The Parliamentary Ombudsman has found massive, agonising delays, a doubling of complaints and a catalogue of errors in case management at the UK Border Agency.
In February 2010, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, published her fourth report on the UK Border Agency (UKBA), Fast and fair? . The Ombudsman’s remit is to investigate ‘injustice caused by maladministration’. Reading her report, it seems that the phrase might have been coined as a description of the UKBA and its predecessors, the Borders and Immigration Agency and (before that) the Immigration and Nationality Department.
Massive delays and correspondence ignored
It comes as no surprise that complaints have virtually doubled since 2007, and that the biggest problem encountered is massive, agonising delay. Hundreds of thousands of asylum applicants wait for years for a decision on their application, with their lives on hold in the meantime – in enforced destitution and dependency, with no entitlement to work, unable to move, or save, or plan. In one case reported by the Ombudsman, even after the Agency had decided to grant Mr C indefinite leave to remain, it took seven years to make the grant to him.
But it’s not only asylum applicants who face severe delays in having their claims considered. Others stuck in limbo include spouses of British nationals, who have been waiting for three to four years for decisions on their application for leave to remain. Those with an application outstanding are stuck in the UK, as departure automatically cancels any pending application. And when someone has paid a ‘priority fee’ of £950 to have their application considered on the same day, they don’t expect to wait a year for a decision, as happened to a Ms L, who sought indefinite leave to remain on the basis of her marriage. The backlogs are massive. 77,000 EU nationals waiting for residence permits, 33,000 fee-paid applications for regularisation outstanding and thousands of foreign national prisoners being detained for months or years awaiting deportation.
Frequently, letters chasing up applications are ignored. The Ombudsman ‘found numerous instances of the Agency’s failure to reply to correspondence or deal with complaints, their inability to give applicants any indication of when they could expect to receive a decision, and also their failure to consider whether particular cases should be prioritised for compassionate or other exceptional reasons.’ Even a letter from the British wife of a man rendered suicidal by his inability to support his children, because of the four-year unexplained delay in dealing with his application to stay, went unanswered.
A catalogue of mindless errors and neglect
Other common instances of maladministration are captured in the following extract, referring to the treatment of an EEA national: ‘Mrs N’s application for a residence card was subject to a catalogue of errors by the Agency. They wrote to her at the wrong address, failed to identify her letter as an appeal and incorrectly sent her file to the removals unit, where it was incorrectly put into storage. They also failed to respond to the substance of her complaint about their handling of her case, and so missed the opportunity to put right their earlier mistakes. The Agency’s errors delayed the approval of Mrs N’s residence card by over 12 months and in the meantime she was unable to start work without it.’
The Ombudsman observes that, ‘there are numerous examples where the Agency have been unable to perform at even a basic level of administration, such as reading and replying to letters, keeping proper records, keeping case files together and in the proper place, and notifying the applicant of their decision’.
Some of the examples contained in this report would be unbelievable to those without experience of dealing with the Agency. A Jamaican legally settled in the UK for fourteen years lost his passport and applied in 2004 for his ‘indefinite leave to remain’ stamp to be put in his new passport, enclosing the £155 fee. In response, the Agency demanded he prove his status – despite having all the relevant papers itself – and then insisted he apply for settled status again, refused him and ordered his removal, before an official finally thought to check the Agency’s own files and found the status documents. This process took three and a half years, during which time he ‘missed two family funerals, was unable to visit his mother when she was ill, was wrongly threatened with removal from the UK and paid £750 for an application that should not have been necessary’.
As the Ombudsman notes, the implications of such neglect are ‘serious and far-reaching … for society as a whole’. The Agency and its predecessors have consistently generated a large number of complaints, of which a high proportion are upheld. (In the first nine months of 2009-10, 97 per cent of complaints investigated were upheld in full or in part.) She records the ‘significant progress’ made by the Agency in recent years towards clearing backlogs, but concludes that it needs to make significant and consistent progress towards their commitment to meeting service standards, clearing existing backlogs and avoiding them in future.
An agency stretched to breaking point – and more pressure to come
Although the Ombudsman does not articulate it, underlying these case histories is a don’t-care, these-people-don’t matter attitude, exemplified but also exacerbated by politically-driven policy changes. The Ombudsman refers to 150 staff, qualified to deal with EEA applications, transferred suddenly to deal with foreign national prisoners in the aftermath of the non-deportation ‘scandal’. She also refers to the 2005 change which saw recognised refugees receiving a five-year permit instead of the previous grant of indefinite leave to remain, on the basis that refugees should not be allowed to stay longer than they need to – but the Agency seems unprepared to deal with refugees’ renewal applications which will start arriving in a few months time, the source of a new potential backlog.
Download a copy of Fast and fair? A report by the Parliamentary Ombudsman on the UK Border Agency here (pdf file, 392kb)