ICIBI – Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration: An inspection of asylum casework (August 2020 – May 2021) This report will have been with the Home Office for some time before its release. This report was sent to the Home Secretary on 23 July 2021.
18 November 2021: Publishing the report, David Neal said:
I welcome the publication of this report, which explored the efficacy of the Home Office’s ability to make timely and good quality asylum decisions. It examined resourcing, training, workflow, case progression and the prioritisation of cases, as well as the quality of interviews, decisions and quality assurance mechanisms.
The inspection began at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. While the pandemic had impacted asylum operations, most, if not all, of the issues identified by this inspection predate it. Primarily, the Home Office is still failing to keep on top of the number of asylum decisions it is required to make. The inspection found that the length of time asylum claimants had waited for a decision increased annually since 2011. In 2020, adult asylum claimants were waiting an average of 449 days. This increased to 550 days for unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
Delayed decision-making is caused by a number of factors, including workforce capabilities, inefficient workflow processes, a reliance on outdated IT, and routing asylum claims for inadmissibility consideration in the absence of any bilateral agreements with EU countries. In addition to timeliness concerns, the inspection found problems with the quality of interviews and decisions, and with quality assurance mechanisms.
An efficient and effective asylum casework system is in the interest of all parties. It is clear that the current system pleases nobody, least of all asylum claimants who are currently in limbo awaiting a decision, or the Home Office itself who are having to fund asylum accommodation for those awaiting a decision and pay to defend poor quality decisions in court.
I made nine recommendations focusing on case progression, workplace culture, training and skills. I am pleased that the Home Office accepted eight recommendations in full, and partially accepted one. I am also encouraged to learn that work on their implementation commenced prior to publication of this report.
Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration
9.11 A claimant who had been through the asylum process told inspectors about their experience of the screening interview:
“They say you don’t need to elaborate, just provide a small picture of your claim… when I tried to elaborate they say “keep it short” and you will have a big interview and you can explain. Then when you get to the big interview, they say that you have not mentioned this in the screening. This screening is like a shadow that follows you all the way.”
10.46 Inspectors held focus groups with people who had been through the asylum process. The key message from these sessions was the importance of the interviewer creating a reassuring environment, where the claimant felt comfortable sharing their account. However, the experience of most of the people who participated was largely negative in this respect:
“It would be good if I was welcomed into my interview like a human being, it would have made the difference. To acknowledge I am here seeking help… It would be good portray a positive tone and not an aggressive tone. [That] would put people at ease.”
“I was there too long being asked the same questions, 20 or so were repeated in a slightly different way. This made me more confused and anxious, I think that [they] should consider us all as vulnerable people, you are so vulnerable, the longer you are there it’s like torture, ask straight questions and get straight answers.”
Snapshot of comments from asylum claimants and their legal representatives
“The length of time that many claimants must wait for an initial decision and then for their appeal – sometimes totalling years – is a cause of much distress, as during this period people are generally unable to study, work, secure family reunion or move forward in any way with their lives.”
“The effect the wait has had on my mental wellbeing is not something I can explain. My whole life has been on hold for the past 2 years.”
“Lack of consideration that is given to the vulnerabilities of clients and how these may be exacerbated by the uncertainty that accompanies a delay in a determination.”
“[my client, owing to delay in a decision] is suffering from undue stress, anxiety and fear.”
Snapshot of comments from those who have experienced screening interviews
“To be honest, at my screening, it was like I was a criminal the way that they asked the questions. The first impression of the immigration officer, the way he asked questions, I felt threatened.”
“l have seen lots of corruption that ended up in me taking to fly to the UK to seek asylum, when we arrive here, we are seeking security, if you come from a broken system, it’s difficult to trust the first officer or immigration police on the first day we come here.”
“You need to receive people carefully, you don’t know what happened to these people. On the first day, to expect people to say what happened is too much.”
