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UK Border Agency

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

I think the words “follow that one” come to mind, Mr Speaker.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the future of the UK Border Agency. Since 2010, the Government have been getting to grips with the chaotic immigration system we inherited. We have introduced a limit on economic migration from outside the EU, cut out abuse of student visas and reformed family visas—as a result, net migration is down by a third. We have also started to get to grips with the performance of the organisations that enforce our immigration laws: through the Crime and Courts Bill, we are setting up a National Crime Agency with a border policing command; the UK Passport Service continues to operate to a high standard; and since we split the Border Force from UKBA last year, 98% of passengers go through passport control within target times and Border Force meets all its passenger service targets.

However, the performance of what remains of UKBA is still not good enough. The agency struggles with the volume of its casework, which has led to historical backlogs running into the hundreds of thousands; the number of illegal immigrants removed does not keep up with the number of people who are here illegally; and while the visa operation is internationally competitive, it could and should get better still. The Select Committee on Home Affairs has published many critical reports about UKBA’s performance. As I have said to the House before, the agency has been a troubled organisation since it was formed in 2008, and its performance is not good enough.

In truth, the agency was not set up to absorb the level of mass immigration that we saw under the last Government. That meant that it has never had the space to modernise its structures and systems, and get on top of its work load. I believe that the agency’s problems boil down to four main issues: the first is the sheer size of the agency, which means that it has conflicting cultures and all too often focuses on the crisis in hand at the expense of other important work; the second is its lack of transparency and accountability; the third is its inadequate IT systems; and the fourth is the policy and legal framework within which it has to operate. I want to update the House on the ways in which I propose to address each of those difficulties.

In keeping with the changes we made last year to the UK Border Force, the Government are splitting up the UK Border Agency. In its place will be an immigration and visa service, and an immigration law enforcement organisation. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. The first will be a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business men and visitors who want to come here legally. The second will be an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.

Two smaller entities will also mean greater transparency and accountability, and that brings me to the second change I intend to make. UKBA was given agency status in order to keep its work at an arm’s length from Ministers—that was wrong. It created a closed, secretive and defensive culture. So I can tell the House that the new entities will not have agency status and will sit in the Home Office, reporting to Ministers. In making these changes it is important that we do not create new silos. That is why we are creating a strategic oversight board for all the constituent parts of the immigration system—immigration policy, the UK Passport Service, the UK Border Force and the two new entities we are creating. That oversight board will be chaired by the Home Office permanent secretary.

We will also work to make sure that each of the organisations in the immigration system shares services, including IT, because the third of the agency’s problems is its IT. UKBA’s IT systems are often incompatible and are not reliable enough. They require manual data entry instead of automated data collection, and they often involve paper files instead of modem electronic case management. So I have asked the permanent secretary and Home Office board to produce a new plan, building on the work done by Rob Whiteman, UKBA’s chief executive, to modernise IT across the whole immigration system.

The final problem I raised is the policy and legal framework within which UKBA has operated. The agency is often caught up in a vicious cycle of complex law and poor enforcement of its own policies, which makes it harder to remove people who are here illegally. That is why I intend to bring forward an immigration Bill in the next Session of Parliament that will address some of these problems.

The changes I have announced today are in keeping with the successes of this Government’s reforms so far. We are reducing net migration and we are improving the performance of the organisations that enforce our laws, but UKBA has been a troubled organisation for so many years. It has poor IT systems, and it operates within a complicated legal framework that often works against it. All those things mean that it will take many years to clear the backlogs and fix the system, but I believe the changes I have announced today will put us in a much stronger position to do so. I commend this statement to the House.

Today we have had a statement made rather in haste by the Home Secretary after yesterday’s major speech from the Prime Minister barely mentioned these reforms. Only after the Prime Minister’s speech was dismissed in the media as “smoke and mirrors”, as “unravelling” and as allowing “politics to trump policy” and only after yesterday’s damning report from the Home Affairs Committee on the effectiveness of the UK Border Agency has the Home Secretary suddenly decided to rush this statement out before the Easter recess.

The Home Secretary is right that action is needed to sort out problems at UKBA, which has had a series of problems over many years. We would have some sympathy with her proposals, but the problem is that she refuses to recognise that problems with enforcement and effectiveness at UKBA have got worse, not better on her watch. Enforcement has got worse, visa delays have got worse and 50% fewer people are being refused entry at ports and borders. She says that the number of illegal immigrants removed does not keep up with the number who are here illegally, but that is because she is letting rather more of them in. The number of people absconding through Heathrow passport control has trebled and the number being caught afterwards has halved on her watch.

