Home Office unable to demonstrate immigration enforcement efforts are working, NAO finds

Department needs a better understanding of the impact of its immigration enforcement activity on meeting its policy aims, report says

Photo: David Pearson

The Home Office does not know how many people are in the UK illegally and cannot demonstrate that its enforcement arm is helping the department achieve its objectives, a damning report by the National Audit Office has said.

The watchdog said in a report today that despite having made “significant changes” to its enforcement activity in recent years, the Home Office had no way of knowing whether its immigration enforcement directorate was meeting its stated goal: to “reduce the size of the illegal population and the harm it causes”.

And the department could produce no evidence that measures to prevent people accessing public services, known as the hostile environment policy, was achieving its objectives, according to the report.


The directorate seeks to drive down the number of people in the UK illegally by enforcing laws against illegal immigration and by deporting foreign national offenders once they have served their prison sentences.

But the NAO found the Home Office was unable to measure whether it was meeting its objectives as it did not have the relevant data.

The department did not even have an up-to-date estimate of how many people there were in the UK illegally – and that the last estimate dated back to 2005, when it was 430,000.

The NAO said that while more recent estimates from other organisations suggested that figure may have doubled in the last 15 years, it had “not validated” those estimates.

“The Home Office estimates demand for immigration enforcement activity to be between 240,000 and 320,000 cases per year, but it does not know whether demand is growing or falling,” the report said.

And the watchdog also said enforcement objectives were poorly defined.

“It also has not consistently defined what constitutes “harm” caused by the illegal population and who it affects,” the report said.

The NAO also said the performance data the Home Office collects meanwhile does not demonstrate what impact its work is having.

For example, it could not show that its hostile environment policy – a collection of measures intended to make it difficult for people to live and in the UK illegally and to access public services – made people more likely to leave the country.

“Also, the Home Office is helping to stop more people from entering the country without proper documentation or through clandestine means, but it does not know whether this reflects detection of a higher proportion of attempts or if the number of attempts is increasing,” the report added.

In fact, the data collected by the Home Office suggested fewer people were returning to their country of origin despite the department ramping up efforts to encourage them to do so.

In the year leading up to November 2019, the Home Office deported or helped to return just over 13,100 people to their country of origin. Around 5,600 of those people left the UK voluntarily – averaging 460 a month, a significant reduction from 1,200 a month in 2015.

And less than half – 48% – of the Home Office’s planned enforced returns went ahead in 2019, often due to last-minute legal challenges. “It believes many of these late legal challenges are used to delay removal but did not provide any evidence that it has tried to actively understand and manage these challenges,” the NAO said.

And the report also found “inefficiencies” in the immigration enforcement directorate’s processes led to staff having to do extra work – despite having invested in new technology and updating its working practices.

“This was often due to information being incorrect or out of date, or documents such as warrants or travel documentation arriving too late to enable action,” the report said.

“Delays in progressing cases leave individuals waiting longer to hear their outcome. Immigration Enforcement does not systematically record these delays to identify where and how they can make improvements.”

The NAO said the Home Office should use its response to the Windrush review conducted by Wendy Williams, due in autumn, to address its concerns.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The work of immigration enforcement by its very nature is complex and challenging. While the Home Office has introduced significant changes to its enforcement activity, it cannot demonstrate that overall performance is improving.

“The department needs a better understanding of the impact of its immigration enforcement activity on its overarching vision to reduce the size of the illegal population and the harm it causes.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “As requested by Wendy Williams, who warned against the temptation to respond hastily, we have undertaken a period of reflection and engaged with staff at all levels to identify areas for change.

“The home secretary has committed to publish a response to the report by the end of September.”

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