“My first issue was hostile environment – in my case the officer throwed the passports to the floor and said why am I claiming asylum… [it] felt like interrogation and not an interview…”
“My screening interview at the airport was very scary […] I made lots of mistakes because of this. I tried to explain why I had made these mistakes at my substantive interview. When I tried to explain that it was because I was scared they didn’t believe me.”
The Chief Inspector makes recommendations, and the Home Office comment on whether or not these are accepted. In relation to this report, it was sent to the Home Secretary on 23 July 2021. The recommendations and responses are here:
The Home Office should:
1. Introduce, as a matter of urgency, a published service standard
1.2. We are working to reintroduce a service standard. There are changes being brought about by the New Plan for Immigration which impact on the way asylum claims are handled and these will be addressed as part of the process to develop a service standard.
2. Prioritise claims for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), as per the Immigration Rules
2.2. In May 2021 – and since the ICIBI inspection – the Department established two dedicated case working Hubs for deciding children’s asylum claims. One in Solihull (with responsibility for Local Authorities in the Midlands, East of England and the South West of England), and one in Liverpool (with responsibility for Local Authorities in the North of England, Croydon and Kent). Both sites share responsibility for London and South East England Local Authorities.
2.3. Our aim is for the Hubs to establish improved focus on and greater control of cases to build expertise, identify efficiencies and provide a consistency of decision making (and quicker outcomes) for our customers. This includes a greater focus on deciding cases on the papers where there is sufficient evidence to do so.
2.4. We continue to work collaboratively with Local Authorities nationally on the remote interview process for Accompanied and Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children and young people (AASC/UASC/YP) utilising digital interviewing video capabilities to complement in person interviews.
2.5. We are currently allocating more casework resource to UASC claims than the proportion of UASC intake and recruiting additional decision-makers who will be trained to process children’s asylum claims.
2.6. It is the case that many of the additional procedural protections that exist when processing children’s asylum claims will have an impact on the time taken to make final decisions in individual cases. This means that prioritisation does not necessarily reduce the overall case handling times.
3. Conduct a detailed and rapid analysis of every asylum claim awaiting an initial decision in the WIP by reviewing each decision making unit’s ‘Workflow Tracker’, focusing on identifying and removing erroneous casework barriers and identifying cases where a grant would be possible without an interview
3.2. Work is already underway to address this. While interviews were suspended due to COVID-19, we completed a case progression exercise of post-interview cases in the work in progress (WIP). We are now assessing all other cases in the current Initial Decision (ID) WIP to establish if there is a short- or long-term impediment to the case progressing and have developed an active review process of all cases in the current ID WIP. This has become a business as usual process and we will continue to actively review the flow of new asylum cases into the ID WIP.
3.3. We are also focussed on identifying and removing any erroneous or outdated barriers, identifying those that are able to be progressed without the need for an interview or where supplementary information is required before proceeding to a decision. We are also looking to create a single centralised case progression function as part of the National Workflow Team.
3.4. The Department will continue to make use of an existing provision within the Immigration Rules to omit an asylum interview under Paragraph 339NA, where the claimant is unfit or unable to be interviewed or where we are able to take a positive decision on the basis of evidence available.
4. Revisit recommendation four from the 2017 ICIBI inspection of asylum intake and casework, with specific reference to:
a) Screening – Ensure standardised training for all those conducting screening interviews across Immigration Enforcement, Border Force and UK Visas and Immigration, with a focus on identifying vulnerability and safeguarding
b) Substantive interviews and decisions – Design – in consultation with stakeholders – deliver and provide regular refresher training for all Decision Makers (DMs) and Technical Specialists (Tech Specs)
c) Quality assurance – Urgently finalise and implement training for Tech Specs and others who conduct quality assurance
Screening: Ensure standardised training for all those conducting screening interviews across Immigration Enforcement, Border Force and UK Visas and Immigration, with a focus on identifying vulnerability and safeguarding
4.2. This recommendation places a specific focus on standardising training for all those across the Home Office who conduct screening interviews in Immigration Enforcement (IE), Border Force and Asylum & Protection Group.