We have had a 16% drop in the number of foreign prisoners deported, we have had a big drop in the number of employers being fined for employing illegal workers, and what is her remedy today? She plans to split UKBA into two different organisations. We have been here before. She has already split UKBA once: just 12 months ago she split it into the Border Agency and the Border Force and made a lot of promises. The Minister for Immigration would like us to believe that it has all gone hunky dory and that things are much better since then, but what has happened since last year’s split? Queues at the borders went up and the Border Force presided over some of the longest queues our airports have seen, with people waiting more than two hours to get their passports checked.

Things got worse at the Border Agency, too. The Select Committee’s report showed a 20% increase in the backlog of asylum cases in three months, a 53% increase in number of asylum cases waiting more than six months compared with the previous year, an increase in delays for tier 1 and tier 4 in-country visa applications compared with the previous three months and 59,000 cases not even entered on the database. As the Committee said, 28,000 visa applications were not processed on time in one three-month period—that is two thirds of visa applications not processed on time. In the words of the Committee:

“The Agency must explain to Parliament what has gone wrong throughout 2012”.

The Home Secretary’s reforms and her cuts are what have gone wrong throughout 2012, so why should we believe that the latest round of reforms will do any better?

The Home Secretary has cut UKBA’s budget by 34% since the election, so little wonder it is struggling to keep up. Will she answer the following questions? When will the reforms be completed and how much they will cost? Her last reforms to split the Border Force and the Border Agency cost money rather than saving money. How many more illegal migrants will be deported as a result of the reforms? The figure has dropped by 20% since the election. How much will it increase by as a result of the reforms? How long will legitimate migrants have to wait for their visas? Will those delays be cut or will they increase? How long will the waits on asylum claims be? There was a 50% increase in long waits last year. What will she get that down to? These are the practical questions to which we want answers.

So far under this Home Secretary, the only strategy we have had for border control has been cuts and cuts, splits and splits. But performance has got worse. When she was in opposition, she said to a former Immigration Minister:

“I’m sick and tired of government ministers…who simply blame other people when things go wrong.”

So, will she recognise the things that have gone wrong since the election on her watch and give us practical information about and targets for putting them right and tell us what the improvements in performance will be?

We have had a lot of rhetoric on immigration from the Home Secretary but—this is really important—we need her to get the basics right and to do it now.

I am afraid to say that, yet again, we received a characteristic response from the shadow Home Secretary. We still have not had an apology for Labour’s mass uncontrolled immigration, and we have had no apology today for the state in which the previous Labour Government created and then left the Border Agency.

I can reveal to the House today, however, that the shadow Home Secretary now has an immigration policy. In a recent article for PoliticsHome, she said:

“We need much stronger action against illegal immigration to be a priority.”

I am sure that everyone in the House would agree, but how does the shadow Home Secretary propose to get there? We need, she said, a “taskforce”. So, that is it. That is how the Opposition think that we will get control of our immigration system: the classic new Labour solution of a taskforce.

After all the comments the right hon. Lady made, let us remember who we have to thank for the structure that is being dealt with today. The plans to create UKBA were set out in a paper published by the Cabinet Office in November 2007. Who was the Minister for the Cabinet Office at the time? None other than her boss, the Leader of the Opposition.

The right hon. Lady cited a number of figures and raised a range of issues. She referred to the fact that, to use her terms, two thirds of visas were not processed on time. I have news for her: more than 90% of visas are processed within the performance target time. She referred to clearing up the backlogs, which originated with the Government of whom she was a member. I will respond to the point, nevertheless. The structural changes that we are making today will make for better-run organisations with greater clarity and greater focus, with more transparency, more accountability and stronger management. That, as we have seen with the Border Force, will deliver better performance; but it is not the only answer, which is why I have also referred to the need for us to change the law, deal with the IT systems and improve the processes in the organisation. It will take time, but today’s announcements are an important start.

The right hon. Lady made a number of references to the Border Force and its performance. Until I took the Border Force out of UKBA last year, it was not possible to tell what its performance was. The Vine report, published last year, showed that checks were being suspended routinely and without permission for many years. That is no longer the case, thanks to the changes that I made.

The right hon. Lady cited numerous statistics about the performance of the Border Agency, but I suggest that she should have listened to my statement. I know that the performance of the Border Agency is not good enough. It never has been. That is why we are making the changes that I have announced today. The question for the right hon. Lady is whether or not she supports those changes.

The right hon. Lady asked when the changes will be made. The agency status will be removed at the beginning of April, and I shall return to the House with a further statement on the detail of the structural changes in due course. She said that there had been no reference until today to the possibility of changes to UKBA, but that is not right. If she had paid attention during Home Office questions yesterday, she would have heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration refer to the fact that I would bring forward proposals. The Prime Minister also referred to that fact in his excellent speech on immigration yesterday.

