Man or mouse? Keith Vaz should demand urgent reform of the UK Border Agency
‘Much of the delay in concluding asylum and other immigration cases stems from poor quality decision-making when the application is initially considered,’ says Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee whose latest report on the UK Border Agency’s work is published today.
Two cheers for Vaz and the HASC! It might be three if only they were clearer and more forceful in their criticism of an agency whose deficiencies are systemic and rooted in a culture characterised by denial and deceit.
The automatic disbelief that greets asylum seekers from their first moment of arrival, coupled with a shocking disregard for human rights, compounded by the lack of legal services that might check official incompetence have created a Kafkaesque nightmare for vulnerable people who come to these shores seeking sanctuary.
‘More consistent and rigorous scrutiny of applications would lead to fewer delays, fewer appeals, less uncertainty for the applicant, less pressure on the officials themselves, and probably lower costs for the UK taxpayer,’ says Vaz, noting mildly that this ‘is also likely to require more consistent and considered direction from those setting policy for the Agency than has sometimes been the case’.
The MPs ‘lack confidence’ in the Border Agency’s effectiveness in ‘making sure that its contractors provide adequate training and supervision of their employees in respect of the use of force,’ and add: ‘This is a fundamental responsibility of the Agency and is not simply a matter of clauses in contracts or formal procedural requirements.’
But Vaz and his colleagues must be aware that the failings go far deeper than that. Last March, when Dame Nuala O’Loan, investigating allegations that contractors’ staff had roughed up asylum seekers, found ‘inadequate management of the use of force by the private sector companies’ and made 22 recommendations for change, UKBA chief executive Lin Homer did something quite extraordinary. She attacked the doctors and lawyers who had brought the abuses to light, for ‘seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors’.
Homer, who has just left the Border Agency for the Department of Transport, does not escape today’s report unscathed. The MPs note her failure over months to complete an audit of the way UKBA implements (or rather fails to implement) the rule requiring that torture survivors, children and people with serious medical and psychiatric conditions should be detained only ‘under very exceptional circumstances’.
They remark that Homer has left unresolved their running complaint about the quality and the level of UKBA’s response to MPs’ letters on constituents’ behalf. They note that her £208,000-a-year salary exceeded that of the Prime Minister and the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and say her successor should receive significantly less.
But today’s report does not touch upon the coincidence of Homer’s tenure with five years of Home Office misrepresentation and denial of the medical evidence that detention harms children, nor does it challenge or even probe the increasingly cosy relations between civil servants and the commercial contractors who run the detention estate.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s data on mandarins who lunch, Homer enjoyed two dinners with Serco in 2007, and tucked away a ‘contract review dinner’ in 2008, courtesy of Raytheon, master of the e-borders programme and leader of the big security companies’ club, the Trusted Borders Cabal, oops! — Consortium.
Homer lunched with former Home Secretary John Reid in September 2009 when he was a backbencher doubling up as a £50,000-a-year consultant to G4S, the company that runs UKBA’s Tinsley House immigration removal centre — where the very next month a distressed 10-year-old detainee tried to strangle herself. (Tinsley House is where the government plans to hold children now that it has purportedly ‘ended’ child detention.)
Last April, on the cusp of a general election that might have made a government uneasy with the idea of locking up innocent children for no good reason, the Border Agency nonetheless extended Serco’s £900,000-a-month contract to run Yarl’s Wood detention centre until April 2013. The extension is worth £32 million. Yarl’s Wood closed its doors to families in December.
For years UKBA has got away with abusing its power against some of the most vulnerable people imaginable. More boldness and greater clarity from the Home Affairs Select Committee is urgently required if the UK Border Agency is to feel pressure to change.