My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the use of DNA evidence in immigration applications.
Many thousands of immigration applications every year involve people applying to come to the UK or remain, on the basis of a family relationship with someone already here. If an individual does not have sufficient evidence to show that they are related to someone in the UK, they sometimes choose to do a DNA test to prove that relationship. Officials will then consider this evidence as part of their claim. Very often, this will be to the advantage of the applicant, because it can help establish family relationships beyond doubt where other available evidence is sometimes insufficient. However, the provision of DNA evidence must be entirely voluntary.
At the end of June, it was brought to our attention that there were some immigration cases where the provision of DNA evidence had been made a requirement to issue a visa or grant leave to remain, and not simply a request. Such demands are unacceptable. Today I want to take this opportunity to apologise to those who have been affected by this practice. The law in this context is that the provision of DNA evidence should always be voluntary and never mandatory. My predecessor made this absolutely clear with the changes she brought in in 2014.
Once we were made aware of the issue, we immediately commissioned an urgent internal review into it, which I am publishing today. Copies will be available in the House Library. My right honourable friend the Immigration Minister will be writing today to the Home Affairs Select Committee outlining the key points of the review and providing a copy.
The review covered the legal aspects of DNA use, policy and guidance, caseworking practice and correspondence with applicants, as well as oversight arrangements relating to the use of DNA. It outlines a number of areas in which guidance was unclear or wrong. It also outlines areas of operational practice where DNA evidence was improperly required and provides some initial information on the possible scale of the issue. The review makes a number of recommendations about how to address the root causes within the border, immigration and citizenship system that led to this operational practice. However, this review is not a conclusion to the work. The numbers and information in the report have been collected at pace and still need to be fully assured, and they are subject to change. Further work is needed to ascertain the full scope of the issue. But, regardless of the numbers of people affected, one case is still one too many.
I am determined to get to the bottom of how and why it was that, in some cases, people could be compelled to supply DNA evidence in the first place. The majority of cases identified so far have been part of Operation Fugal, an operation started in April 2016 to address patterns of fraud in some specific family and human rights immigration purposes. Letters sent as part of this operation incorrectly stated that the applicant must provide DNA evidence and that not providing such information without a reasonable excuse would lead to their application being refused on suitability grounds.
It has been reported that 83 applications had been refused at the time of writing the report. Seven of these seem to have been refused on suitability grounds solely for the failure to provide DNA evidence. A further six appear to have been refused on suitability grounds for failure to provide DNA, but where this is not the sole reason.
In addition to Operation Fugal, we have identified an improper approach to the use of DNA evidence in two further cases. The first relates to adult dependent relatives of Gurkhas. In January 2015, a scheme was expanded allowing adult dependent children of Gurkhas discharged before 1997 to settle in the UK. Guidance was published which stated that DNA evidence may be required, and that applications may be refused if that evidence was not provided without reasonable excuse within four weeks. This published guidance was wrong and has been updated. The report suggests that there were 51 cases identified where DNA evidence was requested from applicants at their own cost.
At the time the report was written, we were aware of four cases from the same family unit who had their application refused solely because they did not provide DNA evidence. Those decisions have now been corrected.
The second case relates to Afghan nationals. In 2013, applications from Afghan nationals formerly employed by the UK Government to resettle in the UK began to be accepted. The terms of the scheme included mandatory DNA testing for family groups, paid for by the UK Government. Current investigations suggest that no one making an application under this scheme has been refused because they did not take a DNA test. None the less, mandatory testing should not have been part of the scheme and this requirement has now been removed.
Let me be clear: across our immigration system, no one should have faced a demand to supply DNA evidence and no one should have been penalised for not providing it. In particular, I want to extend my apology to those Gurkhas and Afghans who have been affected.
