Improving Immigration Services: My advice to Theresa May

I understand that you have decided to abolish the UK Border Agency, and from now on immigration and asylum matters will be the direct responsibility of the Home Office. I sincerely hope that this will be a change for the better.

I have decided to write this letter based on my experience as an Inner London MP over the past 8 years. I hope this will help when making decisions on how to improve the service. A poor immigration service creates avoidable hardship and uncertainty for applicants, and also creates mistrust and uncertainty in the wider community.

In all fairness, the problems with poor service from UKBA did not start when you became Home Secretary in 2010 – when I was first elected in 2005 I was shocked by the poor service being provided by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate under a Labour Home Secretary. I was very disappointed that the shift of responsibilities to UKBA a few years later did not result in fair and efficient service provision on immigration cases. It is clear that the problems you have failed to address in the past three years had not been adequately dealt with by the four Secretaries of State before you.

This is an open letter – I will be publishing it on my website, and I will be sending a copy to the Shadow Home Secretary. I would appreciate a full and frank response from you – I hope that you will feel able to provide comments which can be shared with my constituents, but if you feel this would restrict you too much you are welcome to provide confidential comments on specific areas.

I often say that what we need is a firm, fast and fair service. It seems to me that this breaks down into  five simple things –

  • A clear structure and legal framework
  • Rules which are fairly enforced
  • Accurate information and advice
  • Prompt and efficient customer service
  • All service users treated with dignity and respect.

I am proud to represent a very diverse constituency, and Islington provides an excellent example of community cohesion - people from all parts of the world live, study and work together in our borough. However, at every surgery I speak to constituents whose experience of UKBA is that it is not efficient, prompt or fair, constituents who have not been able to get any information about the progress of their cases, constituents who do not feel that they have been treated with respect.

As MPs, we deal with complaints about all kinds of public services, so we are in a position to draw comparisons between the standard of care our constituents receive from – for example - the Pension Service, the DVLA and UKBA.

People applying for their pension or their driving licence are rightly outraged if they have to wait for more than a couple of months for a decision. People applying to renew their visas, on the other hand, are resigned to waiting many months, or even years, for a decision.

I wrote to the Chief Executive of UKBA recently about a number of cases where there had been delays. The response I received confirmed that two constituents who had made valid in-time applications to renew their permission to stay in the UK had each been waiting more than FIVE YEARS for a decision.

Even worse, no time scale was offered as to when these cases would finally be processed.

There is really no point in rebranding UKBA unless you are able to provide a clear and achievable business plan which will change the culture of the organisation. At the moment, the culture is one of very low expectations, and overly defensive.

I would like to see a complete change – I would like your staff to be able to feel proud of their work, proud that they are delivering a good service – and proud that they are treating the public with care and respect. Accurate figures on targets, service standards and performance should be publicly available, and individual applicants should be given accurate information about the length of time their own cases will take to process.

I hope you will be able to assure me that you have a plan which will turn the Immigration Service around from a culture of failure, missed targets and disregard of customer care to a culture of success, accountability and excellent customer service.

Looking at my constituency casework, it is clear that there are several areas of immigration work where the Home Office is letting its customers down very badly. I would like you to cast an objective eye over the information I am providing, which is based on the real experiences of my constituents, and consider how you plan to improve the immigration service.

COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION

One area of concern which cuts across all areas of UKBA’s work is poor communication. It is almost impossible for applicants to chase up their applications – indeed, applicants often receive letters instructing them not to phone or write to UKBA. Solicitors’ letters go unanswered for many months, and even MPs find it difficult to get the most basic information on their constituents’ cases.

When an update is provided it is quite often completely useless – when I complained about a case where my constituent had been waiting six years for a decision, I was told “letters from Members of Parliament cannot be treated as formal complaint<sic> as correspondence from MP’s<sic> is dealt with by specialist units”. And in another case when I asked for an update I was told “it would not be appropriate for me to comment or intervene whilst there is an application for Judicial Review outstanding”. My assistant phoned up to query this, and she was told that the Judicial Review had been outstanding for 11 years – although this information later proved to be incorrect.

Whilst MPs are still lucky enough to have a telephone hot-line to UKBA, the hot-line staff are not caseworkers, and they can find it difficult to understand queries about more complex cases. They are, of course, limited to reading the information available on the computer system – so if notes are not up to date or if applications have not been registered, it will be impossible to get accurate information.

Communication example – Ms A

Ms A, who is 67 years old and who has lived in the UK for the past 12 years, made an application for indefinite leave to remain in the UK in September 2012. She received an acknowledgement, but no further correspondence. When my assistant phoned UKBA, she was told that there was no record of any application.

When I made a written enquiry, quoting the reference number on the acknowledgement, I was told that no such application existed. So I was provided with inaccurate information on two separate occasions, and this was very worrying for Ms A.

