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Identity Documents (Home Office)

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 19 November 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. I thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I am grateful for the chance to raise issues that are of great concern to me, my constituents and I think, given the number of examples passed to me in the past few days by other hon. Members, many others across the country.

The debate about immigration to this country is complex and multi-faceted. I do not intend to dwell on wider concerns about the system. I am sure that all Members, on both sides of the House, and members of the public with wide-ranging views on the nature and scale of immigration agree that, whatever system we have, it is crucial that it operates efficiently and responsibly and that those who participate are treated with dignity, respect and even-handedness.

I am pleased to see the Minister for Immigration here today. He will concede that we have exchanged a great deal of correspondence on individual cases. I give genuine thanks to the front-line Home Office officials who regularly engage with my office and other hon. Members. The fact that we often see him pursued by a queue of unhappy Members from all parties, including me, wherever he goes in the House is no reflection on the personal courtesy that he and his office have shown other Members and me in listening to our concerns.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Although I appreciate the courtesy that the Minister and his officials have shown, the cases I will discuss today raise serious concerns about the competence of senior Home Office officials, the processes put in place and ultimately, I am sorry to say, ministerial oversight of the immigration system. Importantly, the cases do not merely relate to the soon-to-be-defunct United Kingdom Border Agency, but to the new immigration and visas directorate under Home Office control. I have come across numerous cases where documents, such as passports, birth certificates and travel documents, have been misplaced or permanently lost, which has led to lengthy delays, erroneous decisions, expensive appeals, tribunals and compensation payouts and a great deal of personal anguish for constituents, with results ranging from being unable to attend funerals of family members and being wrongly stigmatised as illegal immigrants, to being denied work, social security and the normal family life to which they are entitled. There is disturbing evidence that documents are not being opened or included in a person’s case, and wrong decisions may be made as a result.

The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration report in November 2012 found that at one point more than 150 boxes of post, including correspondence from applicants, MPs and their legal representatives, lay unopened. The independent chief inspector told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that inspectors had come across the problem of lost files “in every inspection”. Worryingly, he said that 7% of the 400 files sampled were incorrectly filed—in other words, not in the right place. He said that he

“would like to see a much more rigorous approach taken to data management and file management generally.”

He emphasised that part of the cultural problem was that staff at UKBA did not see the human faces behind the mounting files. At a time when numerous concerns are being raised about the integrity of our immigration system, such reports hardly inspire confidence. I hope that the Minister will be able to outline any progress made since the report and say whether he is satisfied with that progress.

I would like to highlight some specific areas of concern with clear examples to which I hope the Minister can respond. I have encountered a number of cases in which the Home Office has wrongly advised constituents that their documents have been lost, only to locate them subsequently on the premises, sometimes years after denying their presence. Constituents have advised me that in addition to spending time and energy pursuing these matters, they have been unable to enrol in university, accept job offers, travel for work or even manage daily affairs as a result of the loss.

One phrase that crops up frequently in such cases is that the documents were “with another team”. That was the experience of one of my constituents who submitted his passport and biometric residence card to support his children’s application for naturalisation. The Home Office website advises EEA nationals that they can expect to receive their documents within 10 working days. In order to ensure a speedy return, my constituent had taken the liberty of enclosing a self-addressed envelope affixed with a paid special delivery stamp and a covering letter requesting that the documents be returned promptly, as he is frequently required to travel overseas for business.

The Royal Mail tracking system confirmed that the parcel was received, but when my constituent contacted the Home Office, he was informed by an official that the package did not contain his passport and biometric card. That information later turned out to be untrue. I am pleased to say that eventually the documents were located and returned to my constituent, but unfortunately he was extremely frustrated by the incompetence that he had experienced and missed a business trip as a result of the misplacing of his passport and documents.

In another case, the Home Office advised me initially that it had returned my constituent’s documents 12 months ago, only to apologise eventually and confirm that it had in fact retained his documents following a failed application. In other cases, documents have been located years later in files archived in error. I have been told by a reputable organisation of a case involving a family granted settlement earlier this year who received their biometric residence permits but whose passports were not returned. They phoned the Home Office and submitted the return of documents form by e-mail. The Home Office advised that it had returned the documents but could not find the recorded delivery reference number. The family contacted their MP to try to find out what had happened. After repeated phone calls from May 2013 onwards, in which the MP’s office was also advised that records stated that the passports had been returned, the Home Office eventually agreed to recall the family’s paper file, which had been sent to storage. Lo and behold, the passports were found and returned to the family, but not until August 2013.