The two schemes that I have described were put in place to help the families of those who have served to keep our country safe. I am sorry that demands were made of them which never should have been. I want to reassure the House that I am taking action to correct this situation. First, I have given clear instructions that officials must not seek DNA evidence on a mandatory basis in any immigration case. Secondly, I have set up a new task force so that anyone who feels that their case may have been influenced in any way by an inappropriate demand for DNA testing can get advice and support. Thirdly, we will also look to reimburse any individual who has suffered financial loss because we required DNA evidence when we should not have done so. Fourthly, we will continue closely to examine whether this approach might have been taken in any other parts of the immigration system. What we know so far is that three schemes have been affected, but we must investigate whether there are any more. I will ask for independent assurance on everything we do to establish the facts. And, fifthly, I know that the immigration system is operated by many highly committed people, but we must make sure that the structures and processes they use are fit for the modern world. I will review the structures and processes that we currently have to ensure that they can deliver a system in a way which is fair and humane.
I will now consider what form that review will take, but my starting point is that it would be helpful to have independent oversight. The review will need to build on the lessons learnt from the Wendy Williams review. I will want Wendy to play a full part in this wider exercise. I made it clear when I became Home Secretary that we need a different approach to immigration. I would be prepared to take action to put right any wrong as and when I became aware of it.
It is clear that there has been a disconnect between policy and operations. I will take any action necessary to put right wrongs or inconsistencies as and when I become aware of them. Today, I want to promise you all that I will get to the bottom of what has gone on in relation to DNA evidence. I will build an immigration system which provides control but which is also fair, humane and fully compliant with the law at all times”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the House of Commons. I shall not launch into a tirade against the Home Office and its leadership for yet another display of its own all-too-often uniquely sensitive way of handling immigration issues, or its belief that simply by announcing that the “hostile environment” has now been rebranded the “compliant environment” all the problems will be solved, or the impact on the department’s culture of the infamous net migration target of below 100,000. I think that we have reached the stage of despair. I will confine myself to asking a number of questions. The Statement makes reference to,
“an urgent internal review into it, which I am publishing today”.
Is the full review being published, or have any parts of it been removed before publication?
The Statement says that the law is that the provision of DNA evidence should always be voluntary and never mandatory. If that is a muffled way of saying that the Home Office acted illegally, does it mean that the Home Office is now liable to legal action from those who were told that it was mandatory for them to provide DNA evidence and because of that did so?
What form and level of compensation and reimbursement do the Government intend to offer to those affected by what the Statement describes as the unacceptable demands for the provision of DNA evidence? If the Home Office has in its records DNA evidence obtained through unacceptable demands, has that evidence now been deleted and, if not, why not?
According to the Statement, the internal review,
“outlines a number of areas in which guidance was unclear or wrong”.
At what level in the Home Office would such guidance, which presumably includes guidance on what actions are within the law and which are not, have been cleared? Is it at ministerial level, Permanent Secretary level or legal officer level?
Immigration cases where the provision of DNA evidence had been made a requirement were brought to the attention of the Home Office at the end of June. Why has it apparently taken so long for any Statement to be made—some four months?
The Statement makes reference to Operation Fugal, in connection with which the majority of cases so far identified have been found. The other areas relate, almost unbelievably, to adult dependent relatives of Gurkhas and Afghan nationals formerly employed by the UK. The Statement says that, so far, it is known that three schemes have been affected. Are those the three areas to which I have just referred or are they three others, and if so which schemes?
It is almost inevitable that, at times, something will go wrong in the performance and delivery of a department’s business—no organisation can be perfect the whole time—but there seem to be rather too many problems at the Home Office. No doubt the substantial reductions in personnel have contributed—they certainly have not helped—and the approach to pay increases in the Civil Service in recent years will not have exactly boosted morale. But what is disturbing is the time it takes for some of these problems to come to light. This is once again an issue in this case.
