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Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration Annual Report for the period 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020

The annual report was laid before Parliament on 10 September 2020 in accordance with section 50(2) of the UK Borders Act 2007.   The report can be accessed: here.

The UK Borders Act 2007 directs the Independent Chief Inspector to monitor and consider the functions carried out by the Home Secretary in relation to immigration, asylum,  nationality, and the systems that are used.

The short statement of purpose confirms the aim: “To help improve the efficiency, effectiveness and consistency of the Home Office’s border and immigration functions through unfettered, impartial and evidence-based inspection.”

In Summary

David Bolt, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, was appointed in May 2015 for a period of 5 years, in his foreword dated  May 2020 he reflects:

“My primary objective for 2019-20 was to deliver a broadly based and balanced programme of inspections, covering as much of my published Inspection Plan as possible, through which I aimed to help the Home Office and others to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the asylum, immigration, nationality and customs functions for which the Home Secretary is responsible. 

I believe that this objective was largely met, notwithstanding continuing issues with the timely publication of inspection reports and with inspector numbers”.

During the period between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020 twelve inspections were published, although it is acknowledged that half were in fact published in the first six weeks.  Mr Bolt comments on the delay as it undermines the ‘impact and value’ of the work and questions whether the Chief Inspector should perhaps have control over when the reports are published.  

Reference is made to the recent Windrush Report: 

“However, accepting a recommendation is not the same as implementing it. In her Windrush report, Wendy Williams observed: “From our analysis it is also apparent that the deeper-rooted recommendations [made by ICIBI] that refer to systemic or cultural issues, such as stakeholder engagement, or proper evaluation of the impact of policies on different groups of people, or staff training and development, as opposed to process-related recommendations, tend to be left unresolved. The department looks to “close” the recommendation rather than learn.” I agree”.

Some of the twelve reports referenced and covered areas not previously inspected and others are reinspections.

The report acknowledges the importances of a broad evaluative consideration:

“However, the immigration, asylum, nationality and customs functions performed by and on behalf of the Home Secretary involve and affect a wide range of other bodies, and touch everyone living in or seeking to visit the UK. In order to inform individual inspections and the overall inspection programme, as well as engaging effectively with the Home Office, it is therefore essential that ICIBI reaches out to these ‘stakeholders’ to understand their many perspectives, interests and concerns and to capture relevant evidence”. 

To this end there are three ‘established’ stakeholder groups that meet with the Independent Chief Inspector ‘periodically’.

Many of the issues raised by the ICIBI are matters directly affecting both practitioners and applicants. The annual report reviews all reports, but the following are perhaps of particular interest. 

EU Settlement Scheme

The recent EU Settlement Scheme features in the report.  The first report in relation to the EUSS was sent on 6 March 2019 and published on 02 May 2019.  It contained seven recommendations.  The  recommendations were all accepted. 

“The inspection report noted that for the Home Office the EUSS represented both a major challenge and a great opportunity. Processing applications from the estimated 3.5 million EU citizens living in the UK and ensuring each applicant is granted either settled status or pre-settled status in line with their rights was clearly a logistical challenge. But the Home Office also faced a communications challenge, against a climate of mistrust of its intentions and of its competence. And, it was not lost on the department that the Scheme was an opportunity to demonstrate what it was capable of achieving with the right resources, appropriate input from other government departments, and ministerial support for a new (“looking to grant”) approach”.

The second report was sent on 30 September 2019 and published on 27 February 2020, it contained nine recommendations, four were accepted, four partially and one not. In the overview the report acknowledges:

“Serious criticisms have been levelled at the EUSS, including: at the principle of requiring EU citizens to apply for settlement; at how the Scheme has been designed, for example, not providing documentary proof of status; and at how it is operating in practice. The two EUSS inspection reports published in 2019-20 focused on the latter question and identified a number of areas requiring improvement and some risks that needed to be managed. Nonetheless, EUSS still looked in better overall shape than most of the other areas inspected during the year”.

“Onshoring” of the visa Processing and Decision Making

The inspection report was sent to the Home Secretary on 23 September 2019 and published on 6 February 2020. The report made five recommendations, four were accepted and one rejected. The report notes:

“Since January 2008, the Home Office has closed over 100 overseas Decision Making Centres (DMCs). When the report was submitted, only ten overseas DMCs remained and visa decision making had been ‘onshored’ to the UK, primarily in Croydon and Sheffield, with some visa decisions also made in Liverpool. 

The inspection examined UK Visas and Immigration’s (UKVI’s) programme of ‘network consolidation’ (sometimes referred to as ‘onshoring’). It sought to establish whether the processes for closing and reducing the number of overseas DMCs were efficient and effective, and what effect recent DMC closures had had on UKVI’s performance, including on the timeliness and quality of its decisions.”

The situation developed further: 

“In 2016, the Home Office closed eight DMCs, in 2017 it closed four, in 2018 three, and in 2019 (to September) another one, and over this period it onshored all net migration applications. However, the 2018 Immigration White Paper was silent on network consolidation and the onshoring of visa decision making and it appeared that the last time ministerial approval had been formally sought for the Network Consolidation Programme was in 2016, since when there had been significant turnover in ministers and senior officials. Therefore, another of ICIBI’s recommendations was that the Home confirmed that ministers continued to support the Programme and specifically the next phase of planned closures.

Concerns were also raised to the quality in decision making., which may have arisen due to the loss of ‘local knowledge’. 

The report noted: 

“Regardless of current or future plans, the report concluded that the Home Office needed to do more to evidence that its actions not only saved it money but that the results were at least as efficient (in terms of timeliness, but also of ease of access and use by applicants, accuracy and fairness) and effective (serving not just the Home Office’s objectives but those of UK PLC). This required better performance data than the Home Office was collecting, better analysis, and better communication about its thinking and short-, medium- and long-term plans for processing visa applications”.

Home Offices’s Borders Immigration and Citizenship System – Charging and Fees

The first inspection report was sent on 24 January 2019 and published on 04 April 2019, it had twelve recommendations, three accepted, scene partially and two not.  

‘The report looked to reflect the voices of customers and stakeholders. The ‘call for evidence’ for this inspection, published on the ICIBI website, produced a far greater response than for any previous inspection. A number of people were clearly distressed by the effect the fees had had on them or their family or friends. While ICIBI could not take up individual cases, the report attempted to summarise the main themes and arguments from the many hundreds of responses.

As the Independent Chief Inspector notes: “Throughout 2019-20, I continued to receive emails and letters from individuals who believed that the Home Office had failed them in some way and were looking to me for a remedy”.  

It remains vital that there are checks on the way in which these functions are carried out and that individuals have access to a fair system.

We await further inspection reports with interest. 

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