Such cases cause frustration and serious short-term consequences, but in other cases, recovery has not been possible, with much more serious implications. Asylum seekers and refugees are required to send their documentation, often including passports from their home country, birth certificates and education qualifications, to the Home Office as part of their asylum claim. Such documents are almost impossible to replace, particularly given the circumstances in which individuals have fled their original country. There is concern that where such crucial evidence is lost, erroneous decisions in either direction may be made. The Welsh Refugee Council has advised me of several cases in which asylum seekers’ files have been lost prior to the refusal of their application. That then affects their ability to return home voluntarily or even by forced removal, as many countries refuse to accept individuals without documentation who claim to be nationals of that country, leaving them in limbo.

In another case that was brought to my attention, an asylum seeker was advised that his passport would be retained following the refusal of his application in 2001. The individual appealed against the refusal of asylum and, after a series of mishaps and appeals, was finally granted indefinite leave under the legacy programme in 2011. However, although he provided the Home Office with a copy of its own letter confirming that it had retained his passport, it continued to deny any record of holding it. After the intervention of his MP, the Home Office finally admitted that it had lost his passport in 2012. Given the serious circumstances in which such individuals flee their home countries, what confidence does the Minister have in the system, which is supposed to support and protect some of the most vulnerable people in the world?

I am sorry to say that the situation for many other non-asylum applicants is no better. In one particularly serious case with which the Minister is familiar, the former UK Border Agency returned the documents of my constituents Mr Conde and Ms Mane to their former address, rather than to their solicitors as they had requested. It was then impossible for them to retrieve their documents, as they had no access to the address. As a result, Mr Conde was unable to see his sister before she passed away or even to attend her funeral.

In another case, despite the fact that my constituent, Ms Chekera, informed the UKBA of a change of address and received a written acknowledgement, her details were not updated on the system and letters requesting that she enrol her biometric data were therefore delivered to the wrong address. The UKBA subsequently voided her application because she had supposedly not provided the information and returned her supporting documents to her old address. Because she was aware of the delays in processing applications, she did not contact the UKBA to ask for an update on her application until some months after the initial mistake. She was then devastated to discover that unbeknownst to her, she had been living and working in the UK illegally for several months, with potentially serious ramification for both her and her employer.

Employers have a statutory responsibility to ensure that people have the right to work in this country, but to open up the risk of stigmatising people who have the right to be here but are missing crucial documentation through no fault of their own is unfair and unjust. I hope that the Minister will concede that it risks diverting resources and attention from tackling those who are attempting to abuse the system.

In another case brought to my attention by a Member of this House, the Home Office lost an individual’s identity documents, meaning that he was unable to prove his identity for work purposes and thus remained unemployed despite wanting to work and faced a prolonged risk of destitution. The Welsh Refugee Council has raised with me cases in which the loss of documents has prevented settled individuals from demonstrating their right to social security. In one case, the Home Office lost the birth certificate of an applicant’s child, meaning that the applicant’s access to child benefit payments was seriously delayed, resulting in significant financial hardship.

Those are the immediate human consequences of incompetence. I hope that the Minister will issue an apology to all of them on the Government’s behalf. I would also like to challenge him on a number of other points. First, with regard to compensation for individuals when there has been a mistake, claims for redress should be considered in accordance with the “Managing Public Money” standards guidance issued by the Treasury, which emphasises that Departments should attempt to return the individual to the position that they would have been in had there been no maladministration on the Government’s part. More often than not, that is simply not the case. Many are left significantly out of pocket as a direct result of incompetence or mistakes.