I made a further enquiry and received a further written response in January this year, indicating that Ms A’s application had arrived at UKBA’s office but had still not been registered on their computer system. The application was eventually registered on UKBA’s computer system in February this year – five months after it had been submitted.

All applications should be registered as soon as they arrive. There can be no excuse for delay, and no excuse for providing inaccurate information to applicants and their MPs.

HIGHLY SKILLED MIGRANTS

Last year, you decided to close down the option of post-study work visas for students who had completed their degrees at UK universities. You would, presumably, have been made aware of the likely impact of this decision on foreign nationals currently working and studying in the UK, and you would have been warned that additional resources should be allocated to dealing with this change.

However, there was a rapid descent into absolute chaos, and the performance figures on processing Tier 1 applications from highly skilled migrants are now truly appalling. These are people who have degrees and jobs, people who are contributing to the UK economy, who have been treated with a complete lack of concern by UKBA.

Towards the end of last year, I was repeatedly assured by UKBA that applications of this kind would be brought back to within service standards by the end of March 2013. These assurances were entirely false. The target for processing 90% of applications is four weeks, however applicants are told that in fact the current delay is over six months.

Whilst this lays out the stark comparison between aspiration and performance, it is at least clearer than information which has been provided in the past. Looking at the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report, it appears that although the target was 90%, only 18% of postal applications were actually processed in four weeks.

For applicants who are prepared to pay several hundred pounds on top of the standard fee, UKBA offers a “premium service”. These applicants are offered a personal interview, and they are given to expect that paying the fee and attending the interview will lead to a decision being made on the same day. Because highly skilled migrants have so little faith in UKBA’s standard service, many of them are prepared to pay the extra money for the premium service, and I have had a number of complaints in the past from constituents who have been told that there are no appointments available.

It is shocking to see that over a quarter of “premium” applicants did not get their cases processed within 24 hours – it is clearly unacceptable to take huge sums in payment for a premium service and then to provide a sub-standard service.

Highly skilled migrant example – Ms C

Ms C is a citizen of New Zealand. She did her first degree in the UK and has continued to live here legally for several years, as a highly-skilled migrant, working in marketing. She has a British-based partner, and they have a home in my constituency.

Ms C’s visa was due for renewal in October 2012, and her length of residence in the UK meant that she was eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain here. She looked at UKBA’s website, and although she did not believe the stated target that her application would be processed in four weeks, she was prepared to accept the assurance that 95% of applications were processed within 6 months.

She submitted an in-time application in September 2012, and she also accepted an invitation to her partner’s sister’s wedding, which was due to take place in May 2013. The wedding was to take place in on an island in the South Pacific, and the tickets were booked for 4th May 2013.

Ms C contacted my office last week in a bit of a panic. She had still had no word on her application for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, six months after it had been submitted, and she was understandably worried that she would not be able to make it to the wedding.

When my assistant contacted the MPs’ hot-line about this case, she was told that Ms C’s file had not yet reached a casework team, and there was very little chance of any progress in the next couple of weeks. Fortunately, my assistant was able to contact a helpful UKBA officer in Sheffield, and he did push the case through for me, so Ms C was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and her documents are now on their way to her.

Ms C will now be able to attend her sister-in-law’s wedding – but she has already missed out on several business trips whilst she has been kept waiting, and without an MP’s intervention she would have missed the wedding as well.

The point here is that Ms C’s application was incredibly straightforward – she had complied with all the rules, she had paid the right fee, she had provided her biometrics, there were no security or criminal concerns. There can be no excuse for providing such poor service in cases like this.

OVERSEAS STUDENTS

I am sure you would agree that British universities should continue to try to attract the brightest and best students from all parts of the world to study for degrees and post-graduate qualifications. It is, therefore, very worrying to see that the government’s drive to reduce net migration is having such an impact on our universities.

Whilst it is right to try to ensure that all overseas students follow the rules, and right to monitor universities to ensure that they comply with the rules, I am not at all happy with the action taken by UKBA in the London Met case. As you know, the original decision was to take away London Met’s sponsor licence, and to require all London Met’s overseas students to leave the country. This caused a great deal of alarm amongst students who had valid visas and who had paid for their courses – and many students either transferred to other universities or left the country.

The university applied for permission to seek Judicial Review, and at the initial hearing UKBA agreed to backtrack and adopted a much fairer stance – London Met’s overseas students could at least complete the current academic year.

London Met were not permitted to re-apply for their sponsor licence until March – I am glad to say that the new application was successful, and overseas students at London Met will now be able to complete their degrees. It remains to be seen whether the university will be able to recruit a large enough number of new overseas students for the 2013/14 academic year to make all its courses sustainable.

