Civil servants ‘lied to MPs about immigration chaos’

Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee
Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee
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SENIOR civil servants today stand accused of misleading Parliament over the “chaos” on Britain’s borders which may have led to thousands of failed asylum seekers being allowed to stay on unlawfully in the UK.

MPs have launched a blistering attack on the highly-paid officers in charge border control after concluding they have been putting out false information for the past six years about Britain’s staggering backlog of asylum cases, which stands at well over 300,000 – more than the entire population of Iceland.

A devastating report published this morning by the Commons Home Affairs Committee finds that in thousands of cases where the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has been unable to trace a failed asylum seeker or illegal immigrant, the agency has simply assumed they are no longer in the country and closed their file.

In reality, the report says, “there could therefore be thousands of people in the UK whose applications remain in the ‘closed’ archives, but whom the Agency have not been able to trace”.

In many cases uncovered by auditors, even basic checks – such as searching for names on Government benefit databases or police national computers – were never carried out.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz described the UKBA’s approach as having offered an “effective amnesty” to thousands of people who should have been deported under UK immigration laws.

And he directly accused one of the country’s most senior civil servants, Lin Homer, of “repeatedly misleading” his cross-party committee over the scandal.

Ms Homer has since been promoted to chief executive of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), earning £180,000 a year.

“For six years the committee was misled by UKBA chiefs about the agency’s unacceptable performance,” Mr Vaz said. “It appears more like the scene of a Whitehall farce then a Government agency operating in the 21st century.”

The report comes ahead of a speech by David Cameron this morning in which he will set out a series of tough new measures on the benefits available to people arriving in the country.

In a move designed to appeal to the Tory Right, the Prime Minister will announce new guidance for councils to ensure people must have lived in the country for between two and five years before they can move on to a waiting list for social housing.

His speech follows a more aggressive line from his deputy, Nick Clegg, who made a separate speech on Friday in which he abandoned the Liberal Democrat policy of allowing illegal immigrants to stay once they have lived in the country for a decade.

But the Government’s crackdown risks being seriously undermined by today’s revelation that little has improved on the UK’s borders in the seven years since Labour Home Secretary John Reid famously declared Britain’s immigration system “not fit for purpose”.

“Successive UKBA chief executives have presided over chaos including 150 boxes of unopened mail, 100,000 unopened letters and yet another effective amnesty for thousands due to calamitous inefficiency,” Mr Vaz said last night.

“No sooner is one backlog closed than four more are discovered. At this rate it will take 24 years to clear the backlog.”

The committee said four new types of backlog came to light last year, taking the total number of cases to 312,726, and points the finger squarely at Ms Homer, who has been twice promoted since her time in charge of the immigration service between 2005 and 2010.

The report said: “It is shocking that after five years under Lin Homer’s leadership an organisation that was described at the beginning of the period as being ‘not fit for purpose’ should have improved its performance so little. Given this background, we are astounded that Ms Homer has been promoted… and can have little confidence in her ability to lead HMRC at what is a challenging time for that organisation.”

Directly accusing Ms Homer of giving false evidence over the scale of the backlog, the report goes on: “It is appalling that a senior civil servant should have misled the committee in the way that Ms Homer did, and that she continues… to try and evade responsibility for her failings.”

The committee has re-called the current UKBA chief executive, Rob Whiteman, tomorrow.

Immigration Minister Mark Harper warned that turning the beleaguered UKBA around would “take time”. He added: I am determined to provide the public with an immigration system they can have confidence in.”