The report from the National Audit Office (NAO), Management of Asylum Applications by the UK Border Agency, is concerned with value for taxpayers' money, and at first sight therefore is not a promising source. But its concern for value for money leads it to unearth flaws which have serious consequences for asylum seekers and their families.
For example, the revelation that over a quarter of asylum claimants do not have a full screening interview explains and corroborates complaints by solidarity groups about manifestly inappropriate detention in the 'detained fast track' of those who simply shouldn't be there: either because their cases are clearly too complex to be resolved within days - the criterion for being in the fast track, or because they have been tortured or suffer serious medical problems.
In a devastating aside, the NAO observes that 'not all staff are clear whether there are criteria for selecting cases' for the detained fast track. It points out that in the eighteen months from January 2007, 842 claimants had to be taken out of the fast track because their cases were too complex - including almost 50 per cent of those held at Yarl's Wood removal centre in Bedford.
The human cost of such wrongful detention is massive, and the report does refer to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons' concerns about the detention of children, particularly disabled children, in the context of its observation that the average length of families' detention has risen from eight to fifteen days.
Yet the narrowness of its brief leads the NAO, elsewhere in the report, to endorse the UK Border Agency's (UKBA) plans for yet further expansion of detention, from around 2,500 to 4,000 places, in order for it to achieve the 'tipping point' target of removing more failed asylum seekers than the number of new, unsuccessful claims.
The observation that staff are sometimes unaware of the criteria for fast track detention is one of a number of indications of inadequate training and/or performance revealed by the report. Case owners (who take a case through from beginning to end) sometimes take on 'live' cases before they have completed their training and, more crucially, before any assessment of their competence has taken place.
In 13 per cent of cases, the quality of their interviews of asylum claimants and of their decision letter is assessed as poor or 'not fully effective'. In a fifth to a quarter of cases, appeals against their decisions are successful, but the lessons from allowed appeals are not disseminated or learned. There is no systematic quality control of their decisions.
The report also complains that case owners have been taking far too long (twenty days on average) to decide whether an asylum seeker is eligible for support, too long in deciding claims (in the eighteen months from January 2007, only 16 per cent of claims were decided within a month and 33 per cent within two months) and too long again (up to twenty-eight days) to forward appeal decisions on to claimants.
The delays mean that while the scandalous old backlog of undecided asylum claims, which stood at around 400,000 when the new case-owner system started in March 2007, is being tackled and has been reduced by about 90,000, a new backlog is being created.
The limbo of waiting for years for an asylum claim to be decided is a very upsetting and difficult aspect of claimants' existence. Worryingly, it appears that the UKBA has no plans in place to deal with reviewing the entitlement of refugees, and of young people granted discretionary leave to the age of 17½ - a lack of planning which is likely to create further delays and further desperation.
The report has been broadly welcomed by the Refugee Council and by Children and Young People Now, a consortium of organisations working to promote refugee children's rights, for pointing to the ways in which the asylum system continues to do less than justice to the vulnerable people it purports to serve.
- Download the The Home Office: Management of Asylum Applications by the UK Border Agency (pdf 932kb)
- Download the: The Home Office: Management of Asylum Applications by the UK Border Agency (Executive summary, pdf 320kb)