The right hon. Lady suggested that I have made this statement only in response to the report from the Home Affairs Committee that was published yesterday, but the decision has been taken after many hours of serious work over many months. If I restructured UKBA every time the Select Committee criticised it, I would have restructured it on more than one occasion. [Hon. Members: “Quarterly.”] My hon. Friends are suggesting that we would have done so quarterly, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who is a member of that Committee and knows that the restructurings would have been rather more numerous than the one that I am suggesting today.

We must remember why the Border Agency got into this situation. After the mess that the previous Government made of the immigration system, John Reid turned up at the Home Office, called the immigration system not fit for purpose and, instead of fixing it, turned it into an agency at arm’s length to keep all the trouble away from Ministers. That was a soundbite with no substance; but under the right hon. Lady, the Labour party is regressing, as she does not even have a soundbite. The Government have a very clear plan to get net migration down to the tens of thousands and to sort out the enforcement of our immigration laws. The Opposition have nothing. She is not serious; they are not serious; and the British people know that they cannot trust Labour with immigration.

Order. I remind the House that, notwithstanding the notable interest in this statement, it is to be followed by three debates, to which no fewer than 48 hon. and right hon. Members wish to contribute, so there is a premium on brevity.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will take absolutely no advice from the Labour party, which delivered massive net immigration and an asylum backlog of 450,000 and put in no transitional arrangements for eastern Europeans when it was in office. I congratulate her on applying common sense by taking back responsibility at ministerial level for the security of this country’s borders. Can she confirm that placing the new bodies that she has announced today under the direct supervision of Ministers will ensure the maximum scrutiny of the work that they do?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks. I can indeed confirm that we will be increasing scrutiny of the work that is done in relation to the immigration and visa system and immigration enforcement by bringing it into the Home Office, under a board chaired by the permanent secretary and reporting to Ministers. It is common sense and the right approach to deal with the problem caused by the creation of the agency under the previous Government.

May I congratulate the Home Secretary on putting the United Kingdom backlogs agency out of its misery by delivering this lethal injection today? May I join her in paying tribute to colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), for their work over the years in exposing the agency’s shortcomings? I put this option to the Minister for Immigration yesterday and he said that he would reflect on it, so coming back in 24 hours is quite an achievement. Will the Home Secretary give the House an assurance that uppermost in her mind will be the clearing of backlogs, strong and effective leadership and strong parliamentary scrutiny? Only then will we have an immigration system in which the British people can have confidence.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I said, the Home Affairs Committee has been assiduous in its consideration of matters relating to UKBA over the years and has had a consistent message about the need to deal with some of the problems. It is obviously important that we deal with backlogs. It is also important that we ensure that the agency makes the right decisions on an ongoing, day-to-day basis, that those decisions are made not just appropriately but fairly and that people are dealt with properly when they interact with the agency. That will take some time. I think that we share an aim about the quality of system provided, but it will take some time to ensure that we fix all the problems UKBA is having to deal with.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Will she say something about the staff, from Mr Whiteman, whom the Home Affairs Committee will see at 3 o’clock to discuss his terms and role, to staff across the agency? We have recently returned from Abu Dhabi, where they seem to have turned around the visa processing unit. I think that there are really good people in UKBA who just need to be better led.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, because it gives me an opportunity to say that many people working for UKBA are dedicated officers who do an excellent job. Certainly, in some of the examples that he and other members of the Home Affairs Committee will have seen, such as the overseas operations, real change has been brought about. The work of the vast majority of staff in the areas of enforcement or the immigration and visa system will not change, but there will of course be change for the directors general heading up those two operations. Obviously, those are personnel matters on which the permanent secretary will make announcements in due course.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s decision to take the agency back into the Home Office, which I think is the right one. Which of the new units will inherit responsibility for dealing with the backlogs, and how will she ensure that this does not become yet another opportunity to loose case files, passports and other documents in the ritual buck passing with which we have all become too familiar?

The differentiation between the two units will be clear: the immigration and visa section will deal with decisions on whether people should be entitled to enter or remain in the UK; and at the point at which those cases are closed and people need to be removed, cases pass to the enforcement part of the operation. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments on bringing the agency back into the Home Office—I suggest that he has more of a policy on the issue than Labour Front Benchers. We are very conscious that it is important to work out that separation, which is why I think that this clear-cut separation will help us to ensure that we do not see the sort of losses of files, passports and so forth that we have seen previously, so we have to look at the processes, too.

