When I came to this forum in July last year, I talked about the government’s commitment to end the detention of children and to improve the asylum system. Nearly one year on, I want to take stock of what we have achieved so far and share our thinking about the future of the asylum system.
Before I say something about the progress we have made, I would like to say something about the context in which we all work. I think we all recognise the difference between general immigration policy and asylum issues, so even on a day when overall immigration numbers are published it is good to review the specifics of the asylum system.
It is 60 years since the United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, in response to the large number of displaced people in Europe. Signatories to the Convention hoped that what they called the “refugee crisis” would be solved quickly. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees had been created in the previous year and was only expected to exist for three years as by then, its work would be done. Sadly not. UNHCR now employs nearly seven thousand people in more than 120 countries and is helping more than 35 million people. Although some things have changed, the Convention is as relevant and important today as it has ever been.
We should remember too the many people who have been helped by the Convention over that 60 year period. UNHCR estimates that it has helped well over 50 million people restart their lives. The UK is proud to have played its part, welcoming many refugees to our shores and providing them with sanctuary. This has included over 3000 refugees who have came through our Gateway Protection Programme which seeks to resettle those people from around the world who are most in need of protection.
‘The Refugee Council’s recent polling showed that over 80 per cent of Britons believe that protecting the most vulnerable is a core British value and two thirds declare themselves sympathetic to refugees coming to Britain.
It is my ambition that we should have an asylum system that the British people can be equally proud of.
- An asylum system which has moved on from its sometimes chaotic past and is one in which the public can have confidence.
- An asylum system which is more compassionate and produces the right decision, at the first time of asking.
- An asylum system which is more efficient, produces faster case conclusions, and removes people who have no right to be here.
In the last year we have made three fundamental changes to the asylum system, fulfilling our key commitments.
First, we have ended the detention of children for immigration purposes. This government has been clear that this practice is unacceptable and working with partner organisations, many of whom are here today, we have found a way to end this practice while maintaining an effective immigration control. Following pilots, we have implemented a new family returns process nationally, with an independent Family Returns Panel. Specially trained case owners are now, for the first time, working with families throughout the asylum decision making process. Sadly, there are always going to be those who try to frustrate the process and refuse to comply with their requirement to leave. For those families we have developed a range of options as alternatives to detention to ensure their return. I am particularly grateful to Barnado’s for providing support for families in our new pre-departure accommodation.
Secondly, we have met the coalition commitment to stop returning asylum seekers to countries where their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of torture, imprisonment or execution. Through working with Stonewall, with the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group and with UNHCR, we have also improved the way we make decisions on cases involving sexual orientation. UKBA case owners are now better at considering such claims in a sensitive manner which takes into account the difficulties, trauma and alienation that some applicants experience.
And thirdly, we have completed reviewing the legacy of over 450,000 unconcluded asylum cases that the Home Office identified in 2006. The number of these cases which remained outstanding last May remained a blight on the system and one of my first actions as Minister was to ask the Border Agency to speed up its consideration of these cases and to complete the job ahead of schedule. I am pleased to say that this has been achieved.
What we’re doing
So we have delivered on three key commitments.
But of course we haven’t stopped there and we musn’t stop there.
It is critical that the public can have confidence in our asylum system. Confidence that we are running the system as efficiently as we can, at lower cost to them. Confidence that we are taking the right decisions, as quickly as possible, so that those who need our protection get it. And confidence that those who have no need of protection - and no right to stay in the UK - are leaving the country.
When I came to this meeting one year ago, I told you that I was abolishing the previous government’s target to conclude asylum cases within 6 months. Although I strongly believe that faster conclusions are important, the exclusive focus on a single target was creating perverse incentives in the system. Caseowners were focusing so hard on pushing the newest cases through the system that they were leaving the older ones completely untouched. This risked a new backlog building, individuals being refused but not removed from the country, and further losses in public confidence.
So, I have introduced a new performance framework that will give me - and you - a balanced picture of the health of the overall system, taking into account speed, quality, productivity, cost; and, crucially, focusing on the total number of cases in the system which remain unconcluded. I have asked the Border Agency to make improvements against every indicator in the new performance framework. Decisions will be made faster and be of higher quality. More failed asylum seekers will be removed - and they will be removed more quickly. Cases will be concluded at lower cost to the taxpayer. Every case will be visible.
And the performance of the system will be completely transparent. Under the old PSA target, cases from some countries, which were hard for the Agency to remove to, were simply discounted from the statistics. Under the new framework, there will be no tricks like that and no cases will be hidden.
This is one part of a much wider transparency agenda. We want to be more open and more transparent. We have published an unprecedented amount of information already, such as government contracts in full. We are publishing a huge amount of performance data so the public can see for themselves how government is performing.
