Lawyers warn move to outsource asylum interviews is ‘hugely risky’ as private firms in running for new contract have been embroiled in previous scandals over handling of immigration services
People seeking refuge in the UK face a “serious risk” of injustice as the Home Office plans to outsource another element of its immigration services, lawyers warn.
The department says it has plans to bring in contractors to carry out asylum interviews and gather evidence for claims, which are used to determine whether applicants should be granted refugee status.
But many of the firms in the running for this new contract – including G4S, Serco, and Sopra Steria – have been embroiled in previous scandals over handling of immigration services.
See also this report from June 2020: ‘It wasn’t an interview – it was an interrogation’: How asylum seekers are made to feel ‘like criminals’ during Home Office questioning
From UK Visas & immigration :
Over the past six months, Asylum Operations has had to adapt and change its operations in order to continue assisting asylum seekers to access the services they need. We suspended all substantive asylum interviews in March 2020 due to COVID-19 and recently restarted interviewing at the end of July 2020. During the time months in which interviews have been paused, we have been working to progress as many decision ready cases as possible.
More recently, Asylum Operations has been exploring options to get the system moving again, reduce the number of outstanding claims and speed up decision making. Safe systems of work that have been introduced as a result of COVID-19 mean that there are constraints around returning to pre-COVID-19 interviewing levels. As such, a remote interviewing solution has been successfully implemented and interview numbers are increasing at pace, whilst maintaining focus on the wellbeing of our staff and customers. Furthermore, Asylum Operations is collaborating with Migrant Help and working with accommodation service providers to pilot interviewing in initial accommodation, whilst also working with Kent County Council on a pilot to conduct Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) interviews in their local offices, an approach we will look to expand.
To further increase interview capacity, Asylum Operations is looking to loan staff from across the Home Office who have started their bespoke asylum interview training. Whilst these staff will conduct a number of substantive asylum interviews, all interview preparation will still be completed by an experienced Asylum Operations’ Decision Maker and this process will be key to the success of utilising additional resource. We are also engaging with other Government departments around increasing the number of interviewing locations (end points).
Given the growing number of outstanding asylum cases and the potential for a second COVID-19 wave, Asylum Operations is also considering additional commercial options to specifically support the decision making process. We are currently scoping out and testing the concept of using a third-party supplier to conduct interviews and gather evidence. Several of our strategic suppliers have already confirmed that they have capacity to assist us and that with training and support, their resource could be quickly deployed to support a proof of concept pilot. We plan, therefore, to explore with an external supplier if they can deliver the support required. The proof of concept phase will involve testing interviews on live cases over a 6-8-week period and will help establish any viability of a longer-term service, whilst simultaneously providing an opportunity to identify process efficiencies and improvements.
Overall, the use of third-party support for asylum interviews is to help us in bringing balance back to our systems following the COVID-19 outbreak, increase interview output and ultimately, provide our customers with an improved experience by avoiding lengthy delays to interviews and decisions. We hope that you will support us in our approach as we commit to keeping you updated as the proof of concept develops.
In addition to the above, we will also be writing out shortly to the decision making sub group about setting up a joint video interviewing working group. We are committed to ensuring the right environment is in place as we increase use of video interviews and want to improve the interviewing experience for all involved.
If you have any questions on the above, please direct these to
Acting Head of Asylum Operations
Third-Party Asylum Interviewing Q&A September 2020
Q. What, exactly, are we doing?
A. Asylum Operations is exploring the possibility of using a third-party supplier to conduct substantive asylum interviews in order to increase the number of decision ready cases, given there are currently c.42,700 people awaiting a life changing decision. A six to eight-week proof of concept will allow us to test the viability of using a third-party to increase much needed interviewing capacity follow a temporary pause of interviews due to COVID-19.
Q. Why are we doing this?
A. Since substantive asylum interviews were suspended in March due to COVID-19, all our casework resource has been deployed into making decisions on interviewed cases. Whilst intake has reduced early on during the pandemic and interviews have now recommenced, there are still a large number of cases awaiting interview. A third-party supplier could potentially increase interview throughput, speed up decision making and reduce the number of outstanding cases, whilst improving the service for our customers. The proof of concept will help inform findings and recommendations going forwards.
Q. Who have we consulted on this?
A. Asylum Operations have consulted internally with relevant parties and a submission has been sent to ministers.
Q. How has COVID-19 and the suspension of interviews impacted UKVI more widely?
A. Accommodation used to support asylum seekers is stretched. Our customers are waiting longer for decisions on their cases and the pausing of interviews at the start of COVID-19 has impacted our ability to progress cases quickly. We are working to implement our recovery plans and rebalance the system following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Q. What are we doing to maximise our capacity, internally?
A. Substantive asylum interviews are taking place via video conference where possible and numbers increase weekly. To improve structure and reduce interview duration, experienced caseworkers are putting in place interview plans for use by all interviewing officers. We are working with Kent County Council on a pilot to conduct remote interviews with Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASCs) with a view to extending if successful. We are also exploring remote interviewing of customer in initial and hotel accommodation. To utilise available resources resulting from COVID-19, we are looking to loan staff from other areas of the Home Office with a view to boosting our current resource.