The Immigration Service clearly needs to learn lessons from this sad story – my concern is that the way the situation was handled was not only fundamentally unfair to the students in question, but has also deterred potential students from coming to the UK, and permanently damaged London’s reputation as a centre for high level study.

The London Met story is a large scale example of poor decision-making by UKBA. Individual students also suffer from poor decision-making and long delays. I understand that the target for processing in-country applications from students for further Tier 4 leave is to complete 90% of cases in four weeks. In fact, only 14% of cases are being completed in time. Performance in this area has deteriorated dramatically, and many students are being left in limbo for long periods of time, unsure as to whether they will be able to continue with their studies.

Student example – Ms D

Ms D, a student from the Democratic Republic of Congo whose parents are resident in South Africa, completed her first degree in biomedical science at London Met last year. She applied for further leave to remain as a student to undertake a Masters’ in Blood Science, and she had already started her studies when her student visa was refused.

The refusal was based solely on the fact that the South African bank statement she had supplied, which showed funds in Rand, did not explicitly confirm that the currency was, in fact, Rand. This matter could have been cleared up very easily, and Ms D applied for a review of her case, pointing out that there were ample funds for her application to succeed, and the South African bank statement showed only funds in South African Rand.

Ms D’s university enrolment was suspended. She could not re-apply to London Met, as their sponsor licence had been revoked, but two other universities offered her places to complete her Masters’ provided that she could get her visa sorted out.

The delay on this review was 3 months, and then a refusal was issued. Ms D made a further application which took three months to process and which was also unsuccessful. She then decided to leave the UK and go home to the DRC.

UKBA had held on to Ms D’s passport during this process, and they refused to return it to her. An arrangement was made that if she bought a ticket to Kinshasa she would be able to pick up her passport from the Immigration Service at the airport. She bought her ticket - £800 – and turned up at the airport. No passport. She was not permitted to board the plane, so she is still in London.

Ms D cannot stay in the UK to get on with her studies, but she cannot leave the UK as it seems that UKBA have lost her passport.

Ms D is a bright and solvent student, doing her best to complete her studies in a subject which would be enormously useful in her homeland of the DRC, or in her parents’ adopted homeland of South Africa. As her UK MP, I feel ashamed of the way she has been treated by UKBA.

FAMILY MIGRATION

I am concerned that the increasing emphasis on cutting net migration is causing real hardship for separated families. It seems to me that we have gone too far in further restricting the opportunities for elderly relatives to join their families in the UK – the current rules exclude many British citizens who are prepared to bear the full cost from caring for their relatives in the UK. I am also concerned about orphaned children who at present have little chance of joining their aunts and grandparents in the UK – it seems to me that we need to have a more flexible policy which offers some hope to these children.

Whilst I think it is right to ask those bringing relatives into the UK to provide sponsorship, we should not make the requirements so onerous that famlies are kept apart for the want of a few pounds, and I think the current requirement for those sponsoring a spouse of £18,600 is just too high. Applicants on the minimum wage do not earn this much – it is the equivalent of almost 60 hours a week.

Example family migration – Ms K

Ms K is settled in the UK and she has one child. Her husband, a Somali national, is living in Kenya. He has a teaching qualification, and works as a teacher in a school in Kenya.

Ms K’s husband applied two years ago for a visa to join his wife and child in the UK. The application was refused, as Ms K was not working and was unable to sponsor him. His ability to earn money in the UK as a teacher was disregarded on a technicality.

Ms K found employment, and she earns about £200 a week – minimum wage level, but enough to keep the family going until her husband is able to find work as a teacher. Her husband re-applied for a visa to join her in the UK in June 2012. However, there was a delay of three weeks in passing the application from the visa processing centre to UKBA, and the application was processed under the new family migration rules. Ms K’s husband was refused permission to join her in the UK, as her earnings are less than £18,600.

This case shows how families who are desperate to be reunited are kept apart by rules which are too harsh – and how delays on the part of UKBA are being used to further disadvantage applicants.

 I have indicated that I feel that the rules on family migration are too restrictive – but once again, my major concern in this area is the poor service applicants receive from UKBA. Entry clearance applications take far too long to process, and successful appeals take far too long to implement.

Example – implementing appeals – Ms B

Ms B’s nephew applied for a visa to visit her in the UK. The application was refused, and the visitor appealed. The appeal took six months to be heard, but it was eventually allowed in November 2011. However, four months later the family contacted me again to say that they were still waiting for the visa to be issued.

When I  followed this up, I was told that there were communication problems with Bangladesh, and the decision had not reached the post, in spite of three requests from Dhaka in February, March and April. The visa was eventually issued in May 2012, six months after the sucessful appeal.

This case is an example of an application refused for no good reason, and delays at every stage. Once an applicant has won an appeal, it is clearly unacceptable to delay implementing the decision.

