The work of the UK Border Agency – Home Affairs Committee


13. Reporting on the detention of children in the immigration system, our predecessor committee commented that “it must be remembered that Yarl’s Wood remains essentially a prison. There is a limit to how family-friendly such a facility can be; and while we accept that conditions have improved, we still regret that such a facility is needed in the first place”.[17] We welcome the announcement by the Government that the detention of children for immigration purposes is to end as of 11 May 2011,[18] and that the Yarl’s Wood family unit has now closed. We hope not to have to return to this issue in the future.


1. Since 2006, we and our predecessor committee have received regular updates from the UK Border Agency (in the form of letters and subsequent evidence sessions) on the deportation of foreign national prisoners, the backlog in asylum cases, and other issues as they have arisen. We publish with this report the latest quarterly letter (dated 1 November 2010) and oral evidence from the Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency, Ms Lin Homer, and a supplementary letter sent by Ms Homer after the evidence session, together with a paper prepared for us by the House of Commons Library showing the statistics given in the letter in the form of graphs and pie charts.

Foreign National Prisoners

2. The latest information about the 1013 cases of Foreign National Prisoners released before 2005 without being considered for deportation is that 70 of them still have not been located.[1] Since July 2010, three others have been located and five have been deported.[2] Most of those not yet located had been released after serving sentences for lesser offences, but a handful had been found guilty of serious offences.[3] The UK Border Agency assumes that many of them will have left the country voluntarily, but there is no way of knowing how many or which of them have left—or whether they include those with a record of serious offences. While the UK Border Agency has not given up work on these cases, progress has inevitably slowed almost to a halt. The difficulty in tracing and then deporting released prisoners highlights the need to ensure that all eligible foreign nationals currently serving sentences are removed from the UK expeditiously and, wherever possible, are not held for long periods in prison at the taxpayers’ expense when they could be deported.

Asylum cases

UKBA’s legacy cases

3. It emerged in 2006 that the Home Office had built up a backlog of between 400,000 and 450,000 unresolved asylum cases, some dating back more than a decade. The UK Border Agency’s target for clearing this backlog is the summer of 2011. Both our predecessor committee and the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, Mr John Vine, expressed concerns that the Agency would be unable to complete its programme of clearing the backlog by the summer of 2011,[4] despite the fact that new processes had been put in place to help clear the backlog, including employing contract staff to perform basic administrative tasks in relation to the applications, thus freeing the Agency’s own caseworkers to concentrate on the substance of decision-making.

4. Now, however, it appears that the UK Border Agency may be able to meet that target, as the clearance process has accelerated considerably: 15,500 cases being dealt with between October 2009 and January 2010, 41,500 cases between January and July 2010, and 57,500 cases between July and the end of September 2010. As reported on 1 November 2010, the situation with the backlog was as follows:

Total number concluded Of which, main applicants Of which, dependents
Removals 35,000 (11%) 32,500 2,500
Grants 139,000 (42%) 91,500 47,500
Others 160,500 (48%) 141,000 19,500
Total 334,500 265,000 69,500

Conclusions by main applicant and dependents ( rounded to nearest 500.)

This compares with the situation as of 19 July 2010:[5]

Total number concluded Of which, main applicants Of which, dependents
Removals 34,000 (12%) 32,000 2,500
Grants 106,000 (38%) 65,000 41,000
Others 137,000 (just under 50%) 119,500 17,500
Total 277,000 215,500 61,000

Conclusions by main applicant and dependents (rounded to nearest 500.)

The question therefore arises how the increase in speed has been achieved.

5. Lin Homer told us that the programme of contracting out administrative tasks had finally started to produce positive results, and the caseworkers were working extremely hard, with a 68% increase in their productivity over the summer months.[6] However, in his February 2010 thematic report on how the UK Border Agency handled asylum cases, Mr Vine noted that Ministers had approved revised guidance allowing caseworkers to consider granting permission to stay to applicants who had been in the UK for 6-8 years, rather than the 10-12 years that applied at the start of the backlog-clearing process.[7] This decision significantly increased the number of cases which officials might conclude quickly, by grant of settlement, rather than contesting. In this context it is interesting that while 9,000 of the cases dealt with between October 2009 and January 2010 resulted in grants, this rose to 23,000 cases between January and July 2010, and 33,000 cases between July and the end of September 2010. Moreover, the proportion of all concluded cases resulting in grants went up from 34% of cases as reported in October 2009, to 35% in January 2010, to 38% in July and 42% in the most recent report—so over time an increasing proportion of the 400-450.000 cases originally identified ended in permission to settle in the UK. At the same time, the proportion of concluded cases resulting in removals decreased from 10% of all cases concluded between October 2009 and January 2010, to 6% between January and July, to 2% between July and September.