Although the documents lost in many of the cases that I encountered are irreplaceable, where it is possible to source a replacement, applicants face the challenge of arranging and financing the replacement of their documents up front and then submitting claims and supporting evidence to request reimbursement. I find it extraordinary that according to a recent parliamentary answer, the Home Office does not readily hold data about the total compensation paid as a result of losing passports and other travel documents. I can assure the Minister that it is an expensive pursuit. As he is aware, the constituents that I mentioned earlier, Mr Conde and Ms Mane, have spent well over £1,500 to date on arranging replacement documents, but they have yet to be reimbursed a single penny. Other constituents are in a similar position. Does the Minister think that it is reasonable to expect people to resort to taking out loans or enduring financial hardship to finance the cost of replacing documents that the Home Office has lost, then to spend months trying to reclaim the money, while never being sure that they will regain the full amount?

The second issue is how documents are sent through Royal Mail. When documents have gone missing in transit and the Home Office is not responsible for the loss, it usually advises the applicant to pursue the matter with Royal Mail directly. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to retrieve the documents, so the applicant is tasked with claiming compensation from Royal Mail.

Royal Mail advises customers that its special delivery service is

“ideal for sending valuable items”

and includes compensation cover for loss and damage up to a maximum of £500. However, it has come to my attention that the Home Office often returns people’s documents to them by recorded delivery rather than special delivery. Recorded delivery includes compensation cover only up to a maximum of £50, meaning that when documents are lost due to an error by Royal Mail—not by the Home Office in these cases, I concede—the maximum amount of compensation that the applicant can receive is £50, regardless of the cost of replacing the documents. That is a drop in the ocean compared with the total expense incurred. Is the Minister aware of any plans, or does he have any plans, to review the policy and consider making the system safer and more secure for the constituents who use it?

A number of examples raise serious questions about whether the Home Office is acting in accordance with data protection legislation. In one particularly serious case, I have had to raise the matter with the Information Commissioner as well as the Minister. I was approached recently by an honest and careful constituent whose documents had been returned, but along with them was the original birth certificate of an unrelated child. My constituent is from Sierra Leone and has no children, whereas the birth certificate belonged to a child born in a different part of the UK to Nigerian parents. It eventually ended up in my office.

The Immigration Law Practitioners Association has advised me of a similar case in which an Algerian national visited her legal representatives clutching correspondence that she had received from the former UKBA, despite the fact that she had requested all correspondence from the agency to be sent directly to her representatives. The correspondence had been sent to an address at which she was no longer resident. Most disturbingly, it contained a passport and other documentation belonging to a Liberian man whom she had never heard of rather than her child’s birth certificate, as the covering letter stated. Understandably, she was concerned that her own original documentation had been sent to some arbitrary and possibly untraceable location. Were it not for her honesty, the passport and documents of the Liberian could have ended up elsewhere.

Another colleague advised me that the Home Office recently wrote to a constituent of his, amalgamating the constituent’s case details with that of another unrelated individual. The Minister is aware that applicants are required to provide highly sensitive information in such applications, ranging from family and financial circumstances to allegations of torture, violence and persecution if, for example, the application is for asylum or humanitarian protection. This information is given on the understanding that it will be treated in confidence and held securely. It is therefore extraordinary that breaches such as this have occurred.

I wrote to the Minister about my constituents’ experiences and the wider problems of data protection on 18 September, but have yet to receive a response. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. I welcome his wider reflections on those serious cases. What discussions has he had with the Information Commissioner and senior officials in his Department?

I could go on—I have a litany of other cases—but I hope that, as I have highlighted a significant number of cases, as have other hon. Members and leading organisations working in the sector, the Minister will concede that what I have described appears to be a systemic issue, in some parts, rather than a few isolated incidents. In that regard, I was hardly reassured by some answers given to other hon. Members and me in a recent roundtable by a Home Office director, Sarah Rapson. I welcome outreach by the Minister and his officials—it is good to see that happening—but I do not feel that the system is improving. I have not seen signs of improvement in those cases. The number of people coming to me with cases suggests that there is a serious issue.

These cases clearly have serious and sometimes devastating implications for the individuals concerned and raise wider concerns about the integrity of the immigration decision process. It is my sincere hope that, as a result of my highlighting these cases, the visas and immigration directorate at the Home Office will undertake an urgent review into the problems I have discussed—not just the specifics, but systemic issues—and institute an effective system to ensure the safe receipt, storage and return of documents in a timely fashion; to address the massive backlog of cases; and to re-establish parliamentary and public confidence in a crucial aspect of our immigration system.