Q. How will it work?
A. Our existing Decision Makers will be a key part of the process, working collaboratively with the third-party for the pilot. Interviews will be conducted using our existing video conferencing technology, supported by Home Office interpreters, where needed. We continue working towards an ‘interview – decide’ model and in time expect that, where schedules and workflow allow, the Decision Maker who conducts the interview preparation will also make the decision on a case.
Q. What is the third-party interviewing officer’s remit?
A. To conduct substantive asylum interviews; to gather evidence and information that enables a decision to be made by Home Office staff. The outcome of a case will be decided by the Home Office, who will consider the evidence gathered at each stage of the process.
Q. How will quality be assured and monitored?
A. Existing Decision Makers will play a key role by conducting high quality interview preparation work which will be quality assured. The third-party interviewing officers are skilled in conducting interviews and we have developed a bespoke training course to support them. Third-party interviewing officers will be expected to perform to the same high standard and will have access to technical support from existing Home Office staff. Interview quality will continue to be measured using the existing framework. Where interview quality falls below expected levels, the interview itself and the preparation work conducted will both be reviewed to see where support is required, and improvements can be made.
Q. Where will the customer attend their interview?
A. All those asked to attend their interview will be at a location we have approved as suitable. Interviews will then be completed remotely over video with the caseworker and interpreter in a separate location to help with social distancing. Consideration will be given in advance under the existing process on the suitability of those being invited to interview using video conferencing.
Q: Are we interviewing people in IA or hotels?
A: We are currently working with accommodation service providers and Migrant Help to pilot the potential of remote interviewing in IA, this might be expanded further if the proof of concept is successful.
Q. Will there be an opportunity for engagement on the use of video interview?
A. Yes. We are going to write out shortly about setting up a joint video interviewing working group with the aim of improving the experience of all involved.
Why is this of great concern?
There are clear conflicts of interest for people being interviewed and doing the interviewing, for example, people seeking asylum could be interviewed, transported, imprisoned, detained, returned to their country all with the same firm if it were for example Serco. Why would you trust them with your most intimate and scary details of why you fled your country?
This is the Government’s paper about Asylum interviews (version 7):
The asylum interview is an important part of the asylum process because it is the main opportunity for the claimant to provide relevant evidence about why they need international protection and for you, as the person conducting the interview, to help draw out and test that evidence.
It is important that you try to create an environment in which claimants feel able to disclose all relevant information and for you to fully investigate the key issues through a focused, professional and sensitive approach to questioning. This is particularly relevant in asylum interviews as some evidence may relate to instances of persecution or serious harm, including sexual violence. Such evidence is crucial to ensure that asylum claims are properly considered, so that protection is granted to those who genuinely need it and refused to those who do not.
The policy objective when you conduct an asylum interview is to gather enough evidence to be able to properly consider and determine the claim. You must:
• provide a positive and secure environment in which the claimant feels able to disclose sensitive information to support their claim
• ensure that all asylum claimants are treated with respect, dignity and fairness regardless of their:
o sexual orientation
o religion or belief
• ask appropriate and focused questions to encourage full disclosure and gather relevant evidence on important aspects of the claim – this will allow you to:
o test the credibility of the claimant’s statements
o give the claimant an opportunity to explain anything that appears to be implausible or inconsistent
• make potentially vulnerable claimants aware of appropriate support services, for example, where there are concerns over physical and mental health, the claimant has experienced torture, sexual or domestic violence, modern slavery or there are child protection concerns
The Home Office is planning to outsource asylum interviews to commercial contractors.
A pilot programme designed to address the mounting backlog of asylum claims will see private outsourcing firms conduct interviews with often vulnerable asylum seekers.
Refugee charities are likely to oppose the move, which was unveiled yesterday in a circular from the Home Office team that processes claims for refugee status.
The letter says:
Given the growing number of outstanding asylum cases and the potential for a second COVID-19 wave, Asylum Operations is also considering additional commercial options to specifically support the decision making process. We are currently scoping out and testing the concept of using a third-party supplier to conduct interviews and gather evidence.
It goes on to say that several “strategic suppliers” are keen to get involved. One will be selected for a pilot programme — involving real asylum cases — over six to eight weeks.
The list of strategic suppliers includes companies such as Capita, G4S, Mitie, Serco and Sopra Steria.
While Home Office staff will still make the final call on the asylum claim, contractors will “conduct substantive asylum interviews [and] gather evidence and information that enables a decision to be made”, according to a Q&A document circulated alongside the letter. Interview preparation will continue to be done by in-house decision makers.
The letter points to the asylum backlog to justify the move. Face-to-face interviews — a key component of the decision on whether to grant someone refugee status — were cancelled during lockdown and over 40,000 people are now waiting for an initial decision on their claim. Interview capacity is still much reduced on account of social distancing requirements.