6. Lin Homer has stated that the longer a case is left uncompleted, the more likely it is that the applicant’s circumstances will have altered, such as marriage or the birth of children, leading to a greater probability that settlement will be allowed for family reasons.[8] We understand this, but we are concerned that in the rush to clear the backlog—not least as the clear-up rate initially was fairly slow—principle may be being sacrificed to the timetable, and grants of settlement may be made that would not be allowed in other circumstances. In cases where severe delays in decision-making have been the fault of the government and not the applicant, and where the passage of time has made evidence harder to find or has led to the applicant’s being better integrated into British society, there is an argument in favour of granting the applicant leave to remain.

7. The second aspect which causes us concern relates to the number of cases being ‘concluded’ because the applicants cannot be found. Lin Homer provided the following figures showing a breakdown of the ‘others’ category:[9]

Closure type Total up to July 2010 (all applicants) Total up to October 2010 (all applicants)
Duplicates 5,000 7,000
Errors 102,000 112,500
EU nationals 13,500 15,000
Controlled Archive 9,000 18,000

While most of these categories are self-explanatory, the ‘Controlled Archive’ contains cases in which, despite its best endeavours, UK Border Agency has been unable to trace the applicant. These cases are checked against watchlists for a period of six months before they are considered to have been ‘concluded’. This is now the fastest growing category of concluded cases.[10] Lin Homer explained to us that a large number of cases—43,000—had reached or would shortly reach the six months deadline and would be reported as having been concluded. Judging by experience so far, she thought very few would “come alive again” because new information about the applicant was discovered.[11] Assuming that most of the 43,000 cases will eventually be placed in the controlled archive, even if no other similar cases are found over the next seven months that would mean a minimum of 61,000 of the 400-450,000 cases—about one in seven—will eventually be concluded on the basis that the UK Border Agency has been completely unable to trace what has happened to the applicant.

8. While we agree that the UK Border Agency should not spend unlimited time trying to track down missing applicants, we are concerned about the high proportion of cases which will be left, in effect, in limbo. Again, this points to the vital need to deal with cases as expeditiously as possible and not to let backlogs grow.


9. In this context, we note that the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency was of the view that the UKBA would not, and could not, meet the target for completing 90% of asylum cases within six months, the deadline for which was December 2011.[12] The rate rose from 50% in September 2009 to a peak of 59% in January 2010.[13] There is therefore a real danger that cases that cannot be completed within six months will accumulate and form a new backlog as officials struggling to meet the target abandon these for the new cases constantly coming in. Lin Homer assured us that the Agency was not simply chasing the target but was taking into account the costs involved in failing to conclude cases in prioritising work. She also noted that there were reasons outside the Agency’s control why some cases could not be concluded within a set time period, for example if it was unsafe to return a failed applicant to his/her home country.[14]

10. We agree that quality should not be sacrificed to speed when it comes to decision-making. From the cases we see as constituency members, much of the delay in concluding asylum and other immigration cases stems from poor quality decision-making when the application is initially considered. We recognise the progress made over the last few years in relation to new procedures and approaches, but we consider that the UK Border Agency still has room for improvement. More consistent and rigorous scrutiny of applications would lead to fewer delays, fewer appeals, less uncertainty for the applicant, less pressure on the officials themselves, and probably lower costs for the UK taxpayer. This may well require greater investment in staff training. It is also likely to require more consistent and considered direction from those setting policy for the Agency than has sometimes been the case.

Other issues

Enforced removals from the UK

11. We take the opportunity to raise here our concerns about the evidence we have received about shortcomings in the application of the rules governing enforced removals from the UK. We took oral evidence on this subject from Lin Homer on 9 November[15] and earlier from G4S, whose contract with the Government in respect of such removals has not been renewed.[16] We may revert to this subject at a later date, but we are not at all convinced that the UK Border Agency is being effective in making sure that its contractors provide adequate training and supervision of their employees in respect of the use of force. This is a fundamental responsibility of the Agency and is not simply a matter of clauses in contracts or formal procedural requirements.