4.3. Asylum & Protection Group have set up a ‘Safeguarding Board’, to ensure that all elements of customer safeguarding/vulnerability are included and considered. This forum has contributed to ongoing improvements to the screening process, which is currently being developed collaboratively with UKVI, IE and Border Force.
4.4. Plans are in place to design a revised product for screening interviews to include changes to forms/questionnaires. After full review and testing we will include any training elements to deliver an improved, effective screening process. A pilot on the new screening process was planned for August, but due to unprecedented levels of intake, this has not been possible to mobilise and implement.
Substantive interviews and decisions: Design – in consultation with stakeholders – deliver and provide regular refresher training for all
4.5. We are committed to providing our teams with the necessary training and skill sets to ensure they can effectively carry out all aspects of their role and continue to develop. Asylum Operations has redeveloped the Decision-Making Foundation Training Programme (FTP) in consultation with staff and external stakeholders from July 2021 and will shortly be pursuing a schedule of refreshing the knowledge of existing colleagues using some of this new content. We hope to timetable redevelopment of the Interview ‘FTP’ from March 2022.
Quality assurance: Urgently finalise and implement training for Tech Specs and others who conduct quality assurance
4.6. Technical Specialists perform a vitally important role in supporting our decision makers, and customers. We recently introduced a training course to equip those in this role with the key skills they need with a focus on coaching and mentoring. This training is ready to be rolled out to future cohorts of Technical Specialists.
5. To address workplace culture, create a mandatory regular ‘face behind the case’ style training course focused on asylum
5.2. The ‘Face Behind the Case’ e-learning is already mandatory for all colleagues in Asylum & Protection and we are working to make this an annual requirement. We also have plans for an asylum-specific response to the “People not Cases” theme of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, by developing a suite of workshops for all staff involved in the decision-making process.
6. To help improve retention, ensure there is clarity among DMs on opportunities for progression and, in consultation with DMs, conduct a review of InSight weekly targets
6.2. The transition to team-based working is underway and is being introduced to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing performance. It represents a new way of managing goals and is intended to remove the pressure of individual targets. The department acknowledges this pressure as the primary factor for why our people move on so quickly from a decision-making role. Within this team-based approach, the future of InSight is yet to be determined and will form part of the review.
6.3. We are committed to developing an inclusive workforce and culture where people want to stay. We are also looking at how we provide development opportunities and career progression. Part of this will be having a visible progression campaign process. These changes are being communicated across the Asylum & Protection Group including monthly events held by the Director General, and within Asylum Operations via line manager briefings, staff engagement sessions, regular communication products and online hubs.
6.4. We have changed our recruitment process. Historically our job adverts limited applications to people with specific qualifications, but we now have an inclusive approach, seeking to recruit people from across the labour market. This new approach was adopted in the most recent recruitment campaign in July 2021 setting out exactly what the role involves, with videos of decision makers talking about ‘a day in the life of’. Two recruitment open events attracted more than 600 attendees and the campaign resulted in increased applications being received when compared to previous campaigns.
7. Introduce Calibre assurance assessments for screening interviews
7.2. Calibre is the quality assurance marking tool for use within Asylum Operations and the National Asylum Intake Unit for assessing screening interviews, substantive asylum interviews and asylum decisions against an agreed marking standard. This recommendation has been adopted immediately by Asylum & Protection Group and, as a result of this inspection, work has started with casework assurance leads in Borders and Enforcement to assess how best to implement Calibre to improve the assurance of screening interviews within their frontline operations.
8. Ensure all first line quality assurance takes place before asylum decisions are served. Ensure that trends in Second Pair of Eyes (SPoE) feedback are identified and analysed, and that the list of decisions requiring mandatory SPoE is reviewed quarterly
8.1. Partially Accepted.
8.2. Each decision-making unit already records and analyses SPoE data. It is thereafter discussed at the monthly quality performance calls.