It will be a pleasure for the Home Affairs Committee no longer to have to report quarterly on ongoing problems within UKBA. I congratulate the Home Secretary on her decisive action. For too long the agency has stood in the way of a coherent, fair and credible immigration policy. My concern is that in 2006 the immigration and nationality directorate was spun out of the Home Office because it was not fit for purpose, had a vast backlog and was poorly led. We now have an agency that is still not fit for purpose, still has a vast backlog and still has leadership problems. How can she be so sure that it will work this time?

We have spent considerable time looking at what the right structure is for the agency. We have had the experience of working with the Border Force. If we look at its operation today, we see that it is in a different place from where it was previously. That experience has shown that if we can create a smaller entity that has a clearer management and focus on its activities, we can make progress, and that is exactly what we are doing by splitting the agency in this way.

Is it not true that part of the problem is that ministerial attention has been diverted to policy stunts prepared for prime ministerial statements and speeches? Can the Home Secretary confirm that ministerial attention has recently been focused on discussions in the inter-ministerial group on barring migrant children from compulsory education? The Department for Education then intervened and the children’s rights adviser said:

“If we were to withdraw the right of education from any children in the UK, regardless of their status, we would be hugely criticised for it by the UN. With the periodic review report due to be submitted in January 2014, this would be very controversial.”

Can the Home Secretary confirm that statement?

We have been looking at public services across the board in relation to what we describe as the pull factors. We have focused on housing, health and the benefits system. We do not propose not having the provision of education for individual children, but the hon. Gentleman’s opening remark, which was that policy changes were about publicity stunts, is far from the truth. We have been sorting out a chaotic immigration system and immigration policy introduced by the previous Government that led to net migration in this country reaching hundreds of thousands a year. We aim to bring it down to tens of thousands. We have already seen net migration cut by a third. That is not a publicity stunt; it is a real benefit and a policy that the people of this country want to see.

I very much welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Does she agree that one of UKBA’s main problems, apart from the inability to manage its data or communicate it correctly to the Home Affairs Committee, has been an identity crisis? It has tried to be an enforcement agency that pursues criminal investigations, but it has also tried to convey the message that Britain is open for business by offering a friendly customer service. Can she assure us that the new structure will fix that problem?

The aim of the new structure is that the two parts of the Home Office that will be dealing with these two areas of immigration policy will be focused more clearly on the roles within each part. The immigration and visa section will be focused clearly on giving an efficient and effective service on immigration and visa decisions, making the right decisions about who should be able to enter the country, but doing so in a way that gives individuals good customer service. The enforcement section will be able to focus clearly on the enforcement part. We are doing that precisely to get the focus my hon. Friend wants.

From time to time, high-tech employers in my constituency ask for help with getting visas or work permits for highly skilled workers whom they desperately need for their businesses. If, in future, such workers do not have access to NHS care, there will be an increased cost either on the employer or the employee. Will the Government be reducing national insurance contributions for employers and employees in respect of those workers?

It is very hard to see the link with UKBA —[Interruption.] Well, it is a slightly strained connection, but we shall see, if the Home Secretary wants to give a brief reply.

It is a very strained connection. I understand that a similar point was raised in the urgent question yesterday and was responded to.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the immigration Bill that the Government will introduce in the next Session will seek to ensure that those who have no right to be within the jurisdiction are removed from it? Does she not think it a pity that the shadow Home Secretary does not have the same perspicacity as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s latter point. Yes, the immigration Bill that I intend to introduce will look at a range of problems to do with deportation to ensure that we can remove from this country people who have no right to be here.

The Home Secretary alluded to the setting up of the National Crime Agency with the border police command. Will she reassure the House that there will be ongoing discussions to try to ensure that the entirety of the United Kingdom is safeguarded, particularly the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic?

I recognise, Mr Speaker, that my referring to the National Crime Agency opened up the possibility for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am well aware of the operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that the agency is able to do the job that it needs to do across the United Kingdom, and we are happy to continue discussions with those who share the same aim.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on her statement. Should not UKBA now join the long list of Labour’s immigration failures, including the Human Rights Act 1998, an immigration backlog of 450,000, out-of-control and increasing net immigration and a total lack of control of eastern European immigration?

My hon. Friend makes very good points. It is precisely because of the difficulty that Opposition Front Benchers have in defending their poor record on immigration that we hear them trying to go on the party political attack rather than accepting the necessary decisions to deal with our immigration system.

Will the Home Secretary confirm her estimates of the cost of her reorganisation and whether it will be met from existing budgets?

I can assure the hon. Lady that any costs incurred in reorganisation will be met from existing budgets.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that until the shadow Home Secretary apologises for Labour’s shambolic immigration policy when in government, anything that she or her party says on immigration lacks any credibility whatsoever?

