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The Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the Immigration Appellate Authority have increased the speed of the asylum decision-making process but further improvements can be made, with consequent savings in support and accommodation costs The Immigration and Nationality Directorate also needs to make further improvements to the quality of decision-making, according to a report to Parliament by the head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn.

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The Directorate has substantially reduced the number of undecided applications at the initial stage from a peak of over 120,000 at the end of 1999 to 24,500 by the end of 2003, and a further fall to 18,100 at the end of March 2004. The fall reflects the high volume of decisions made by the Directorate and has been assisted by a downturn in the number of applications since the beginning of 2003, which is due, in part, to a range of measures taken by the Directorate. Also, between October and December 2003, 80 per cent of asylum applications were decided within two months compared to 61 per cent of relevant cases in 2001-02. Around 9 per cent of applications now receive an initial decision within a few days using the Directorate’s fast track procedures which are suited to more straightforward cases.

The Directorate’s drive, however, to reduce processing times needs to work in step with improvements in the quality of initial decision-making. The consideration of applications can be complex. Many applicants do not possess any form of identification, some deliberately, whilst some, with harrowing stories, need to be treated with special sensitivity. Caseworkers, in our view, receive less training than they should. Pressure to meet processing targets, the complexity of some cases and a lack of clear ownership within the process for decisions once the case is passed onto the next stage lead to some issues having to be resolved unnecessarily at the appeal stage. With around three-quarters of applicants refused asylum at the initial stage appealing against the decision, around 80 per cent unsuccessfully, significant costs are incurred in adjudicators addressing weaknesses in the handling of cases before decision and in paying support and accommodation costs until the appeal is heard.

Lessons can be learned from the large number of applications in the asylum system between 1999 and 2003. The longer applications are left waiting for a final decision the greater the cost to the taxpayer in support and accommodation costs. The Directorate considers that it would not have been able to expand its capacity to the extent required to clear applications as they came in, due to practical limits on recruiting and training staff and building up support infrastructure. The Appellate Authority had expanded its capacity in stages. In its view, limits on the availability of judiciary and interpreters – without compromising standards – would not have allowed the required capacity to be achieved in one go. There is an important lesson for public bodies in general. Decisions over what capacity to plan for and maintain, and the associated costs, need to take account of the potential additional costs that may be incurred on other budgets, in this case support and accommodation costs, should administrative capacity fall short of the incoming volume of work.

When the Directorate did scale up the rate at which applications were processed in 2000 and 2001, this was reduced later in 2001 to enable some caseworkers to be transferred to asylum removals work. We estimate that if the rate at which cases were being processed at the initial stage had been maintained at 2001 rates into 2002, possibly for no more than six months, additional costs of up to £200 million could have been avoided. The Directorate judged that its priority lay with building up its removals capacity. In its view, if caseworkers had been retained on clearing initial decisions the costs saved would have been offset by the additional costs of not removing failed asylum applicants. The NAO believes that there was a need to adequately resource both the applications and removals stages to minimise the support incurred and reduce uncertainty for genuine applicants.

Over the last two years, the Directorate and Appellate Authority have sought to work together more effectively to target investment at key bottlenecks in the system, at both the initial decision stage, at appeal, and more recently at the removal stage. As the number of undecided applications approaches normal work-in-progress levels, the Directorate and Appellate Authority may decide to redeploy some of their existing resources to other priorities. Future management of processing capacity, including staff, equipment and office space will, however, need to remain sufficiently flexible to respond promptly should world events again lead to a rise in the number of applications. The Directorate and Appellate Authority consider that they have learned from experience, and have sought to build in flexibility and improve resilience to better manage an increase in the numbers of asylum applications, for example by using a better balanced judicial complement using fixed term and salaried part-time contracts.

Today’s report identifies scope to further reduce the time taken to process applications, thereby leading to potential savings, but without necessarily reducing the time spent by caseworkers considering each application. The measures suggested include making better use of the capacity that is already available in the fast track process, and redesigning elements of the initial decision stage to reduce the “down-time” normally allowed when processing applications, saving an estimated £21 million for example. And a number of specific actions are recommended for strengthening the quality of initial decision-making, including better training for staff and for strengthening the Directorate’s quality assurance arrangements.

"Quick and soundly-based decisions on asylum applications reduce the cost to the taxpayer and uncertainty for the applicant. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate and Immigration Appellate Authority have been successful in making decisions on new applications much more quickly, hence my belief that had the Directorate maintained, for example, the capacity achieved in 2001 further substantial savings could have been made."

"The complex challenges faced by the Directorate’s caseworkers should not be underestimated, however. Improved recruitment, more extensive training and more specialisation in dealing with particular types of cases would improve the quality of decision-making by the Directorate. Higher quality decision-making at the initial stage might save the taxpayer money and make it easier to return failed applicants more quickly to their country of origin."

Sir John Bourn


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