8.3. We have a timetable for review of SPoE requirements. Some SPoEs will remain mandatory because of legislative or policy requirements, such as outright refusals for UASCs and certified decisions.
8.4. Recent quality assurance data has shown an uplift in the number of cases assessed by a second pair of eyes before asylum decisions are served. However, it is felt there may be a limit to the consistency we can achieve in striving for 100%. We need to retain the flexibility to conduct retrospective checks if a particular issue had not arisen previously and to accommodate operational timing issues when working to a specific deadline. All decisions drafted by new decision makers are checked before they are served and with new staff volumes at present and more planned, the number of checks pre-service will increase overall. These checks are in addition to the random sampling from experienced decision makers. We will, however, look to develop a key performance indicator metric for the percentage of random checks on cases being conducted pre-service.
9. Expedite ‘Transformation’ plans specifically relating to the creation of a new digital case prioritisation and allocation tool, and the substantive interview appointment booking tool
9.2. The Department is developing, as part of wider transformation plans, a modern, digitally enabled platform to increase the efficiency of asylum decisions and enable Asylum Transformation. The Streamlined Digital Business (SDB) project encompasses four key workstreams: case prioritisation and allocation, appointment booking improvements, efficiency and delivering value for money for taxpayers.
9.3. In particular, the case prioritisation and allocation tool will enhance asylum workflow by providing the ability to prioritise and allocation cases, as per business rules. An appointment booking tool will provide a single, centralised, digital appointment booking service that tackles inefficiency, outdated information and over-reliance on Excel spreadsheets. A minimum viable product (MVP) delivery plan has been established to implement technical and design plans. The Home Office accepts that these tools are needed as quickly as possible and we plan in to deliver them as quickly as we can given the dependencies on other strategic IT programmes.
Published 18 November 2021
and of interest:
‘New Plan for Immigration’ and inadmissibility
13.20 The Home Secretary announced the Government’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ (the Plan) policy statement in an oral statement to Parliament on 25 March 2021.249 An accompanying online public consultation ran until 6 May 2021.250
13.21 The Plan states that the reason for AO’s inability to make timely decisions on asylum claims is due to the “rapid intake of asylum claims into the outdated system”.251 It did not explain how the Plan’s proposals would assist AO in assessing asylum claims in a timely manner, or help to modernise its caseworking system to allow for more efficient and effective processing and decision making.
13.22 The policy proposals focus on addressing the Government’s concerns around abuse of the asylum system, deterring asylum seekers from entering the UK ‘illegally’, and on strengthening enforcement of removal decisions. Many of the measures will require new primary legislation. The proposals include, but are not limited to: ending the use of hotels as contingency asylum accommodation, establishing reception centres, raising the standard of proof and allowing for the processing of asylum claims overseas. Those who arrived ‘illegally’ would also be restricted from accessing refugee status (five years) and after that, Indefinite Leave to Remain. They would instead be given a ‘temporary protection status’ that would expire after 30 months, after which they would be reassessed for return to their country of origin, removal to another safe country or re-granted 30 further months’ of leave if they still require protection.
13.23 The Plan has received widespread condemnation from MPs, NGOs, academics, and faith groups.252 A total of 192 organisations signed a joint letter in April 2021,253 in which proposals in the Plan were considered as being “vague, unworkable, cruel and potentially unlawful”. On 10 May 2021, the UNHCR, while welcoming the UK’s continued commitment to legal pathways and better integration support offered to resettled and reunited refugee families, raised concerns that the Plan could lead to a “discriminatory two-tier asylum system” and potentially undermine the 1951 Refugee Convention.
13.24 None of those whose cases have been referred to TCU for inadmissible consideration have been removed as at June 2021. In the absence of return agreements, the process as is will likely add a further six months’ delay to all asylum claims and is simply acting as a barrier to case progression.