Assessing Britain’s immigration policies
There a few policy areas in the UK as divisive as immigration – the portfolio regularly splits public opinion and has proved to be a poisoned chalice for numerous home secretaries.
The British system has been blamed for a myriad of problems: some argue that it is too soft and frequently opens the door to wouldbe terrorists, while others insist an iron-fist approach to immigration has resulted in the UK breaching its human rights obligations to thousands of asylum seekers.
The man tasked with assessing the effectiveness of authorities, John Vine, has had a busy few years since becoming Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
The inspector position was announced in 2008, the same year the UK Border Agency (UKBA) was formed after the then Labour Government declared immigration policies “not fit for purpose”.
“The role has been very demanding and very interesting, not least because immigration is always a difficult area of public policy,” said Vine, who is well known in Scotland as a former Chief Constable of Tayside Police.
“The real challenge has been setting up the inspectorate from scratch and seeing it mature.
“The last few years have been full programmes of work and we are increasingly getting into areas of the agency’s work which have been very significant.”
Vine’s investigations have proved controversial – a report published earlier this year highlighted failures that allowed hundreds of thousands of people into Britain without proper checks. It was a revelation that prompted Home Secretary Theresa May to order that the UKBA should be split in two. The UKBA is responsible for securing the UK border at air, rail and sea ports and migration controls, such as the issuing of visas.
“One of the dilemmas with immigration policy is it is very complex and is not easily understood,” Vine said. “As a former Chief Constable, I can see how it would be easier for the public to understand something like policing; the public know what police priorities are and how they should be measured.
“But if you take this area of policy it is very complicated and a lot of people only have contact with the Border Agency when they go to passport control at the airport. The work the UKBA does is far more complicated and understanding the depth of it is quite difficult and hard to summarise.
“One thing that I think is important about my role is to inform public debate by putting information in the public domain about some of the details around what the agency is doing and I encourage other organisations to use my reports to hold the agency to account.”
At a time of heightened fear over national security, a key issue for the public is simply whether Britain is safer or not.
“It is very difficult to say,” adds Vine. “What we have to remember is it is important to secure our borders not just in order to prevent serious crime but also prevent people entering the country who have no right to be here.
“There are a whole range of immigration and customs offences the agency is responsible for as well as trying to identify people wanted by other authorities. It is difficult to say if we are more or less secure, but we have a good standard of service.”
Although Vine maintains that much of what the UKBA does work well, he has not been slow to identify weaknesses.
He added: “I obviously find that there are areas for improvement. Some things have surprised me. It surprises me sometimes the agency doesn’t know the outcomes of its efforts. A good example of that was in my report on intelligence, where I think I was able to report the agency receives about 100,000 pieces of information from the public every year, these could include allegations that people might not be here for the purposes they say they are.
“But the agency wasn’t able to tell me what all that intelligence resulted in, in terms of either prevention of immigration offences or detections. So I have been surprised at that but I made recommendations for improvement.
The agency has taken them very seriously and is working through them.”
He added: “The last time I went to the Home Affairs Select Committee, I said there has been slow improvement, and I believe that is still the case.
“I think there has been improvement in professional standards and the reporting and dealing of serious complaints. I think there has been some improvement in intelligence use by the agency to focus their activities where it will have most effect.
“There are areas I have not been so impressed with. Very often in inspections I find more of an emphasis on quality would benefit rather than just an emphasis on getting through the numbers.”
One of the most damning accusations faced by UKBA is that it has failed to identify effectively victims of torture, who should, under international law, be given refugee status in Britain.
Problems have arisen partly from ‘detained fast track’ (DFT), a procedure whereby asylum seekers are detained if the Government considers their claim “can be decided quickly”. Although DFT is said to be decided between seven and ten days, the current policy leaves open the possibility for detention of unlimited duration.
Opponents have said many asylum seekers who were placed on DFT have later proven to be victims of abuse such as torture and trafficking, rendering their experience of detention unnecessary.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said earlier this year that inadequate screening processes meant that rape victims and torture survivors could find themselves being led off to a detention centre as soon as they arrived in Britain to seek sanctuary.
An inspection by Vine reported earlier this year that contrary to the UKBA’s own policy, ten people out of a sample of 114 asylum-seekers who were detained for fast-track removal from January to April last year were later released because they proved to be victims of trafficking or survivors of torture.
Vine said that up to a third of the people originally selected for a fast-track ruling were released from detention at some stage.
He told Holyrood: “The detained fast-track approach was brought in many years ago and we wanted to see if it was working effectively. The agency needs to do more to ensure people aren’t detained unnecessarily because obviously they should only be detained if there is the prospect of them being removed from the UK.
“In the sample of cases I looked at, I was concerned the agency hadn’t conducted any analysis of the operation to see if it was unnecessarily detaining people in fast track, where there was no prospect of removal. There was also concern about them possibly detaining people who had been subject of, say, torture and ill-treatment, and that is against their own rules in relation to that particular process.”
He added: “There have been inefficiencies in the agency which do have a direct impact on the human rights of individuals here in the UK and it is part of my role to point out those issues as well as to point out where the agency can be more effective.”
There has been much concern expressed at the extent to which unaccompanied minors enter the UK, an issue Vine wants to explore further in the coming months.
He added: “I think people find it incredible young people can arrive at ports in the UK unaccompanied and are sometimes the victims of trafficking. The Border Agency has to ensure it has the processes in place to deal with those cases sympathetically.
“What I look for in all my reports is whether the Border Agency is fulfilling its obligation to children and young people and various pieces of legislation. Later this year I will do an inspection on the way they treat unaccompanied minors who arrive at our ports. That is something I am keen to do to make sure those obligations are carried out.”
Looking at the priorities for the immigration authorities, Vine added: “It is difficult to pick a single priority, we have to remember this is an organisation that until recently has been employing about 25,000 people – I would say a big priority is securing the border and making sure we have proper checks, in particular, in the run up to the Olympic Games.
“Another priority has to be clearing the backlog of legacy cases which the agency has been working on for a number of years and ensuring the quality of decision making is good.
“We have to remember 2.5m people from outside the EU apply for visas to come to the UK every year so there is an enormous amount of effort in processing those applications and making sure we give visas and encourage people to come to Britain to study, to do business, visit relatives, but also to make sure we refuse visas legitimately to those who have no right to have them.”