So, the ill-starred UK Border Agency is to be abolished. Few if any will be sorry to see it go. But the sordid business of immigration control will go on and, as the Permanent Secretary, Mark Sedwell, wrote to staff:
“Most of us will still be doing the same job in the same place with the same colleagues for the same boss and with the same mission…”
Is abolition a case of ‘here comes the new boss, same as the old boss’ (for non Who fans, try plus ça change or le roi est mort, vive le roi!), will it make things better, or is it a further example of Maoist permanent revolution likely to unsettle struggling and demoralised civil servants yet further? For example, last week was supposed to see the replacement for the New Asylum Model with the Asylum Operating Model. Decision makers were to be downgraded to EO level from HEO level and there was to be an effective presumption of fast tracking of asylum claims. There has been no public announcement and it is impossible to know whether the change has occurred or been postponed.
The performance of the UK Border Agency has been so woeful that it is hard to imagine matters getting much worse. In this respect, the abolition of UKBA can be seen as a victory for accountability and in particular the highly critical series of reports by John Vine, the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, and of the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Committee. Customer service for even basic applications continues to be appalling despite the astronomical fees charged (which went up again on 6 April, incidentally). The case work backlog will apparently take 24 years to clear at current rates – although Fullfact.org postulate that a recent increase in the backlog suggests that might be a conservative estimate. There is no sign that quality of decisions has improved as appeal success rates are persistently high. Employers, businesses and universities are revolting, complaining at the spools of red tape that force them into the arms of we immigration lawyers. UK Border Agency staff seem if anything more demoralised than when branded not fit for purpose six years ago now.
Splitting out enforcement from visa customer service to my mind makes sense. The ‘keep em out, kick em out’ mentality would have no place in a genuinely customer focussed organisation, and it would be far easier to be customer focussed when not obsessing directly about enforcement issues. Similarly, if immigration control must be enforced then it makes sense to have an organisation focussed on that end which is separate to customer service and policy making. Many of us will be concerned about the effect this will have on our clients, but from the perspective of enforcing current rules that is, I suppose, no bad thing.
In short, the change offers the possibility of a more intelligent, customer focussed immigration service that does not perceive itself as a modern Thin Red Line. That possibility will probably prove illusory, but it had become impossible to conceive of real improvement in the UK Border Agency as it stood.
The end of the UK Border Agency can be likened to the demise of the unlamented Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. They were supposed to be shiny Modern and New institutions which would at a stroke instantly do away with the antiquated cultures of the institutions they replaced. Both were creations of a government that seemed to think that organisational restructuring and rebranding could solve bureaucratic problems in the same way it had solved the old Labour Party’s political problems. The difference is, though, that politics is about perception and good government is about grind: the daily business of managing departments, making good decisions, improving people’s lives and being efficient. Both the AIT and UKBA have dismally failed and the old time-tested ways have been resurrected. A two tier appeal structure was re-introduced for immigration appeals and immigration decision making has been brought back under direct Ministerial control. While current government immigration policy is unspeakably awful, it is arguable that implementation is actually an improvement on the smoke and mirrors of the previous lot.