I understand that around a third of  family visit visa refusals are overturned at the appeal stage, so appellants should be confident that their appeal will be processed quickly and efficiently, and upheld at the appeal stage. I am concerned that taking away appeal rights from family visitors will lead to injustice.

ASYLUM BACKLOG

There are still far too many people in the UK who came here seeking asylum and who are still waiting for a final decision on whether they can stay in the UK. As you know, this group is divided into two separate backlogs – asylum legacy cases, for those who first sought asylum more than six years ago, and new asylum model cases, for those who first sought asylum less than six years ago. 

I have been doing my best to identify legacy cases in my constituency. It seems to me that people who came to the UK to seek asylum more than seven years ago have a right to expect some clarity about their future, and we were promised that all these cases would be concluded by July 2011.

It is clear that the promises which have been made in the past have been false, and the information supplied by UKBA to MPs has been wildly inaccurate. The fact remains that these cases do need to be resolved one way or the other, and it is not acceptable that these people are left in limbo any longer. I understand that these cases were transferred from the Case Resolution Directorate to the Case Assurance and Audit Unit, and they are now being transferred again to the Older Cases Unit – but there is still no timescale for decisions to be made.

I have been pushing UKBA at regular intervals to conclude the cases from my constituency, with some success – I have so far identified 146 asylum legacy cases, and over 100 of my constituents who were formerly without any security have been granted permission to live and work in the UK. Only 16 asylum legacy cases on my list remain to be resolved.

However, the latest update I have received from the Head of the Older Live Cases Unit (OLCU) indicates that three of these cases relate to people who not only claimed asylum before 2007 but also subsequently made further applications many years ago:

Mr E    Application for further leave to remain in the UK       June 2007 - OLCU to consider

Mr F    Application for further leave to remain in the UK       March 2006 – OLCU to consider

Mr G   Further submissions                                                    July 2003 – OLCU to consider

These three cases were sitting there waiting to be processed when the Case Resolution Directorate was set up in 2007. They were still waiting to be processed when the CRD was due to have completed all cases in 2011. They were passed to the Case Assurance and Audit Unit – and still not processed. And now they have been passed to the Older Live Cases Unit.

The Head of this unit  has told me “It is not possible to set a deadline for the conclusion of these cases”. Why not?

NEW ASYLUM MODEL

As I understand it, the idea of separating out pre-2007 cases into a separate asylum legacy backlog was to ensure that those seeking asylum in the UK from 2007 onwards would have their cases processed promptly and efficiently.

The idea was that the whole process, including any appeals, would be completed in six months, and at one point this seemed to be working – I saw a group of Iranians in 2011 who had come to the UK together and claimed asylum in May 2010. Their asylum claims had been refused in June 2010, their first tier appeals had been refused in August 2010, and their appeals to the Upper Tribunal had been refused in February 2011, so the whole process had been completed in 10 months.

However, although this case had been processed within only four months outside the expected time limits, the standard of decision-making was poor, and evidence of torture had not been taken into account. The Iranians were still in the UK, and they were protesting against their treatment – they had sewn their lips together and were living in a tent pitched in a street market in Islington. 

The Iranians finally managed to get effective legal advice and representation, re-submitted their asylum claims and were granted asylum.

However, it is clear that there have been more and more delays in NAM cases over the past few years, and many asylum seekers who have come to the UK more recently are now waiting far too long for their cases to be concluded.

Example – delayed asylum decision – Mr T

Mr T came to the UK from Iran in March 2011. He had been a student activist, and he had been mistreated by the Iranian authorties, and barred from continuing with his studies. He claimed asylum on arrival in the UK.

When Mr T first contacted me last year, he had aready been waiting over a year for a decision on his initial claim for asylum. He was eventually granted asylum in February 2013 – almost two years after his arrival in the UK.

Mr T was not able to continue with his education while he was waiting for a decision on his asylum claim. He is still trying to sort out admission criteria so that he can study at a UK university. It is not acceptable to keep refugees fleeing  persecution waiting for years for progress on their cases.

CONCLUSION

This is a long letter – but it could, of course, be much longer. At every surgery, new cases come to light – and at every surgery some of the same old faces reappear, hoping against hope for progress on applications which were made months or years ago.

You now have the opportunity to turn things around – but change should not be driven by pandering to prejudice, and should not be led by negative rhetoric which implies that all foreign nationals living in the UK are a problem. Change should be driven by a genuine commitment to fairness, accountability and good customer service.

I hope that you will be able to assure me that you will be publishing target times for all categories of application, and you will be making every effort to ensure that your service delivers on those targets. And I hope that you will be able to assure me that you will not only commit to fairness and good customer service in the Immigration Service, but deliver the change which is so badly needed.

Yours sincerely, 

Emily Thornberry MP

Islington South and Finsbury

www.emilythornberry.com


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