Firstly let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to speak to you once again. It is a little over a year since we last met at city hall for what was an excellent and very informative event, with stalls showcasing various projects, and at which you were introduced to the then, new permanent secretary, Helen Ghosh.
Last year, when I met you, we were celebrating 60 years of the convention, and of the UK protecting refugees. We continue to be very proud of that tradition. The 1951 refugee convention was an attempt by the United Nations to set down terms to define who should be recognised as a refugee, and how they should be treated in the countries that received them. It was an admission by the world that we all have a responsibility to help those who cannot obtain protection in their own countries.
The convention and the protocol are the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees yet attempted on the international level. They are the principal international instruments established for the protection of refugees, and the UK takes its responsibilities and obligations as a signatory to those instruments very seriously. These are responsibilities which remain just as important today as they were back in 1951.
That is why the UK border agency are proud to continue to work in partnership with the UNHCR on the quality integration project, and the delivery of the gateway resettlement programme, which offers sanctuary to 750 vulnerable refugees from overseas every year, enabling them to start new lives in the UK.
The year has brought a lot of changes and a lot of improvements too. The UK border agency has welcomed Rob Whiteman as its new chief executive, and Rob is implementing a programme of work, and the necessary structures, to make the Agency a more intelligence-led organisation. Over the years to come the agency will need to employ its resources effectively against the changing challenges it faces. In doing so it will also work hard to ensure the delivery of compliance with its processes and protocols, and to ensure its work is carried out consistently across the country.
There have been a lot of developments in the world of asylum in particular as I am sure you are aware. Many of these have been achieved with the assistance of the strong relationships we have with corporate partners.
To highlight a few:
The UK border agency has increased the number of telephone lines for asylum seekers to make screening interview appointments. A pre-screening telephone appointment has also been introduced to provide us with an opportunity to understand any particular needs an asylum seeker may have, so that we do our utmost to meet those needs at the screening interview and thereafter.
The UK border agency has considered its removals capability and the need to ensure that asylum is reserved for those who truly need it; not those who use it as a backstop without just cause. To this end we have created removal hubs and worked with international partners to facilitate returns, both assisted and enforced.
The merits of a detained fast track (DFT) are an area of the asylum system upon which I know we, (corporate partners and the agency) will struggle to come to agreement. I do believe that DFT is an essential tool to help the agency process asylum claims quickly and effectively, right through to conclusion. That is why I have asked my staff to ensure that in delivering this element of the asylum system, we ensure it operates well and is managed sensitively.
The DFT team has worked closely with detention services, and has improved processes within the detention centre, to reduce delays in the DFT process. Particularly around the arrangement of interviews for detainees, and in ensuring that relevant healthcare information is shared with appropriate partners.
I am pleased that my officials are working with the Helen Bamber foundation and freedom from torture to identify how the agency might improve the screening process, to assist with identification of victims of torture or trafficking at the earliest opportunity - I understand you heard about this joint work this morning.
We have rolled out the case management suite - Chronos - to all regions. This tool is helping us to deal with asylum seekers’ claims more swiftly and more efficiently, meaning those with protection needs have their claims decided promptly, and can access mainstream social services and support faster.
The UK border agency has begun the COMPASS transition period. Each provider has been issued with a bridging permit to operate, which is the trigger for the gradual movement of service users from current to new providers’ accommodation. The complete package of accommodation and transport services will transfer to the new providers later in August, when the full permit to operate will be issued. The agency has been engaging closely with corporate partners across the regions to ensure all significant impacts and issues are addressed. The UK border agency is grateful for your engagement and involvement.
The case audit and assurance unit has made steady progress in dealing with the legacy caseload. At the end of March 2012, 80,000 cases were in the asylum controlled archive and 21,500 cases were in the migration controlled archive.
The evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of these individuals have already left the UK, and the UK border agency therefore needs to consider the benefit of spending public money pursuing these cases. With the re-introduction of exit checks by 2015 through the e-borders system, the agency will be in a far stronger position in future to ensure we have comprehensive records to tell us when individuals leave the UK.
The UK border agency will continue to manage the controlled archive and by 31 December all cases will have been through data matching with our partners twice, and will have been checked against our own internal databases at least twice. Where these actions reveal new information that allows us to progress the case, it will be transferred to a casework team to conclude any outstanding barriers. At the end of March 2012, the live asylum cases stood at 21,000; this number will increase as individuals are traced.
We have begun the development and implementation of the next generation quality framework, which you have played a significant part in. Under this framework the UK border agency is seeking to deliver a system that monitors and promotes quality, efficiency, professionalism, compliance, and consistency.
The framework will look at the whole asylum process, end-to-end and is designed to focus on those areas where improvements should best be made, such as credibility, as well as capturing best practice and trend information to inform better decision-making, and asylum guidance and instructions in the future. Your engagement so far has been extremely helpful and we will continue to engage you as the framework develops.
The UK border agency has worked with you on projects such as access and information; seeking to improve asylum seekers’ experience of the asylum system and to make the processes easier to understand. We know from that work that whilst there is already a lot of information provided to applicants, it needs to be much more balanced, consistent and focused. And that the agency needs to remove duplication where it exists. I hope that you will continue to work with the UK border agency on this, not only to help develop and implement an efficient suite of advice services, but also to help establish ways of listening to those who use the process day in, day out. The UK border agency needs their help to improve too.
All of these things the UK border agency has done to improve efficiency and deliver value for money to the tax-payer, so that despite the economic climate the agency can continue to deliver high quality asylum considerations, and to ultimately provide protection to those individuals who need asylum in this country.
You play a key role in helping the UK border agency achieve this aim, acting as a catalyst, and stimulating some of the thinking that has led to the development and implementation of these plans.
I know you, and your trustees, judge your success by how well you manage to influence the UK border agency in this forum, and the level or the type of change that results from your engagement with officials. But it is true that in just holding up a mirror to the UK border agency’s work, and the way we run our business, you help us to see things differently and have made a difference. I know that my officials have valued your perspectives.
The joint presentation from the Helen Bamber foundation, freedom from torture and the UK border agency that you had this morning is an excellent example, not only of sharing your perspectives, but also of joint working with the agency in a specific area to improve what the agency does and the outcomes for the people involved.
Going forward we must be realistic. All of us will continue to face challenging times financially and with regard to resources. This will mean a need for a tighter focus in terms of the areas we turn our attention to, and ensuring that we leverage our time and energy on things that will deliver most value, and are of the most importance. Later on today you will be discussing the future programme of work for the forum and the structures that will best support it. I am confident of your continued contribution to ensuring improvements are made to the way in which the asylum system operates.