Home Office has ‘too much’ immigration enforcement information, but ‘not the right sort’

Damning PAC report accuses department of formulating policy on “anecdote, assumption and prejudice” and of showing “little concern” for the human impact of its failures

By Jim Dunton

18 Sep 2020

The Home Office has failed to develop an end-to-end understanding of the UK’s immigration system and has “no idea” what the £400m annual spend of its Immigration Enforcement Directorate achieves, according to a damning report from MPs.

Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said that despite years of public and political debate and concern about illegal immigration, the department still does not know the size of the illegal population in the UK and has not estimated the illegal population since 2005. 

In its just-published report, which examines issues flagged by public-finance watchdog the National Audit Office in June, the PAC said gaps in the Home Office’s digital and paper trails were likely to have an impact on immigration enforcement’s ability to deport people.

The committee said the NAO had reported that immigration enforcement used management information to assess the performance of individual teams, rather than the system’s overall health.

“We asked whether the department could deliver an effective immigration enforcement service without basic management information,” the PAC report said. “The department rejected the suggestion that it had no management information, and stated it had ‘too much [management information], but not of the right sort’.”

The PAC said that gaps in the information available to the department meant that it did not know why the proportion of immigration detainees released because they could not be returned to their country of origin had risen from 58% in 2018 to 62%  in 2019.

It added that the Home Office also did not know the impact of policies introduced by then-home secretary Theresa May to create a “hostile environment to deter illegal migration”.

MPs also expressed concerns that a lack of official estimates of the UK’s illegal immigrant population risked hostility to immigrants being inflamed by “potentially exaggerated figures” calculated by unofficial sources. 

They said: “It is disappointing that, despite this committee’s previous findings, the department is still not sufficiently curious about the impact of its actions and the underlying reasons for the challenges it faces. 

“We are concerned that if the department does not make decisions based on evidence, it instead risks making them on anecdote, assumption and prejudice.”

Committee chair Meg Hillier said the Home Office had “frighteningly little grasp” of the impact of its activities in managing immigration and showed “no inclination” to learn from numerous mistakes – even when it fully acknowledged it had made serious errors.

“It accepts the wreckage that its ignorance and the culture it has fostered caused in the Windrush scandal – but the evidence we saw shows too little intent to change, and inspires no confidence that the next such scandal isn’t right around the corner,” she said.

“Fifteen years after the then home secretary [John Reid] declared the UK’s immigration system ‘not fit for purpose’ it is time for transformation of Immigration Enforcement [Directorate] into a data-led organisation.”

Hillier gave the Home Office six months to provide her committee with a detailed plan, featuring set priorities and deadlines, for how it would make such a transformation.

Elsewhere, the PAC accused the Home Office of being “unprepared” for the challenges the UK’s exit from the EU presented to its immigration enforcement operations

It said that as of mid-July, the department could provide no evidence that it had even begun discussions with the EU partners it relied on to support its international operations, including the return of foreign national offenders and illegal migrants.

The report also pointed to a “significant lack of diversity” at senior levels of the department, which it said meant the Home Office did not have access to “a sufficiently wide range of perspectives” when it was establishing rules and assessing the human impact of its decisions. 

“Professional judgement cannot be relied upon if an organisation has blind spots, and the Windrush scandal demonstrated the damage such a culture creates,” the report said.

MPs said they had been pleased to hear permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft say he was committed to achieving greater diversity in the department, but said those intentions had to be delivered on to “reduce the likelihood of another Windrush-type scandal”. 

In response to the report, a Home Office spokesperson said: "We have developed a balanced and evidence-based approach to maintaining a fair immigration system.

"Since 2010, we have removed more than 53,000 foreign national offenders and more than 133,000 people as enforced removals.

"On a daily basis we continue to tackle those who fail to comply with our immigration laws and abuse our hospitality by committing serious, violent and persistent crimes, with immigration enforcement continually becoming more efficient."

They added that successive governments had been clear that there would be “little value” in seeking to estimate the size of the illegal population.

“By the very nature of how these individuals enter the UK, measuring a hidden population, many of whom deliberately seek to avoid the authorities, would be largely trial and error,” the spokesperson said.

“Last year, the Home Office and Office for National Statistics brought together a range of experts, who concluded that there was no prospect of producing an estimate without such a large margin of error that it would be useless in shaping policy, assessing progress or directing operational activity.  We are clear that recent attempts by others are flawed and speculative.”

This story was updated at 14:10 on 18 September 2020 to include a Home Office response

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