The internal review has apparently covered oversight arrangements relating to the use of DNA, which I presume were not as effective as they should have been, but where does responsibility for having effective governance arrangements within the Home Office lie? Which committee or board within the Home Office has responsibility for ensuring that effective governance arrangements exist which will at least prevent serious misuse of powers taking place for any length of time, if not stop them occurring in the first place? Who chairs that board or committee with that overall responsibility? Indeed, is there a board or committee with that responsibility? What is the role of the Home Office audit committee, if any, in this regard? What is the role of the Home Office board, if there is one, and the role of its non-executive directors in this area of effective governance arrangements? I hope that the Minister will be able to say or write something about where responsibilities lie higher up the food chain in the Home Office in that regard, if not today then at a later stage.
The apology in the Statement from the Home Secretary for what has happened is welcome. His Statement commits him to a review of the structures and processes that we have to ensure that they can deliver an immigration system which is fair, humane and fit for the new immigration system that the Government say they will bring in for when we leave the European Union. I do not doubt for one moment the Home Secretary’s sincerity, but words are easy. It is when it comes to implementation and delivery that it all too often seems to go wrong at the Home Office. That is the issue that he has to solve in any revised or new immigration system, as well as making sure that the existing system can cope with all the applications from EU nationals living in the UK seeking to settle their status post Brexit.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. In the interests of time, I have edited the questions that I wish to ask so as not to repeat those of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, which were all very good and pertinent.
The Minister tells us that this is in effect an apology to those affected. Will the Home Secretary contact the individuals affected to give them a personal apology? That seems the proper thing to do, because the events that we have heard about must have been quite devastating for some of those affected. Instructions have been given that officials must not seek DNA evidence on a mandatory basis. Can we be assured that “mandatory” will be given quite a wide meaning? If I were told that I was unlikely to be believed if I did not provide DNA evidence, I would regard that as mandatory, or something very close to it. A new task force has been set up, and we have heard about the external oversight, but is the task force comprised of Home Office officials? Is it they who will give advice and support, and are those affected going to be told that that advice and support will be available to them?
On reimbursement, the words in the Statement are, “looking to reimburse”. I am not suggesting that an attempt has been made to find weasel words—it is a fairly common way of saying “we will reimburse”—but I would like to hear that this is a little more than a hope, and without requiring the release of the claim, which I think was the point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.
During the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into what happened in the case of the Windrush generation—I am a member of that committee—we were concerned to know what action was taken when errors were discovered, with regard to individuals. That is perhaps another way of asking what sort of internal audit is in place and what steps are taken when it is found that mistakes have been made by individual officials. In saying that, I am not seeking to blame officials: I believe that those who operate the system seek to apply what they understand to be Home Office policy, sometimes expressed, sometimes implied.
The Statement refers to,
“how to address the root causes”,
of the problem. The “committed people”—I use the Home Secretary’s term—who operate the system will naturally seek to achieve what the politicians are aiming for: they take the detail and the tone from them. I think that happened in the case of the Windrush generation, and the hostile or compliant environment is not, to use the words of the Statement again,
“fit for the modern world”.
That is why the Liberal Democrats have recently agreed as our policy that processing immigration and asylum applications should be taken away from the Home Office, with a new dedicated unit set up. This scandal is an example of why it is important to ignore political pressure and work fairly and lawfully in processing applications.
I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their questions. Any that I do not thoroughly answer today, I will follow up afterwards.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked whether a full review would be published, or a partial one. The answer is yes to a full review. The noble Lord will of course appreciate that names below senior civil servant rank have been redacted. He asked whether evidence had been deleted. That is precisely one of the things that the Home Secretary has asked officials to urgently establish. He also asked whether the three schemes are different. The three cohorts to which I and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary referred are the Gurkhas, the Afghans and the cases in Operation Fugal, which are family migration cases in the main.
