The Home Office’s reputation is being tarnished by the failure of the UK Border Agency to “fulfil its basic functions”, according to a report by MPs published on Wednesday.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, said the agency was “unable to focus on its key task of tracking and removing illegal immigrants, overstayers or bogus students from the country”, despite continued pressure to improve during the past six years.
Concerns about the agency’s performance have been particularly high since it emerged in the autumn that officials had relaxed security protocols during the summer without ministerial approval. Theresa May, the home secretary, responded this year by splitting the Border Force, which oversees operations, from the main agency – a move welcomed by Mr Vaz.
“Following the Border Controls saga, we now have two agencies instead of one,” he said. “We are hopeful that the [agency] will now concentrate fully on the issues that are causing so much concern to the public and to parliament.”
Damien Green, immigration minister, defended the agency, saying it was in a state of “complete chaos” when the government took office two years ago. He added that progress had been made in areas such as the asylum service and was ongoing elsewhere.
“In the next few weeks changes to the immigration rules will make it much more difficult for people to abuse the Human Rights Act to ensure they stay in this country when frankly we all want to see them deported,” he told Sky News on Wednesday.
One of the weaknesses highlighted in the report is the phasing out of the £9m iris recognition system , which was designed to help frequent fliers bypass queues but has been beset by technical problems. Given that the system was only operational for six years, the MPs suggest the money could have been better spent hiring extra immigration officers to help improve waiting times.
The committee recommends that “in order to avoid another costly investment in equipment which will not last”, the agency should publish data into the trial it is currently running on e-Gates – the new scheme designed to replace the iris system.
Returning to the continuing saga of the agency’s backlog of unresolved asylum cases– an issue that led John Reid, the former home secretary, to declare the border command “not fit for purpose” in 2006 – the MPs found that the number of cases appeared to have risen from 450,000 to 502,000. They accused the agency of providing “inconsistent information”.
“The agency must rid itself of its bunker mentality and focus on ensuring that parliament and the public understands its work,” the report says. “Confusion over figures only risks suspicion that the agency is attempting to mislead parliament and the public over its performance and effectiveness.”
The MPs urged Dame Helen Ghosh, the permanent secretary to the Home Office, to set out how she intended to clean up the use of statistics within the department.
The latest report comes only weeks after an investigation by the National Audit Office found that problems in the UK’s student visa system might have allowed up to 50,000 people in one year alone to enter the country to work by posing as students.
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler
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