Alan Travis, Guardian (London), July 4, 2012
Immigration inspectors have disclosed for the first time the existence of a backlog of more than 150,000 cases involving people who have been refused permission to stay in Britain but whose whereabouts are unknown to the authorities.
The chief inspector of immigration, John Vine, said he discovered the existence of the UK Border Agency’s national “migration refusal pool” during his first inspection of a local immigration team.
The only guidance staff were given for dealing with cases in this 150,000-strong group was that the total size of the pool should not be allowed to increase.
Vine said his greatest concern during his inspection of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight immigration team was over the “150,000-plus cases nationally that are sitting in a migration refusal pool”.
He added: “I could not find any clear strategy for dealing with these cases, either in determining the proportion of this growing number of people who were still in the UK illegally and who should be removed, or in setting out clear performance targets to manage and reduce these cases in an organised manner.”
In his inspection report published on Thursday, the chief inspector says staff reported it being impossible to know whether the 150,000 were still in Britain or had left voluntarily.
Officials at the UK Border Agency admitted that about 40% of those in the “refusal pool” had not even been formally served with the documents informing them that they had to leave Britain within 28 days.
The lack of action over people refused permission to stay is underlined by a separate finding in his inspection report which shows that while absconders who had disappeared off the UKBA’s radar were not ignored, “it was clear that they were not a high priority for the local immigration team”.
The 150,000 cases in this previously undisclosed backlog are a separate group from those who entered Britain illegally or who overstayed their visas, or who are failed asylum seekers.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said the inspector’s “damning conclusion” found that the government was giving a very low priority to finding and removing people refused permission to stay in Britain. “Out of 150,000 people refused leave to remain, the government seems not to know or care how many are still here,” she said.
The immigration minister, Damian Green, responded to the report by saying the UKBA had now started working through “a group of potential overstayers to identify those who had not left”.
That operation included checking against passenger records held in the e-borders database, which covers details of all flights outside Europe to and from Britain.
“This summer the UKBA launched a UK-wide operation to remove overstayers and we have already seen 1,800 removals since the campaign started,” Green said.
“We are also working closely with other government departments to create a hostile environment which makes it much harder for migrants to live in the UK illegally.”
Vine says in his report that the “migration refusal pool” concerns cases where applications, for instance from students, have been made in the UK to remain and have been refused. “Applicants are given notice that they must leave the UK within 28 days.”
The cases are officially described as work in progress, but the inspectors say that this list includes people who have failed to leave Britain, those who have applied to stay under another category, those who have outstanding legal appeals, and those who have already left the country but by a route not covered by the e-borders computer database. Vine reveals that local immigration staff were confused about how many cases in the pool they were supposed to be chasing.
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight team estimated the number they were responsible for was between 400 and 600; they were unsure as to how many might have left already. Official UKBA figures showed there were 1,893 such cases in their area in December, said Vine.
Detailed UKBA figures disclosed in the report show that the size of the pool increased steadily from 153,821 on 17 October 2011, to 159,313 on 12 December.
A detailed analysis of 44 case files by the inspectors found that fewer than half had actually left Britain.
The chairman of the home affairs select committee said that senior UKBA officials should be banned from getting bonuses until the organisation makes serious improvements.
Labour’s Keith Vaz said the airport queues and the row over the relaxation of immigration controls showed the UKBA was not “worthy” of paying bonuses to senior staff. Last year the UKBA paid a total of £3.5m in bonuses to senior staff.
David Cameron told the liaison committee of senior MPs: “If agencies don’t perform, just like if companies don’t perform, there shouldn’t be bonuses.”
Mr Vaz seized on the comment to demand that no senior UKBA officials were given a bonus payment this year.
During a Commons debate Vaz said: “The £3.5m that was given last year to senior officials of the UKBA, in defiance of the recommendation of the select committee and, in my view, the views of the prime minister and senior ministers who have no control over these bonuses, was wrong.”