working in MP’s casework teams but there are also some very bureaucratic and unhelpful people working in positions of power- in local enforcement teams for example. My feeling is that civil service management structures still don’t help to produce caseworkers who really understand and are in touch with the impact of their work.

    Richard, the thing is that both genuine and spurious applicants suffer as a result of a backlog so I don’t think they can be used as a kind of deterrent. The department is unaccountable in the sense that it is very difficult for MPs to have any kind of meaningful communication about reconsideration requests at the moment- you write a letter saying this person is in a dire situation and you just get a template back saying ‘ we will contact them as soon as possible’. We had to fight the same battle with CRD and then CAAU to get them to actually look into cases and not think we were just there to waste their time.

  • Ian Sanderson 9th Jan '13 - 4:33pm

    I think it is to a certain extent unaccountable, in that the people who suffer when it has undue delays or mistakes are those, who, by definition, are not voters in the UK. If they have friends and families in the UK who are voters, and can enlist their MP and the right sort of legal help, things do get radically better. (Also, of course, some MPs will help for wholly pure motives.)
    I have only been involved peripherally in a handful of immigration cases over the years. But this small sample leads me to wonder if any at all are getting first class attention. Taking 14 months to produce a decision apparently based solely on the info supplied at the start seems to count as a good result. (And that seemed to need follow-up chasing.)

  • Well, an obvious solution to consider would be joining the Schengen common travel area and then:
    a) use some of the resulting freed up UKBA officials to clear the existing backlog of cases,
    b) use others to increase checks and controls on the non-EU traffic entering the UK.

    That would be probably too “radical” a thought for Westminster even though the UK’s “splendid isolation” outside Schengen doesn’t appear to have a notable effect in preventing this problem from occuring in reality.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Jan '13 - 7:25pm

    @James Harper:

    “the UKBA was certainly still awful under Lin Homer but my impression from meeting her was that she did want to move things in the right direction”

    So, she talked a good talk? Might explain how she got where she is today! 🙁

  • I share house with immigrants as I’m one of them. Have been waiting for my application to be processed nearly 2 years now, it is frustrating do to backlog. But more concerning is as we watch our house mates health deteriorated mentally do to long waiting. It’s sad to see that and to think it can happen to us.Hope UKBA understands the issue of people been kept in the state of limbo!!!

  • James Harper 9th Jan '13 - 10:16pm

    @Tony- perhaps, but we have to make our judgements about people somehow . I found her refreshingly un-beureaucratic and the first thing she said in her speech was ‘we have to realise that the decision a person receives from us will be one of the most important in their lives’. I also found her to be knowledgeable and quite passionate about the agency’s work, rather than stuffy and scraping around for answers. I’m not competent to say she was a great CEO, but my impression was that she was good news.

  • Paul, are you mad? If we joined the Schengen common travel area it…it would be unbritish like and…and it wouldn’t work anyway.

    However, seriously, the fact we are outside that zone sums up all the problems with British immigration policy in one go. It shows that our immigration policy is rotten to core and at its very heart is looking at everything backwards. It has nothing to do with the economy arguments like ‘those evil non-British types stealing all our jobs’ and it never has. It has always been about the strange sense of isolation that this country seems to be in love with. That weird idea that we are an island and so have to keep outsiders out.

    Every year we lose out on something like 10 million tourists from China alone due to ridiculous immigration regulations, costing our economy who knows how much. Furthermore, every year thousands of our best achieving University students are forced to leave the country after they graduate, resulting in us losing their skills, knowledge and not to be glib about it, but their just plain wealth; because lets fact it, to study in the UK as an international student is not cheap. So why? Why do we lose all this? I think the answer is simply because our country as a culture is treating immigration like a problem that needs to be stopped rather than part of social evolution that needs to be adapted to.

    Problems like the ‘backlog’ are not the cause of our problems in this area, they are merely part of the symptoms, and until with we deal with the cause of this problem, we will not be able to deal with symptoms like the backlog, which is truly shameful as I dread to how many we let suffer for our own sense of arrogance and ignorance .

  • As a member of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary (LD4SOS) I am researching the experiences of asylum seekers for a policy motion and I have just been told in writing by Rob Whiteman, UKBA chief, that anyone whose claim for asylum has not been concluded after 6 months can claim the right to work. My MP has told me in writing that the time is actually 1 year. Every asylum seeker I know is under the impression that they cannot do paid work (they all work hard as volunteers) until they gain the right to remain. Who is right?? I have read with enjoyment this discussion and I invite you to contact me on [email protected] if you would like to help us to end adult detention for immigration purposes and promote the right to work for all asylum seekers.We are working with the Detention Forum.

  • As someone who has been waiting for my asylum case to be sorted out for almost five years now and still waiting to hear from the Tribunal court or HO to date. I’ve had my appeal allowed for the first time it went to the court only to have the HO challenged it and then had my second appeal decided ( dismissed) without any oral hearing or having both me or my solicitor informed of the whether we wanted the hearing to be decided on paper or having to be done orally…. After my second appeal was dismissed I then again received another letter from the court telling me that I was allowed to appeal again on the same ground that my first hearing was allowed in the first place . I’m now totally confused and left in limbo, because after all these confusion nobody has been talking to me ( neither the court nor the HO) for almost 6 months now.. I not allowed to work and there is nothing I can practically do. I’m left sitting at home doing nothing. I have completed an access course from college and I got a place at university last Sept , but unfortunately i deferred it to next Sept, because I won’t be able to go without proper documentations. I have tried to get Voluteering job on many occasions, but even that was unccesseful . It really frustrates me that I’m an able body person who is capable of working and provide for myself and make my contribution just like everybody else, yet I’m not allowed to do that. I find it very unfair that I’m allowed to take and be depending upon the allowances that I did not contributed to, while this could be easily given to those who really need it ( those who are unable to help themselves because of illness or something).

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