Home Office: Video asylum interviews blighted by tech issues and lack of training, report finds

Written by Beckie Smith and Sam Trendall on 26 November 2021 in News
News

Immigration watchdog cites IT issues as key contributor to growing delays in asylum decisions

Credit: Marvin Mennigen from Pixabay

Unaccompanied children are waiting a year and a half for asylum decisions, despite the Home Office's promise to prioritise their cases, as the department is “failing to keep on top of the number of asylum decisions it is required to make”, the immigration watchdog has said.

Wait times for asylum decisions have increased every year since 2011, with adults waiting an average of 449 days last year, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found. Unaccompanied children were waiting 550 days.

The report cited reliance on outdated IT systems were cited as a major contributory factor to the delays, alongside limited workforce capabilities and inefficient workflow processes. The workflow process was “inefficient and sometimes ineffective”, with staff reliant on Excel spreadsheets to progress cases. Mechanisms to speed up the process, such as the National Referral Mechanism for potential victims of modern slavery and or trafficking, were slow.

The use of videoconferencing tools to conduct asylum interviews during the pandemic was praised by senior managers that gave evidence to the inspector. At the start of 2019, just 2% of applicants were interviewed remotely. 

During the height of the initial coronavirus restrictions – April to June 2020 – this had risen somewhat, but more than five interviews were still being conducted in person, with the overall volume being cut in half from more than 5,000 to 2,244.

By the first quarter of 2021, this proportion had inverted, with 78% of interviews hosted remotely; the quarterly total of video interviews rose from a little more than 400 in the mid part of 2020 to almost 2,8777 in the first three months of this year.


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However, decision makers that relied on the use of the technology told the report that the rollout was “really shambolic” and that, as of January 2021, many needed to “spend most of the day trying to resolve IT issues”. The report found that “few had received any training on using the technology”.

Interviews themselves were often blighted by “issues with miscommunication between the interviewer, the interpreter and the claimant, as a result of poor-quality sound or connection issues”.

The report was published ahead of the tragedy this week in which at least 27 people drowned trying to cross the Channel from France to the UK to seek asylum. News of the tragedy prompted calls for the UK government to create safer routes for people to apply for asylum, and to assign more money to clear the backlog highlighted in ICIBI’s report.

The chief inspector, David Neal, noted that in 2019 the Home Office scrapped its customer-service standard to issue asylum decisions within six months for 98% of straightforward claims.

At the time, the Home Office said it would prioritise claims by vulnerable or “high harm” applicants, those receiving asylum support, and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

But Neal said the inspection found “no evidence of any case type being prioritised, except for those who were in receipt of asylum support”. People in this cohort received their decisions more quickly in 2019 by an average of 40 days, and 1.5 days quicker in 2020.

The inspection ran from August 2020 to May this year. The report noted that while the pandemic had impacted asylum operations, “most, if not all” of the issues inspectors found predated Covid.

'Openly disbelieving'
The report criticised not just the timeliness of decisions, but the way they were made, highlighting problems with the quality of interviews and decisions, and with quality assurance mechanisms.

It found the Home Office was failing to meet its target of ensuring that 75% achieved the highest rating of data quality scores – an “unambitious” target that allows for one in four decisions to contain “one or more” significant errors. Assessments intended to assure quality were often completed too late, after a decision had been sent to a claimant, and there was no formal quality assurance process for screening interviews despite previous calls from ICIBI to introduce one.

Inspectors found evidence of asylum decision makers “openly disbelieving” claimants in interviews and not responding appropriately to sensitive disclosures of personal information, and of documentary evidence not being given sufficient weight in decisions.

The report also highlighted retention issues among Home Office staff, with decision makers describing a “culture focused on targets” and a feeling that senior managers were concerned only with the quantity of interviews and decisions, rather than the quality.

Neal said morale was low and staff felt they did not have the time to consider the “face behind the case” – a goal intended to improve the Home Office’s culture and avoid another Windrush scandal – because of time pressures.

Commenting on the report, he said it was “clear that the current system pleases nobody, least of all asylum claimants who are currently in limbo awaiting a decision, or the Home Office itself who are having to fund asylum accommodation for those awaiting a decision and pay to defend poor quality decisions in court”.

In a response published alongside the report, the Home Office accepted many of the chief inspector’s recommendations, which included reintroducing a service standard for asylum decisions, prioritising claims for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and making progression opportunities clear to staff to improve retention. 

“The asylum and protection group is committed to improving every aspect of the asylum casework process and welcomes the ICIBI’s proposals on how to further improve, to ensure asylum claims are handled appropriately, in a way that takes account of the particular sensitivities and protection needs of those who claim asylum,” the department said.

“The Home Office is pleased the report identifies examples of good practice within the existing asylum system and recognises the scale of future changes needed to ensure it is best placed to deal with future challenges, and accepts the challenges presented.”

 

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