Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

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Visa Entry to the UK; The Entry Clearance Operation (HC 737-i)

Public Accounts Committee 25 Jun 2004

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Evidence given by Sir Michael Jay KCMG, Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Accounting Officer of UKvisas; Mr Robin Barnett OBE, Director, UKvisas; and Mr Bill Jeffrey, Director General, Immigration and Nationality Directorate, Home Office.

Q27 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Would you look at page 25, figure 15. Mr Jeffrey, is it a coincidence that where the Home Office is involved in processing applications, and where they are involved in issuing work permits, the refusal rate is very low?

Mr Jeffrey: It certainly, I would say, reflects the nature of the applications. It may be that these are people who have already been granted a work permit by Work Permits UK in the United Kingdom and there is a refusal there which is quite significant.

Q28 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Would it be fair to say that your standards are much lower than the Foreign Office in terms of approving an application?

Mr Jeffrey: I do not think it would be fair to say that. It depends on the nature of the application. That is the straightforward answer to that. Certainly, in the case of work permits, it is a complicated process because the work permit is issued to the employer by Work Permits UK, which is part of the Home Office. The person then goes to seek entry clearance at the post overseas, and the entry clearance officer considers the case at that point. That may provide part of the explanation for the fact that the refusal rates in this category are lower than for others.

Q29 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Did Ministers dictate policy in terms of how entry clearance should take place for work permits and visas in eastern Europe?

Mr Jeffrey: The whole operation takes place under the policy set by Ministers, clearly, and by Parliament under the Immigration Rules. If what you are asking, Mr Steinberg, is was the detail of how these ECAA cases were being dealt with that were the subject of the Chairman's earlier question directed by Ministers, the answer is no, it was not.

Q30 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What you are saying is that officials were taking the decisions without Ministers knowing? You must be saying that.

Mr Jeffrey: What I am saying is that the policy in the Immigration Rules covering applications for admission under the ECAA, the European Communities Accession Agreement, is ministerial policy. It was Ministers who signed up to the agreements, and it was Ministers who took through Parliament the relevant Immigration Rules. The particular issue that the Chairman was asking me about earlier, which was the way in which practice developed, was not put to Ministers, and it transpires following Mr Sutton's report that we could have been applying a more robust standard in relation to these cases.

Q31 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am getting confused. So are you saying that although the policy was laid down by Ministers, they were not supervising that policy and therefore did not know what was going on, and Home Office officials were making the decisions contrary to what the Foreign Office was saying?

Mr Jeffrey: I am saying that in the particular case that the Chairman was asking me about earlier, which has been the subject of much recent publicity, namely the ECAA applications in Bulgaria and Romania, the specific issue which was the subject of Mr Sutton's recent inquiry, namely how were we dealing with these cases, what was the nature of the disagreement between the clearance officers and our staff in IND, Ministers were not aware of that dispute, nor of the detailed interpretation of the law that our staff were applying.

Q32 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When it first broke, if I remember correctly - tell me if I am wrong - it was a Home Office official who originally blew the gaff, was it not, a Home Office official in Sheffield, and he was suspended? Is that right?

Mr Jeffrey: It is a slightly different issue, but there was certainly a Home Office official in Sheffield who published information about the way in which similar cases were being decided.

Q33 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Ministers said at that particular time that they knew nothing about it.

Mr Jeffrey: The then Minister said correctly that some guidance which had been developed in the earlier part of this year and late last year for dealing with these cases and for clearing a backlog had been developed without her knowledge, and that was the case.

Q34 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): In other words, if that is the case, it was officials who were interpreting the rules and carrying out the policy, as it happens wrongly?

Mr Jeffrey: In the case that we were discussing earlier involving ECAA applications, and this is what I am talking about, that is correct and, as I was saying earlier, it is extremely regrettable.

Q35 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Mr Cameron, the next whistle blower, actually refuted this, did he not? He said, if I remember rightly, that Ministers did know about it, did he not? So Cameron was lying all along the line. If Cameron said that Ministers knew about it, then Cameron was telling lies, if Mr Jeffrey says that Ministers did not know about it. Who do we believe? I do not think it is a very difficult question.

Sir Michael Jay: Mr Cameron and indeed the embassy as a whole had for some time been drawing the Home Office's attention to the fact ----

Q36 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): A Minister resigned, was forced out - whether rightly or wrongly I have no idea; all I am doing is going by what I have read in the newspapers and heard people say. If that Minister has been forced out on the lies of a so-called whistle blower, that is totally unfair. On the other hand, if Cameron was right, then Ministers did know about it. Who was telling the truth?

Mr Jeffrey: I have just checked Mr Cameron's email to Mr David Davis, which Mr Davis released to the public on 29 March.

Q37 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Why did Cameron not write to you?