He also asked whether the Home Office acted illegally and what were the consequences. We have accepted, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary accepted today, that we should not have required DNA. Obviously, the consequences for individuals will vary according to individual circumstances. In answer to him and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we will be looking to reimburse individuals who suffered loss because we required DNA. The noble Lord asked about governance and accountability. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made it clear that he is going to review the structures and processes in the immigration system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked whether we had reached out to those affected. As I set out in the Statement, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has set up a task force within UKVI to review and conclude all outstanding Operation Fugal cases. Our intention is to complete this work by the end of October wherever possible. However of course some cases will take longer because of outstanding criminal proceedings, or where we have required or requested further information to help us make a decision. We have set up a telephone hotline to enable those who need to to speak directly to members of the task force. The hotline will not be a freephone number, but we will quickly establish an individual’s contact details and basic information and call them back at our expense. The cases that officials have identified to date which were refused solely because of, or with reference to, non-provision of DNA will be reviewed by the end of October, and, where it is considered that the application still falls to be refused on credibility grounds, a new decision letter will be issued making clear the grounds for refusal.
The noble Baroness asked whether everyone who had to pay for one—I presume that she means a DNA test—will be compensated. As I have said, we are looking to ensure that anyone who suffered financial loss will be reimbursed. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will be providing more detail on how this will be done as soon as possible. She asked whether “mandatory” would be interpreted widely. We will make clear through guidance that applicants can provide a range of evidence to demonstrate relationships. If people wish to, they can volunteer DNA evidence, and sometimes they may want to do that, but it will not be mandated: they will not be required to. She also asked whether the task force would be reviewing guidance. The task force will be operationally focused, and separately the Home Secretary has asked officials to review all relevant guidance and make sure that it is correct and up to date. As she will have heard in the Statement, some of it already has been. She asked how many people were in the task force. Did she not? Well, I will tell her. About 40 people are involved in the task force, and that will be adjusted according to need. They will be reviewing cases and responding to hotline queries.
My Lords, I have one question for my noble friend. In the Statement a crucial sentence states that,
“the provision of DNA evidence must be entirely voluntary”.
Why is that? Is DNA evidence not used for paternity cases and for other medical reasons? Is it not used in criminal investigations? What is the difference in principle between DNA and fingerprints or eye recognition? Surely, any means, when the country needs to know who somebody is, is perfectly legitimate.
I thank my noble friend for that question. I am referring, and the Statement referred, purely to the immigration system. He is absolutely right that biometrics cover a number of areas, as he said, including fingerprints and iris recognition—but in this context DNA presentation should be entirely voluntary.
My Lords, the Minister may know that I have been looking at the problems which British universities are now having with visas for their staff and students, and the families of their staff. In the last two weeks I have spoken to a number of university teams about this, and on Monday a senior officer of one of our most effective and renowned universities said to me, “We pay £25,000 for a premium service because that’s the only way one gets a basic service these days”.
My strong impression is that what we have just heard is one indication of a severely overloaded system. As we approach a peak of applications coming towards March 2019, with people wanting to clarify what position they have within Britain, that system is coming close to breakdown. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned the cuts in staffing, and it is clearly understaffed. Telephone lines are frequently impossible to get through to; passports are taken away and do not come back for eight to 10 weeks.
A lawyer friend of mine who, as a dual national, was asked to supply both her passports when trying to change to her new married name could not find anything in the regulations that required her to send her French as well as her British passport away for eight weeks. Can this review therefore take a rather wider survey of whether the current visa system is able to cope with the weight of applications coming to it? The series of stories that I have been hearing from university staff and university HR departments suggests that it is not coping at present.
The noble Lord very nicely gives us a taste of his Question on Monday, which will be asked in a different context—that of borders. This Statement is not quite about preparations for Brexit or the sheer number of applications; it is about a specific cohort of people for whom guidance was incorrectly written. But I take the noble Lord’s point that we need the capacity and the capability to process visas which come into UKBI. Of course, we keep our capacity needs under review, but I do not deny in any way that it is a busy system. We expect that the EU citizens’ application service, which has already gone out to private beta trial, will be rolled out further. We have not experienced any problems with that so far, but the noble Lord was absolutely right to point out that preparedness, particularly towards March, will be absolutely crucial.
