No Light Touch For Border Agency Inspections

No light touch for Border Agency inspections

Richard Ford
From The Times
April 17, 2009

The workmen are still fitting partitions for offices and empty crates litter the premises of the latest inspectorate set up to monitor a part of the country's public services. A small team is being assembled to carry out inspections of the UK Border Agency, the organisation that has emerged from the service so memorably described by John Reid, former Home Secretary, as not fit for purpose.

John Vine, the 155,000-a-year chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, is assembling a team intended to provide the first overarching regulatory regime of the country's asylum and immigration system.

Until now there has been no overall inspection of a service that has the capacity to generate political controversy and damage political careers. Its tasks include dealing with such issues as asylum and immigration and border security, while at the same time ensuring that millions of travellers can depart and arrive in the UK with minimum inconvenience.

The new inspectorate broadly replaces five monitoring organisations. Mr Vine, the former Chief Constable of Tayside, is quick to praise their work but clearly feels that having separate bodies had allowed the organisation to avoid the kind of inspection other public services expect.

He said: There was no comprehensive inspection in the way you would expect in other areas of public policy. Certainly in my experience as a chief police officer I was used to being inspected. If I had been a teacher or in local government I would have been used, from time to time, to being inspected comprehensively by an independent scrutineer.

Mr Vine makes clear that he is not going to adopt a light touch. I don't think I can take that approach, certainly not to begin with, as I have inherited no database to tell me which part of the business works well and which parts do not, he said.

I think there will be quite a learning curve for the UK Border Agency in dealing with an inspectorate.

His first year of operations will involve a thematic inspection of asylum, complaints handling and the enforcement of decisions to remove people from the country. There will also be an inspection of operations in Wales and the South West, Harwich and at overseas locations where the agency issues visas.

The inspection of asylum comes only months after the National Audit Office (NAO) reported that there had been improvements in the way asylum applications were being handled but that the process was not yet working to optimum efficiency or effectiveness.

Mr Vine defended his decision to return to the topic so soon after the NAO inquiry, by saying it is an issue of public concern. He insisted: I think I can look in more depth at some of the parts of the asylum model that they were not able to look at. Their report is focused in a particular way but I can bring a much deeper analysis on the handling of asylum cases.

He expects to have inspected all areas of the agency's business within the next four to five years and hopes that his organisation can improve the level of debate about the treatment of asylum seekers and the effectiveness of measures to secure the UK's borders.

It strikes me that in these areas there is a lot of ill-informed comment from time to time. There is not an awareness of some of the complexities of managing borders and immigration, he said.

His overall intention is to improve the service the agency and its staff provide to the public. But asked whether he can imagine a time when he can declare the organisation fit for purpose, he replies: I foresee a time when I am commenting in detail on the findings of my reports and I think together they will paint a picture of how this organisation treats its customers and how it achieves it objectives.

The lowdown

Who: John Vine, 53, first Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency. Mr Vine was Chief Constable of Tayside in Scotland. He continues to live in Perthshire

What: The Office of the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency will inspect all aspects of the agency's work, including asylum, enforcement, the issuing of visas and enforcement of court decisions to remove people from the country

When: It was created in 2008 to rationalise previous oversight of different aspects of the immigration system. There were previously five monitoring organisations including one which had never come into force. The new inspectorate will have a total staff of about 45 including 20 inspectors and an annual budget of 2.5 million to 3 million

Why: An independent inspection regime is needed to identify weaknesses and problems in the Border and Immigration Agency so that the service provided to millions of people entering and leaving the United Kingdom can be improved.


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