11 November 2013 — Our Kingdom
The recent charge that the Home Office takes steps to ‘fix’ the figures is a shocking one. It shines light on a system dogged by maladministration and misplaced priorities.
The day-to-day inefficiencies in our asylum system beggar belief. Ask Asylum Aid’s lawyers, and they will tell you what this means.
Meetings are cancelled because the interpreter booked by the Home Office doesn’t show up. Officials struggle through long interviews because they are evidently unfamiliar with the application in front of them. Key documents, sent recorded delivery to the vast immigration offices in Croydon, never appear on any system there and have to be re-sent, sometimes many times over. Fax numbers don’t work. Telephone numbers change overnight, or are apparently unplugged for good.
We can add to this list the Home Office’s practice of withdrawing a refusal decision as an appeal hearing looms. In the week before an appeal, or even on the same day, officials can request that no hearing takes place so that they can reconsider their original verdict. This essentially sends the whole process right back to the beginning, with no guarantee of when this promised new decision might be made. It is a phenomenon that Asylum Aid often encounters, and which came under scrutiny in the Observer this recently.
The allegation is appalling, and it isn’t denied by the Home Office. The more likely an appeal is to succeed (or to put this another way, the poorer the original decision), the more likely it is that that decision will be withdrawn. With those cases removed from the equation, the Home Office has a better chance of hitting its target of successfully defending 60% of its decisions.
This is a breath-taking inversion of refugee principles. It seems that officials are withdrawing cases precisely where the evidence is strongest that someone needs safety in the UK. Many of these people will have been raped, tortured, or trafficked into slavery here. A lifeline is being withdrawn the moment the Home Office finds that someone needs it most.
The government’s priorities have become grossly misplaced. The manipulation of internal stats and figures is now considered to be more important than getting help to those who demonstrably need it. The resources needed to improve administration and decision-making are being cut back, but plenty of thought has apparently gone into devising the cunning sleight-of-hand needed to hide bad decisions.
The moral case speaks for itself, but this is also a poor choice politically. Voters are sceptical about the asylum system, yes, even with numbers dramatically lower than they were ten years ago; but the public is enduringly generous towards recognised refugees. The government has previously been careful to remain on the right side of public opinion, hence the revived emphasis on the unique value to the UK of the ‘brightest and best’ immigrants, but this latest manoeuvre involves an inadvertent attack on a highly sympathetic group.
Although these details about government behaviour came to light over the weekend, none of it feels entirely new.
Charities have complained about poor quality asylum decisions for years. Earlier this month MPs on the cross-party Home Affairs Committee joined in, bewildered at how often refusals were overturned and how little was done to learn from past mistakes (in the technically measured language of the committee: “decision-makers should be encouraged to view every successful appeal as a learning opportunity”). The Economist despaired recently at the “notoriously sloppy” decisions reached by Home Office officials. Whatever questions anyone might have about asylum, the answers can’t be founded on a system which struggles every day with the basics.
But the sloppiness continues. There is no sign yet of the government getting to grips with all those lost documents and unanswered phone calls. Rather than going to the heart of poor decision-making, and addressing both the maladministration and the ‘culture of disbelief’ so pervasive among officials, the Home Office is shunting evidence of its failings to the back of the queue, away from prying eyes. As barrister Colin Yeo puts it in the Observer piece, these withdrawn decisions duly “disappear down the back of a sofa at the Home Office”.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in government, ministers have found other ways to hide their mistakes. If the Ministry of Justice is successful in its latest attempts to restrict legal aid, this will insulate officials against the exposure of further bad practice. Organisations like the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and campaign groups like Save Justice have mounted an impressive rearguard action against these plans, but the pattern is clear. Government orthodoxy currently favours masking its problems rather than confronting them.
If the Home Office is in denial, it needs to snap out of it now.
Asylum Aid and others have outlined what a sensible, durable asylum system might look like, one with better quality decisions serving everyone’s interests. In this process, lawyers, officials and claimants would all share information about the case before any decisions have been made. The chance to present paperwork in detail would be built into the asylum system as early as possible. The founding principle would be to get asylum decisions right first time.
If there are simple misunderstandings or miscommunications which need unpicking, it could be done at this stage, nice and early, rather than waiting to do so in front of a judge. If there are major areas of disagreement, both sides can clearly identify what they are and how they might influence the decision.
This approach commands the support of solicitors and Home Office officials alike, two groups generally forced into being adversaries. One Home Office decision-maker reflected on the benefit of having access to early, reliable information: “I got to the interview and the legal representative submitted A4 folders of documents. If I had this before the interview I would not have needed to interview him. It was very clear cut”.
The Home Office may want to withdraw bad decisions partly because, like most of us, they don’t want their mistakes held up for all to see. If a case is ‘clear cut’, it’s embarrassing to get it so wrong. This might even be understandable, but officials have been caught out doing something disgraceful. It is an absurd way for a multi-million pound bureaucracy to behave. Lives are at stake. It must stop now.