Mr Wurzle and much else about Home Office incompetence should embarrass Blunkett
The Times – April 1, 2004
The closer you look at the Home Office, the more chaotic it turns out to be. So much so, that poor David Blunkett cannot even work out from which direction he is next going to get it in the neck.
March began with the House of Lords savaging him for being too tough on asylum-seekers. He wanted to remove their right of appeal, a cornerstone of English law; an idea called, variously, “mean-spirited and reactionary” and “an affront to the rule of law”. But no sooner had he caved in and taken the offending clause off for a rethink than he was attacked again. An entirely different scandal about Bulgarian and Romanian immigration scams broke, in which the hapless Home Secretary and his sidekick, Beverley Hughes, found themselves being disparaged as too soft.
But Mr Blunkett should not feel bewildered. There is no real contradiction here. Both hoo-hahs were symptoms of the same disease: popular anger at the perception that Britain is being “flooded” with immigrants, and the rank incompetence of the Home Office. This demoralised, disorganised body is trying to do the impossible: deal with a big flow of immigration without a proper policy.
After so unexpectedly being labelled a softie, Mr Blunkett will no doubt now be looking for some way of re-establishing himself as a hard man. Since he has got to think of something to replace the troublesome clause of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Bill, the obvious fix would be to cobble together a new, extra-harsh, substitute.
He should resist the temptation. Fiddling around any more with the appeal provisions — the last stage of the asylum system — is not the answer. However much the Home Office protests that having two tiers of appeals “provides people with opportunities to abuse the system . . . to cause delay or abscond”, the real problem is at the beginning of the process, when asylum applications are made to the Home Office itself.
It is the fact that the Home Office lets months and years go by between initial claim and interview, between interview and decision by the Secretary of State, and — much later — between the end of the appeals process and deportation, that really gives the dishonest or desperate their chance to escape into the underground economy.
The decision-making process within the Home Office is haphazard, allowing plenty of scope for confusion and for legal appeal. Applicants must start by completing a 19-page form, in English only. The replies on the form are then checked against Home Office information on countries of origin — which is often incomplete, out of date or in conflict with Foreign and Commonwealth Office assessments of how dangerous a country is. At the first interview, the applicant often has no legal advice or adviser. While rightly sceptical about the stories that they are told, caseworkers often seem ignorant of what would constitute proof that a candidate has suffered torture.
Refusal letters, or court documents are sent out containing howlers so mind-boggling that no self-respecting government body could be happy with them. In one shown to me, from a first appeal in Birmingham last summer, the long Sri Lankan name of the appellant had clearly proved too much for a typist who had substituted it with the words “Mr Wurzle in his pants” — grounds all by itself for a second appeal.
The result of such poor practice is that 20 per cent of rejected cases go to appeal, where 20 per cent of the decisions re-examined are overturned. Each of those wrong decisions could have caused someone to be sent back to a homeland where he risked torture or death — a prospect that makes it worth getting the facts straight.
Yet, perhaps most disturbing of all, in 30 per cent of appeals the Home Office doesn’t bother to send along a “presenting officer” to put its own best case for throwing out an appellant. Chaos indeed.
The impression Mr Blunkett creates is that he is defeated by the problem and trying to deflect popular rage about asylum-seekers from the Home Office on to any other institution. The Bill now under discussion is the third asylum Bill since the millennium. If the Government wants to ensure that fewer asylum cases go to appeal, there are better ways to do so than by limiting the individual’s right of recourse to the courts. What about improving training for Home Office caseworkers, ensuring that guidelines are followed, and providing more legal advice and better interpreters? Better still, what about an asylum and immigration policy that can be enforced?