Mr Jeffrey: As far as I can see, in the email that Mr Cameron sent to Mr Davis he did not allege that Ministers were aware of this.

Q38 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So where did the rumour come from that Ministers knew about it?

Mr Jeffrey: It is certainly the case that, in very general terms, the then Minister had the issue drawn to her attention by Mr Bob Ainsworth when he visited these posts, but I cannot help Mr Steinberg understand beyond that why it has been suggested by others that Ministers ----

Q39 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So when did Ministers actually know what was going on?

Mr Jeffrey: In the Home Office, the details of Mr Cameron's allegations first became known to Ministers, and indeed to senior officials as well, at the point when Mr Davis published them on 29 March.

Q40 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What you are saying is that Ministers did not know before then what was going on?

Mr Jeffrey: Ministers were aware in very general terms from the fact that Mr Ainsworth picked up some of these issues when he was in eastern Europe, but the detailed allegations that Mr Cameron made were ----

Q41 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Come on! Now you are saying that Mr Ainsworth picked up these details when he was in eastern Europe. When was he in eastern Europe?

Sir Michael Jay: This was in February 2003. He visited Bulgaria and Romania.

Q42 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You are saying he picked it up then?

Sir Michael Jay: The concerns were raised with him then, and on his return he minuted to Beverley Hughes, so at that stage those two Ministers were aware of the issue.

Q43 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When was that?

Sir Michael Jay: That was in February, March and April 2003.

Q44 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): One of the things that worries me about the whole system is how haphazard it is, Sir Michael. I believe that lots and lots of cases are unfair. I do not personally get many cases in Durham, because we do not have a large immigrant community, but the cases that I do get are sometimes very heart-breaking, and sometimes I wonder who is making the decisions wherever it is, in India, for example. I have doctors working at my local hospital - and the hospital would not function if it were not for the fact that they are here - who may have children that their parents have never seen, and their mothers, perhaps in their Seventies, are refused admission to this country to come and see their grandchildren. To me, that is heartless and unfair, and considering that you make mistakes in 50 % of cases anyway, according to the report, or 50 % of appeals find decisions to be wrong, it makes me wonder how fair the system is in the first place.

Sir Michael Jay: I would not accept that the system is haphazard, Mr Steinberg. The NAO report on the whole is rather complimentary about UKvisas operations, and I personally believe is rightly complimentary about them. It is also, if I may say so, a very helpful report to us generally. I think the figures show that 90% of straightforward visa applications are processed within 24 hours, which shows that there is an efficient system at work here. But we have to remember two things: firstly, there are now upward of 2 million visa applications a year around the world. The people who are processing these are, I believe, professional, on the whole well trained, but they are operating often under great stress, a lot of pressure, and inevitably, given the number of applications that there are, there are going to be some mistakes. Some of the mistakes will be heart-rending mistakes; we have all been rung up and been approached by people who have had genuine mistakes made in heart-rending circumstances, but the aim of UKvisas is to keep those to an absolute minimum, and the appeal system is there to ensure that when there has been a mistake, it is rectified as soon as possible. What I do not accept is that the system is haphazard, nor indeed, the earlier point made that morale is low. Actually, morale in the visa service as a whole is pretty high. If I can just quote one statistic from the report, the fact that it showed that 80% of customers are satisfied with the service provided is a very encouraging and morale-boosting statistic for the service.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If you look at page 27, figure 19, in 14% of cases that are turned down, the decision is not even in accordance with Immigration Rules, so they are actually making decisions that are illegal. So I do not know how you can say what you have said.

Chairman: Take that as a comment.


Q165 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Will you be re-looking at all these applications?

Mr Jeffrey: One of the things Mr Sutton's report did find was that he estimated, on the basis of figures that he was given by the department, that no more than about 150 or so had worked their way through to the point of being granted permanent residence; so first of all there will be an opportunity, as these people come forward, having been given initially a year's stay to set up a business, to examine very carefully whether they actually did so and whether that business is flourishing. Secondly, we are going to deploy, on Ken Sutton's recommendation, some of our enforcement resource to look into these cases and see whether people did in fact set up in business as they claimed they would.

Q166 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Or?

Mr Jeffrey: Or not.

Q167 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What would be the alternative, if they did not set up in business?

Mr Jeffrey: If they did not set up in business, I think these things are a matter of judgement. One of the judgements that, having gone into it quite carefully, Mr Sutton did reach was that if people were arriving for purposes other than those proclaimed in their application, it was much more likely to take paid employment than to fall into the benefit system. He did not discover anything to suggest that that was happening ...

Sir Michael Jay: Forgive me, Chairman, I need to correct one answer I gave just now to Mr Jenkins. It is not true that there is an automatic check on criminal records of all applicants. The position is that entry clearance officers can ask for checks on the police national computer, and routine checks are made in all cases against the warnings index, which will contain, or often contain some police information.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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