My Lords, as a former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office—25 years ago—I listened to the Statement with huge dismay and disquiet. When I took over there, I asked myself how we could be sure that officials were exercising power responsibly, fairly and in accordance with the law—because the Home Office has powers over the lives of individuals which are formidable and can destroy people. It is a heavy responsibility. The answer that I came to then was that we had rules, guidance and committees, of course, yet we actually relied on the culture and values, where people were legally literate—often more literate than their own legal advisers—and punctilious in their wish to be consistent, but also fair and with a dash of humanity. I thought it was a culture which served the country well, and one dreaded things going wrong.
Listening today, I asked myself: what has happened to bring this about? It sounds to me like a symptom of something more serious underneath, and I want to echo the question. I worry that the burden of work is enormous, and beyond the competence and capacity of the people responsible for delivering it. Is the Minister aware of any lack of resource? Is she satisfied that the Home Office has the resources to do the work? I have an abiding concern that across government generally, particularly with Brexit, more and more complex work is being piled on a service which has been cut back radically and has lost a lot of experience. Is the Minister happy with the situation in which she finds herself?
My Lords, I am never happy to have to stand up and make a Statement such as this. I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord did within the Home Office, and it is interesting that he uses almost identical words to those which my right honourable friend used earlier today, about being,
“fair, humane and fully compliant with the law”.
But the noble Lord was also right to talk about the culture, and it is true to say that when my right honourable friend became Home Secretary he talked about a culture of fairness—about seeing cases as humans and not just as cases, and taking a far more humane approach to everything that we do. The noble Lord was absolutely right to point out that some of the decisions we make can hugely impact the lives of people; we are keenly aware of that. We are undergoing a period of tight resourcing and every department is fully aware of that. I will take the noble Lord’s point back, but he makes absolutely the right points in regard to this.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government are going to review the structures and processes to make sure that they are fit for the immigration system. Will that review cover all the people who have a family relationship with somebody who is already here? I refer in particular to unaccompanied child refugees, and I very much hope that the governance review will reduce the long delays for children in the camps in Greece and northern France as they wait for the Home Office to get a move on. Can I please have some assurance about that?
The noble Lord will know through our various conversations that some of the delays in children coming here are because we are awaiting information from other countries. I know he accepts that as a fair assessment of the situation. The full detail of the review being carried out of the structures and processes will be outlined in due course, so I will let him know when its actual terms of reference are ready.
My Lords, first, I thank the Home Secretary for the tone of that reply and I say to my noble friend that we know her personal way of looking at these matters. But this is a matter of culture and we have had a great number of speeches and talks from politicians about immigration which, frankly, have been entirely unhelpful to the Home Office in dealing with people properly. That culture is our fault, as the political parties, because we have not stood up against the loud-mouthed, racist attitudes of so many people. We really need to talk differently.
Secondly, we have cut back on the staff in a way which means that the Home Office cannot do its job properly. My opposite number as chairman of the equivalent climate change committee in China was not able to come to a very important meeting between the two scientific sides, which advise the two Governments, because we could not get his visa through. His second-in-command only got through with a visa which came the night before he flew. It is thoroughly incompetent as well as unhappy, and we really need to face that.
I will make three points to my noble friend. First, I join him in paying tribute to the staff of the Home Office. So often they get forgotten and come in for an awful lot of stick in Parliament from one extreme end of the argument or the other—that is, that we are being too soft or too hard on people wishing to come to this country.
My noble friend talked about China. I am about 99% certain that China is part of our visa waiver pilot. I will get back to him on that, but I am pretty certain that it is. Therefore, some of the problems that his colleague faced should not have been the case. I will look into it and get back to my noble friend.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hamwee asked the Minister whether those affected would receive a personal apology rather than the general one that the Home Secretary has given. Will the Minister answer that question? On a more general point, the Statement seems to suggest that officials were to blame for not following policy, but surely Ministers are responsible for implementation and the culture at the Home Office, not simply for policy. Are the Government admitting that they are guilty of not having a grip on the operation of the Home Office? Ministers cannot, should not and must not blame officials for their own failures.