I reiterate what the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said; it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I do not think that I have done so, either, if I remember accurately. That is clearly an oversight by the House scheduling authorities and it is a great pleasure to redress it.

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of cases. It is difficult to comment on the specific cases for which he has not furnished the details, but I will try to comment on the general points. I thank him for what he said about the front-line Home Office staff and the MP account manager team that supports his office. I know from conversations we have had that it does its best to support his office, as it supports other hon. Members. We have been trying to put a great deal of effort particularly into supporting Members of Parliament. That does not mean that there are no issues, but in terms of the ability for MPs to get swift answers on operational matters and to resolve issues, both the director general, Sarah Rapson, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and myself have made it clear in the organisation that, when an MP account manager is pressing for information or action, they are acting on my behalf and that of the director general to resolve the issue for hon. Members. That message is getting home. MP account managers are therefore empowered to seek answers from the Department. Of course, if hon. Members are not happy with the response from the MP account manager, or if the MP account manager has not delivered it, they have the option of raising the matter directly with me, as the hon. Gentleman is doing today.

Before I move on to the care and custody of documents, let me respond to the hon. Gentleman’s mentioning the time taken to make decisions and how many cases are ongoing. That is a good point, because a number of the hon. Gentleman’s examples stem from the length of time that cases took to decide. Some cases were a result of the backlog of lengthy decision making in asylum cases. Clearly, if somebody’s case file is being held and the arrangements take the best part of a decade, it is not surprising that mistakes and errors happen with paperwork. One solution is to make faster decisions and return the documents in a timely fashion.

The hon. Gentleman knows—I have been frank about it in the main Chamber—that in the 2012-13 financial year what was the UK Border Agency in its in-country operations, which are those within the United Kingdom, where a lot of these issues stem from, did not do a good job at making timely decisions and we had a backlog of cases. I am pleased that in this financial year we have made significant progress, although we are not all the way there, in reducing that backlog to the extent that we have a relatively small number of weeks of cases on hand and we are largely, although not entirely, within our service standards. That important factor will enable us to both make more timely decisions and deal with issues about managing paper and valuable documents.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned valuable documents, including passports and biometric residence permits. We take the custody and care of the documents seriously. For context, I shall set out some data. We deal with about 1 million in-country applications every year for study, work or refugee status. Last year, we received 469 complaints about the loss of valuable documents—down from the year before. In about 42% of those cases, the Home Office was partially or fully responsible. Yes, that is 469 too many, because in an ideal world we would not lose any documents and documents would not go astray, but that is less than 0.02% of cases, which, putting it in context, suggests that we are not doing too bad a job. However, that can cause a great deal of annoyance and inconvenience in each individual case, and in a case that the hon. Gentleman highlighted, which I will come to, there was a certain amount of distress for the constituents concerned.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is pleased that we have recognised that we need to do things differently, particularly in respect of managing valuable documents. He spoke about ensuring that staff are properly trained and that they complete the mandatory training on protecting personal information, not just to be aware of the procedures and policies, but to understand the consequences of the loss of such documents. He was right to say that it is important that staff are aware of the people behind the cases, not just of cases to be processed. That mentality will enable people to take more care.

The second thing that we are doing, which I think will help, is that, having listened to customer feedback on our holding on to valuable documents until we have made a final decision, we are moving to system in which we will only retain copies of the documents once we have validated them. Customers will send in their application with their valuable document—their passport or biometric residence permit, or whatever—and once we have established the bona fides of the document and made a note of them, we will take a copy of that document and return it to the person at that point, as opposed to hanging on to it all the way through the process. That will help, because we will return the documents on a more timely basis, so reducing the opportunity for loss.