And I am making a commitment today that, from this summer, information on our performance will be published, on a regular basis - with key statistics disaggregated by gender - so that you and any member of the public can scrutinise what we are achieving and hold us to account. Only by opening ourselves up to scrutiny in this way will we be able to show that we are bringing the whole asylum system back into balance.
A system in balance means no new backlog and it means lower cost to the taxpayer through asylum support. We have saved over £100m of taxpayer’s money in the last financial year, though there is more still to do. A system in balance means improvements in efficiency and speed and improvements in quality, all reinforcing each other.
Our Asylum Improvement Project has already been implementing sensible, pragmatic solutions to real problems. We have listened to our staff and to you, our partners. We have learned from the experiences of other countries and we have found solutions to the problems we have identified.
- We have produced shorter, clearer, guidance for case owners on conducting interviews and writing decisions. Often shorter interviews and shorter decision paperwork are actually, we discover, of a higher quality and of more use to asylum seekers and their legal representatives, as well as being more efficient and making our caseowners more productive. We will continue working on this.
- We have worked with our partners in the Tribunal Service to improve the speed and efficiency of the process, including electronic bundles for asylum support applications. We are finally dragging the system into the 21st century by exchanging appeal documents electronically.
We are making best use of charter flights to effect volume removals and reduce their unit cost. Over the last year we have removed nearly 2,000 individuals with no basis to remain in the UK to destinations like Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria. We have also expanded the range of countries to which we remove - including opening up routes and removing in volume to Sri Lanka, Iraq and next Zimbabwe.
Our internal management information shows that the impact of these and other changes has already been felt.
- A year ago, there were more than 7,700 asylum seekers waiting for a decision on their application. There are now fewer than 6,000.
- We are making decisions more quickly. This time last year, just 54 per cent of asylum seekers received a decision on their case within 30 days. That number has now risen to 61 per cent.
- But in making decisions more quickly, we have not lowered the quality of those decisions. Our world-class quality audit process shows that the quality of our decisions has remained high.
- 54 per cent of applicants are now either granted asylum or removed from the UK within six months compared to 47 per cent at this point last year.
- In the last year we have chartered 53 removal flights, which resulted in over 1200 failed asylum seekers and around 480 foreign national prisoners being removed from the UK.
- And removals are getting faster. 21 per cent of asylum seekers are now removed within 12 months, compared to 10 per cent a year ago.
So, as you see, we have as delivered our key commitments on asylum, but we have also made the system faster and more efficient, without sacrificing quality.
What we’re going to do
But we are not going to stop there.
Our plans to transform the asylum system will see further improvements across the board. More compassionate, higher quality, faster, more efficient, lower cost - and commanding greater public confidence.
We are embarking on a major programme of reform to our screening process. This is often the first time applicants come into contact with the asylum system, many of them at a moment of extreme vulnerability with a traumatic story to tell. We need people with the right training and skills, processes that recognise the differing needs of applicants and a physical environment that respects the vulnerability of the people who come to us for protection. We are committed to achieving those things.
We are determined to improve the gender sensitivity of our asylum system. The right guidance to our caseowners, of course, which recognises that forms of persecution experienced by women are often very different to those experienced by men. But also the right training and support so that caseowners take the right approach to handling cases of heightened sensitivity, particularly where gender-related violence is at issue.
Treating asylum seekers more compassionately throughout the process is right on its own terms. But it also makes it more likely than people can tell us about their experiences openly and truthfully - which in turn makes it more likely that we will make the right decision on their case.
We have a quality audit system which is the envy of many who operate asylum systems around the world. But we not content with that. We are doing more to ensure that we are taking the highest quality decisions; getting it right first time.
Following pilots in west London and the Midlands, we have begun comprehensive analysis of asylum decisions overturned at appeal. For the first time, we will begin to understand and quantify the reasons why decisions are overturned and we will be able to take action to address the problems. Early results from West London show a 9 per cent reduction in the rate of decisions overturned at appeal and we plan to go further. In short, we have been able to stop making the same mistakes over and over again, which is deeply inefficient and costly, as well as unfair to applicants in need of our protection who have to wait longer than they should to receive it.
As you know, we are testing in the Midlands whether access to early legal advice can lead to higher quality and more sustainable decisions and faster conclusions.
And, on top of all that, we are developing a more structured approach to decision making that will improve the way case owners access the information they need. Each case will still be decided on its individual merits, but the way caseowners go about making a decision will be more consistent. This will improve both the quality of our decisions and the productivity of our caseowners.