I absolutely concur with the last point the noble Lord made. We are the representatives of the Government. We are not blaming officials. We are looking at the wider system. Guidance which was wrong was corrected and we are looking to see whether there is other guidance that is wrong and needs to be corrected. I again pay tribute to the staff of the Home Office. This is not a blame game. We are trying to put right something that is clearly wrong. I do not know whether the Home Secretary is planning to issue a personal apology, but he clearly publicly apologised today and I believe that that apology was most sincere.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the tone of her replies. I shall ask her two things. First, among the Afghans, were there some of those very brave people who were interpreters and their families who have given measureless service to this country in the most difficult circumstances? Secondly, let me also say, following my noble friend Lord Deben and the noble Lord from the Cross Benches, the culture of targets is wrong. That is what we have suffered from for too long. The real target for the Home Office and Ministers should be to exercise the functions of that great department with sensitivity and humanity, remembering that every human being has a dignity that should be respected.
I could not at all disagree with my noble friend about what the real target of the Home Office should be. In fact, I think my right honourable friend the Home Secretary outlined that very clearly when he became Home Secretary. My noble friend is right that the target culture is wrong, and it has been done away with. I join him in paying tribute to the brave Afghan people who helped this country in spite of so much danger in many cases. My noble friend asked about interpreters. I think there may have been interpreters in that number, but I will confirm that. Our investigation so far has shown that no Afghan was refused entry to this country on the basis of DNA. I join my noble friend in paying tribute to those very brave people.
My Lords, I might have missed the point. Will the Minister share with the House the terms of reference and composition of the review? How long is it anticipated that the review will take? Will the outcome of the review be made public? Will the Minister say whether there will be any cost implications for those who contribute to and participate in the review?
I cannot tell the noble Lord the terms of reference or who will be on the review at this time. The Home Secretary will outline that in due course. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary wants Wendy Williams, who is dealing with the Windrush review, to be part of the wider exercise of this review. In view of some of the lessons that we have learned and the ways in which she operates, she will be very helpful in the review. However, I cannot give the noble Lord the detail on the review today.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the tone of this Statement. There has been much mention of culture. That is correct, but in my experience culture begins to slip when people are pushed beyond their limits in terms of work. My question to the Minister is very simple. Will the Government bite the bullet and fund more staff for this important area? With Brexit—I am thinking in terms of visas for artists—the workload will increase by a staggering amount.
There is no doubt about it. If noble Lords were in their place for the Question earlier, they will have heard that the number of people crossing the border has increased quite substantially in the past few months. Beyond Brexit, we are expecting pressure on the system, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, pointed out. The sort of thing that has to be considered is whether we have the capacity to deal with issues such as this. Noble Lords are right to talk about the culture of the Home Office. The Home Secretary has made a firm pronouncement that it has to change.
My Lords, the Minister referred repeatedly to guidance. First, will she inform the House which Minister signed off the guidance? Secondly, she seems to be agreeing that a target culture is wrong. Does that mean that we still have a target for immigration of fewer than 100,000?
On the target of fewer than 100,000, I think the latest position is that we want to get immigration down to a sustainable level. In saying that, we want an immigration system that allows for the skills that we need in this country as opposed to looking at numbers. We have got almost full employment in this country now and going forward we need to have skills in certain areas. It is important that those needs are met or it will affect the economy.
On the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, in 2001-02 I was the Home Office Minister for Asylum and Immigration. I do not recognise the culture that I inherited then. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, who was Cabinet Secretary, coming to visit the Home Office during my time. The Home Secretary is a big man, and I think he should be big enough to ask someone like the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, who has the past experience, not to micromanage but just to run a rule over the culture and have a look at the message on the tin to see what is missing from what was there 20 years ago.
This House always benefits from the past experience of noble Lords such as the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Wilson. I will take that back and make sure that it is brought to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.