The final thing that we are doing—this comes back to some comments that the chief inspector made—is that, rather than maintaining valuable documents at different locations around the country, with what should be standard but in practice turned out to be variable care, we will record and track the receipt of those documents at a central location, where we will manage and store them and where people with expertise will take proper care of them and look after them. When we hold documents, we will hold them in a more secure and better-managed environment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the postal system and correctly said that we always send documents by recorded delivery. He made a fair point about how Royal Mail compensation for recorded delivery compares with that for special delivery. I will look at our strategy there, at the cost of those two services and whether the point that he raises in practice—it is clearly a theoretical problem—relates to cases where that has been an issue. It would help if he told me about specific cases, if he has not done so previously, because I could use those examples to see whether they raise wider issues. I am happy to do that, because he is right. Clearly, if Royal Mail loses valuable documents and we and his constituent have done everything right, Royal Mail is responsible for the compensation. We must consider whether the compensation that Royal Mail pays for the service that is used is adequate for the task. That is a perfectly reasonable point, and I will take it away. Whether or not I decide that we need to make a change, I will write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library, so that other Members may know what I have concluded.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about compensation where we are at fault. My understanding is that, in the case that I considered, we will pay compensation and refund the cost of replacing the documents, including associated costs such as travel. I accept his point that that requires the person to deal with the situation and claim back the money, but the flipside—he talked about managing public money—is that we also have a responsibility to ensure that, where we compensate people, the claim is genuine, which it is in most cases, but we have had examples in which people claimed costs that they did not incur. That is why we insist that people reasonably evidence the costs before we pay them. My understanding is that we will pay not only the direct costs but the associated costs, including travel.

Where we find that we have lost a document, we have a departmental security unit that considers the root cause of the problem. Was it human error, or was it just poor management? Is there a systemic process involved in that part of the operation that we need to fix by putting something in place?

The hon. Gentleman raised two specific cases involving his constituents, and I have some information on those cases. He did not name the constituent who was sent the birth certificate of an unconnected child in her application for leave, so I will not name her, either. We are grateful to her for returning the document, and I confirm, as we have confirmed to her, that the document had no bearing on the decision-making process. Such things happen infrequently, but we are continuing to investigate how it happened, and we will take appropriate steps. As the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I will ensure that I am briefed on the appropriate steps that are taken in that case.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a specific constituent, whom he named—Mr Conde. Frankly, it has taken too long for us to reach a compensation agreement with Mr Conde. I confirm that I have investigated the matter. I gave officials instructions to address the situation, and I confirm that today we will be dispatching a letter to Mr Conde with what I think, based on what he is claiming, is a much more reasonable offer of compensation, which I hope he will find acceptable.

After this debate, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with details of the offer. I did not write to him beforehand because I wanted to see whether he would raise any other concerns. The letter will set out what has happened in the case, what we have offered and the thinking behind it. I hope the offer is acceptable and that we will be able to resolve the matter. I have asked officials to consider the matter not only by the book, but in terms of what is reasonable, particularly as his constituent was unable to attend his sister’s funeral, which clearly caused him significant distress. I hope that my response is helpful in that specific case.

I appreciate the Minister’s personal efforts on those cases, and I look forward to seeing the replies.

On compensation in general, it would be helpful for hon. Members and members of the public to see the scale and extent of the problem. Will the Minister furnish us with a detailed figure on the overall compensation paid, so that we may understand the scale of the problem?

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and he referred to a parliamentary question. One of the challenges, of course, is that this is always a balance of resources. When answering parliamentary questions, we have to consider how much resource we have to put into extracting the information. He will know, as I know to my cost, that the systems in the Home Office for recording and tracking information are not the best in the world. There is always a balance. The information is available somewhere in the Department, but pulling that information together from multiple systems can be very costly.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary question stated that the information is not held centrally. I cannot remember whether we simply did not have the information centrally or whether pulling together the information would have cost more than the prescribed cost threshold for answering the question. I will go away and see what information is readily available on overall compensation. That information might not be brilliant, but let me see what is available. Again, I will write to him either with what is available or, if the information is not any better than the parliamentary answer, I will tell him so. Again, I will place a copy of that letter in the Library.

I have one-and-a-bit minutes left. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the care of valuable documents is important. I have set out some significant process improvements that are being introduced by the Department and UK Visas and Immigration in our in-country business to safeguard those documents better, to make faster decisions and to ensure that there are fewer issues. He raised a sensible point on how we transfer those documents through Royal Mail, and I will consider whether the compensation is appropriate in that specific example, which I thank him for raising. I hope that we can resolve his constituent’s case satisfactorily. I will write to him after the debate, and he will receive his and his constituent’s letter in the next few days. I am grateful to him for raising those issues today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.