We are rolling out a new system for managing cases which analyses how long it takes to carry out each step of the process for each type of case and ensures caseowners take the right actions at the right time. It also allows caseowners, for the first time, to get a complete picture of all the cases they are currently dealing with. Simply by managing the flow of cases through the system in a more intelligent way, we can improve speed, efficiency and cost.
We can aim for a “right first time every time” approach to the removals process, and that is why we are introducing a programme of training and awareness for our removals staff to improve levels of expertise. We also aim to speed up re-documentation times with specific countries by connecting their cooperation on that issue with co-operation across other parts of our relationship with them.
We will also enhance our engagement with carriers to build a shared understanding of the need to carry out removals quickly and with dignity for those who have exhausted their appeal rights.
Looking at the broader picture, the UK is currently receiving around 1600 applications for asylum each month. In part this is due to a downward trend in applications across the industrialised world. But not entirely. This trend has not been shared across Europe. Between the end of 2009 and 2010, Germany saw a 70 pre cent increase in asylum applications. France has seen a rise of 21 per cent over the same period. The improvements we have made to our system mean that applications are handled efficiently, decisions are made quickly and failed asylum seekers are removed to their home countries. This makes the UK a less attractive destination for people who are seeking to abuse the asylum system and use it as a back door to avoid immigration controls. Effective measures to stop people abusing the system are a key part of improving it.
However, as the ONS statistics published today show, we cannot assume that applications for asylum will remain at these low levels. World events, such as the current events in North Africa, are already having an impact. Let me say just a few words about our approach here.
Our over-riding concern is to do whatever we can to ensure that countries across North Africa develop into stable and prosperous countries. And we have provided very significant humanitarian assistance for those displaced from Libya.
It remains a well-founded principle that refugees should seek asylum in the first safe country they come to. That means, wherever possible, within the region. We will therefore be working with international organisations and where possible the countries concerned to ensure that for those who need it, protection is available and that arrangements are in place for the return of third country nationals to their countries of origin. And for those who do, regrettably, decide to seek to enter Europe illegally, in the first EU country they come to. We remain strongly of the view that the criteria for invocation of the Temporary Protection Directive are a long way from being met; and that relocating migrants within the EU simply creates incentives for increased illegal immigration.
We will, of course, continue to support both North African countries and our European neighbours, offering practical assistance where necessary in relation to border management and effective asylum processes. There is an important broader principle at stake here. The government believes that it is important that there are strong regional protection arrangements in place for those that need international protection so that the most vulnerable individuals in the world can quickly get the protection they need. That means that they don’t have to try to pay people smugglers or facilitators. It helps draw a clearer line between those who want to come to the UK and other EU countries for economic purposes, and ensures more of our resources can go to the most vulnerable, not on supporting and returning those whose claims have been refused.
We will continue to improve our own asylum system as well. Many of the projects we have started under the Asylum Improvement Project will continue over the next year. Our approach to structured decision making and tracking cases through the system will improve performance not just in their own right, but will also act as building blocks for the UK Border Agency’s new IT system.
You will hear more about some of these innovations at the marketplace sessions today.
Working with corporate partners
The system will only improve if we are open and transparent about our performance across the board. When we only tell the public about the things that are going well, there is no incentive to improve the things that are not going so well. I am committed to being more open about our performance, but also to a more open relationship with our partners. Events like this one are a good opportunity to share ideas with each other openly and confidently.
I firmly believe that public services as important and complex as the asylum system can only be delivered through an open and honest partnership between government, the private sector and the voluntary sector. Each has a specific role to play and each needs to work closely with the other. The refugee sector, like everything else, cannot be immune from the need to save public money, but I want to continue with the constructive working relationship we have built up together.
I’m conscious that some of you in this room won’t see our performance on removing failed asylum seekers in the same way I do. But I should make it very clear that removing more failed asylum seekers, more quickly, has been one of the key achievements of this year, and an area where we will maintain a keen focus in the future. Of course I want failed asylum seekers to leave voluntarily but, if they do not, their return must be enforced. That is essential for the integrity of the system and for restoring public confidence in our asylum system. And there is a challenge to all of you implicit in what I say - if you are serious about winning public support for an efficient and compassionate asylum system, you must be serious about making returns policy effective. If asylum is not a hot toxic subject, the people that benefit most are refugees.
Overall, the asylum system is in a healthier condition than it was a year ago. It is more balanced, more efficient and more compassionate. We have built the foundations for lasting reform, in which the public can have confidence, but I am not complacent. It will take time and there will be times when we will disagree about the best way forward, but I believe that if we work together, we can make our asylum system one of which everyone in this room and more importantly every genuine refugee who looks to us for protection, can be proud.’