Order. The hon. Gentleman is always a most courteous Member, but his question suffers from the notable disadvantage that the Home Secretary has absolutely no responsibility for the matter in question. She is responsible for the Government’s policy but does not have any responsibility for the policy of the Opposition.

As the Home Secretary’s colleague, the Minister for Immigration, knows, I have been dealing with the case of Gordon Murray, a local councillor and college lecturer from Stornoway, who is trying to get his pregnant Chinese wife and unborn child from China to the Hebrides before she is unable to fly. The Minister has been very helpful—Gordon Murray and I are grateful for that—but he was bequeathed a system that is excessively bureaucratic and intimidatory and, in this case, is still cruelly dividing this family. Can we have, as Mr Murray has asked, a system that puts people’s needs at the centre rather than numbers and quotas?

I understand that, as the hon. Gentleman said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration has been dealing with this case. I want the immigration and visa part of the Home Office, as it will now become, to focus on customer service, but, of course, against the background of making the right decisions for individuals who apply to come to the UK.

Many of my constituents work at the UK Border Agency in Leeds, as do many other people across Leeds. Will the Home Secretary reiterate what these changes mean to the people who work there? Will she comment on how they will be able to do their job more effectively and get the results that they strive to achieve?

We do not intend that as a result of these changes there will be changes to any of the UKBA’s current sites. Most people will continue to do the job that they have been doing. As I have said, many staff are doing that assiduously and with the right commitment. It should be easier for them to do their job in the future because that part of the organisation, when within the Home Office, will have a much clearer focus but will also be making decisions that will enable us to improve the IT system and the processes within the organisation.

The Home Affairs Committee discovered a backlog of some 33,000 legacy asylum cases and found that 59,000 cases have not even been entered on to the computer system. Is not one of the major reasons for that the loss of staff and resources presided over by the Home Secretary since mid-2010? Will she pledge not to be so comprehensively out-manoeuvred by the Chancellor in the next spending review as she so clearly was in the previous one?

When the hon. Gentleman is thinking about figures he should remember that the Government inherited a backlog of half a million asylum cases. The Government have cleared that backlog.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Although we always find that we get great personal service from individual members of UKBA, she knows, because I have raised it with her before, that many people in my central London constituency find themselves frustrated by some of the current arrangements. Can she assure me that the new arrangements will make it easier for some high-performing people to get their visas more quickly and thus send a keen pro-business message?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that in the House, as she has done with me directly. We certainly intend to ensure that the service provides a premium service for business people and others who may need to come here on a faster basis. Indeed, we are setting up in India the first super-premium service, which will provide a 24-hour visa service for individuals who need it.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. One of the biggest complaints in my office about the UK Border Agency is the processing of visas and passports, which often takes up to 12 months. Staff are always helpful, and we appreciate that, but what assurance can she give to my constituents, who are totally frustrated with the delays that they face?

I am very conscious that this is one of the issues that we have needed to address in relation to the processing of applications. Particular concerns have been raised with us about the length of time that it has been taking to process business applications for tier 2 workers to come to the UK. That is currently being dealt with inside UKBA. I believe that having a clearer focus on that part of the business, but also working overtime to improve the IT systems and processes within it, will lead to the sort of outcome to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Given that most asylum seekers come to our shores via other nations, what happened to the previous convention of returning these people to the last safe country from which they came? If that has lapsed, can we bring it back through the immigration Bill that the Home Secretary has promised?

My hon. Friend refers to the Dublin regulation, which does indeed enable a country to return an asylum seeker to the first country in the European Union that they entered. We are still able to do that, with the exception of one country—Greece—and we do.

We all see in our surgeries lots of cases—sometimes dozens or hundreds of cases—of bona fide applicants who are waiting months and months, sometimes years and years, beyond the guidelines to get their applications dealt with. Can the Home Secretary assure us that the changes will lead to improvements in the near future for these people? We do not want this reorganisation merely to lead to more interim delay while it is put into effect.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about ensuring that the reorganisation does not lead to further problems in the short term. Like the longer-term changes to IT systems and processes, it is intended to try to deal with precisely some of the problems that he identified regarding the length of time taken to make decisions.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the new system will quickly implement judicial decisions to deport foreign criminals back to their countries?

A number of problems are encountered when trying to deport foreign national prisoners back to their country of origin. The new enforcement command in the Home Office will be able to put greater focus and emphasis on the removal of those who no longer have a right to be here and the deportation of foreign national offenders who should be removed. There are other issues in such cases and those will be dealt with in the immigration Bill that I intend to bring forward.