A little too reminiscent of Cromwell’s New Model Army, perhaps, the New Asylum Model is supposed to herald a new age of high quality Home Office asylum decision making. The Home Office already seem to have stopped referring to it as being New, but as with ‘New Labour’ it may prove difficult to shake the label.
Anyway, the quality of Home Office decision making at the Asylum Casework Directorate and its predecessors is historically absolutely dire. The historic appeal success rate of over 20% only really hints at the problems. It might sound daft to the layman, but even where asylum cases were refused by the Home Office, they were usually refused for wrong, unsustainable reasons. The ‘reasons’ for refusal letters were just awful. Wrong name, wrong country, more references to piles of pants than was strictly necessary, ridiculous assumptions about how normal people behave in abnormal situations. I had one client from a war torn African state who was told he must have accidentally drunk the acid that left him with fused lips, mouth and throat and multiple operations by a plastic surgeon. What, thinking it was mint tea?
Belatedly, the Home Office somehow came to realise how much this was all costing. Although the poor quality decision makers were cheap (bottom grade civil servants, some of them, with minimum qualifications of two GCSEs), the actual cost was very high. The appeals process is legally aided and therefore involves lawyers, who have an annoying habit of insisting on time to gather evidence, medical and country expert reports and generally preparing cases. It takes time, and during this time the lawyers get paid and the asylum seekers receive welfare support. More expensive civil servants are required to defend the decisions (known as Home Office Presenting Officers) and Immigration Judges are pretty expensive too.
The Home Office was also getting a lot of criticism from organisations such as UNHCR, Asylum Aid and the Asylum Rights Campaign. And from the Home Affairs Select Committee. While this criticism might have motivated some of the civil servants who hatched the plan for the New Asylum Model, it is difficult to imagine ministers being too bothered, and the civil servants responsible for implementing the plan were always open at stakeholder meetings about the need for the project to be cost-neutral.
The solution, they decided, was to ‘front load’ the decision making process, putting more resources into the early stages of the process in order to reduce costs further down the line. This would also make removals easier as keeping track of asylum seekers would be more practical, and it would enable faster grants of asylum to genuine refugees. The key concept was the idea of case ownership by a named caseworker at the Home Office who would be responsible for all aspects of the management of an asylum case, from the initial decision to the appeal hearing, including what the Home Office call ‘contact management’, i.e. managing housing, welfare and periodically checking whether the asylum seeker has done a runner.
The model for the New Asylum Model was, slightly alarmingly, the fast track process at Harmondsworth immigration detention centre, also now in place at Colnbrook and Yarl’s Wood centres. Lawyers and campaign groups have been highly critical of this process, which is simply too fast for cases to have a proper hearing. However, the idea of a ‘case owner’ was pioneered here and was judged by the Home Office to be successful. Case ownership was tried in a non-detention context at Liverpool in 2005 and was initially referred to as the North West Pilot. This morphed one night into the North West Project, and finally became the New Asylum Model. NAM, as it has inevitably become known, being as civil servants and immigration lawyers do love their acronyms, is now up and running in new offices on Fleet Street in Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, central and west London (not Croydon, where the old asylum caseworkers were based) and Solihull.
There was an unusual degree of consultation as the process was being developed. Several stakeholder group meetings were held, workshops were organised, the Legal Services Commission was brought in, criticisms were heeded. A couple of people were recruited from outside the Home Office to add credibility and oversee quality: Evan Ruth and Jane Aspden, both formerly of the Refugee Legal Centre and UNHCR. They insisted on a thorough training programme to try and tackle the culture of disbelief at the Home Office and also insisted on examinations as part of the training. 280 staff were recruited, many of whom were completely new to the Home Office. Only around 40 of the old HOPOs are reputed to have applied for the new jobs. The staff were then put through a 52 day training course, designed and written with external input from a company called Skillbase, which in turn bought in expertise from a specialist immigration and asylum training company called HJT Training.
Has it made any difference? Sorry, but it’s too early to tell. A post with some first impressions will follow, though, and in the meantime you can always check out the rather propaganda-ish New Asylum Model newsletters the Home Office itself publishes.