12. We also note that the risk assessment which has to accompany the person being removed (a copy of which was provided to the Committee) is concerned principally with the possible risks of the deportee absconding or offering violence to the accompanying officials, rather than risks of harm to the deportee him/herself. It is not clear whether the very short section on the deportee’s medical condition, which has to be filled in by a qualified medical practitioner, would be completed in such a way as to be understood by a layman, such as an escorting officer: would it, for example, be obvious that the deportee’s underlying heart condition or other complaint might make some types of physical restraint potentially lethal? We look forward to the Government’s responses to our concerns.


13. Reporting on the detention of children in the immigration system, our predecessor committee commented that “it must be remembered that Yarl’s Wood remains essentially a prison. There is a limit to how family-friendly such a facility can be; and while we accept that conditions have improved, we still regret that such a facility is needed in the first place”.[17] We welcome the announcement by the Government that the detention of children for immigration purposes is to end as of 11 May 2011,[18] and that the Yarl’s Wood family unit has now closed. We hope not to have to return to this issue in the future.


14. We also questioned Ms Homer about rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules, concerning victims of torture and others with special illnesses and conditions. We noted that, following the concerns raised by medical NGOs and others, the UK Border Agency had agreed to conduct an audit of implementation of rule 35. Release of the resulting report had already been delayed for five months when we took evidence from Ms Homer, and the NGOs were not convinced by the assurance that it would be released by the end of the year. We requested a copy of the audit.[19] We are disappointed that, as of the last sitting date in 2010, this has not been forthcoming.


15. We again raised with Lin Homer the issue of both the level and the quality of the UK Border Agency’s responses to Members’ correspondence on behalf of their constituents.[20] We understand that Ms Homer will shortly move to a new job leaving this unsatisfactory situation unresolved. We trust that her successor will take our concerns seriously. When Members write to Ministers it is expected that the reply will at least be signed by the Minister. It is therefore unacceptable that the head of an agency should delegate this task to more junior officials.


16. We also again questioned Ms Homer about the appropriateness of the salaries and bonuses of senior UK Border Agency officials. We note Sir David Normington’s remarks about the need to pay a high salary to attract a suitable candidate for the difficult job of Chief Executive of the Agency.[21] We consider that in the current situation of wage constraints and reductions in posts in the public sector, it would be appropriate to offer a significantly lower level of salary than the £208,000 currently paid—the appointee should be paid no more than the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office. In addition, we think that no bonuses should be paid to senior staff in the current financial climate.


17. Our predecessors reported on the problem of ‘bogus colleges’, set up with the primary intention of helping would-be economic migrants to enter the UK in the guise of legitimate students.[22] We understand that the UK Border Agency has no direct role in the registration of colleges as bona fide educational institutions, but it still has responsibility for ensuring that immigration loopholes are closed. We therefore request the Government to implement our predecessor committee’s recommendations in full, and specifically those regarding the need for unannounced inspection visits to educational establishments, a statutory restriction on the use of the term ‘college’ limiting it to accredited institutions, and an account of how the relevant authorities ensure that they investigate the intelligence provided by legitimate colleges and others about potential bogus institutions.


18. Finally, our recent inquiries into the proposed immigration cap and the evidence sessions with both Ms Homer and the Immigration Minister have pointed up the multitude of statistics relating to migration, the different bases on which they are compiled, and the lack of comparability between sets of statistics and over time. This makes any discussion of the area very difficult as there is no agreed starting point and opponents choose whichever set of figures supports their argument best. We acknowledge that the conflicting sets of figures are compiled for different purposes and by a variety of bodies, but we consider that it would help both those engaged in the formation of immigration policy and the general public seeking to understand it if the Government—and indeed others—were to adopt a clear set of criteria for the measurement of inflows to and outflows from the UK (whether, for example, they include UK citizens, whether they relate to those settling in the UK and, if so, for how long, and so on) and to use only figures that meet these criteria when discussing migration, asylum and related policies.

19. We also note that unless and until the UK has records of all those entering the country and leaving the country, many of the uncertainties highlighted in this Report will continue into the future.