I’ve been following with some interest the establishment of the snappily-entitled Office of the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency (OCIUKBA to its friends). Like many initiatives to establish supposedly greater accountability for the Home Office, there has been some scepticism about this new institution. The early signs are rather promising, though.
OCIUKBA is supposed to be an entirely independent organisation. There are now around 40 staff working there, many of whom have been recruited from UKBA but also from other parts of the civil service and various inspectorates. The Chief Inspector himself, a very genial (too genial?) man called John Vine, was previously a police force chief inspector.
So far there have been several inspections and two reports published. The annual report is due in October some time and should make interesting reading. The two reports that have been published were on a without-warning inspections of the Asylum Screening Unit at Liverpool and a pre-warned visit to the Entry Clearance operation at Rome.
The Liverpool ASU report doesn’t mention the two OCIUKBA inspectors that were apparently bitten by insects from the infested carpets and doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the mother with a young baby that checked in at 11.15am but had been overlooked until the counters closed at around 5pm and had no accommodation to go to. When the OCIUKBA team brought this to the attention of the UKBA staff, there was apparently an adequate but far from ideal panicked response, followed by excuses about this being exceptional, never happened before, etc etc. The material that did make it into the report was very critical of the layout and material conditions at the ASU, particularly about the lack of privacy available to people claiming asylum, but was mainly complementary about the professionalism of the staff. It is a little worrying that even with inspectors literally looking over their shoulders some of the UKBA staff were reported to act in an unprofessional manner – it rather suggests they don’t actually know how to behave properly. This was a small minority, though.
The Rome report is perhaps a little less interesting, but still worth taking a look. The inspection team took a sample of 100 files. The report is fairly positive, but highlights an embarrassing failure to grant visas for a legitimate invitation-only sporting event run by the British army. The report includes a short comment about the introduction of the Points Based System having ‘unintended consequences’ – a perfectly well qualified and highly skilled individual had been turned down under Tier 1 but the ECO said the application would have been allowed under the more flexible previous Highly Skilled Migrant Programme.
UKBA have also published responses to the inspections. A number of quick changes are being made at Liverpool ASU, including a ‘deep clean’ and replacement of some of the knackered old chairs, but proper improvements to deal with privacy issues will wait until 2011.
The big change is that UKBA staff now know that they might be inspected without warning at any time. The Liverpool ASU inspection is said to have sent shockwaves through the organisation. Some proper accountability can only be a good thing and should motivate UKBA to self-improve.