Immigration complaints (Part I)
By Robert Thomas (University of Manchester)
This is the first of three blogs that consider immigration complaints, an important topic of administrative justice. This first blog will examine the key trends, features, and criticisms of immigration complaints. The second blog will examine complaint outcomes and the importance of government collecting data on complaint outcomes. The third blog will present some new data on immigration detention complaints acquired through an FOI request, and considers the scope for improving the handling of immigration complaints.
Guidance and trends in immigration complaint-handling
First, we can highlight formal departmental policies, complaint categorisation, and service standards. The Home Office’s complaints guidance defines a complaint as ‘any expression of dissatisfaction that needs a response about the service we provide, or about the professional conduct of our staff and contractors’. It categorises complaints as follows:
- Service complaints: complaints about the way that the department and/ or its contractors work that relate to the actual service provided and/ or the day-to-day operational policies behind them. Examples include: delay; administrative/ process errors; poor communication; provision of poor, misleading, inadequate or incorrect advice; lost documents; queues; damage; and poor customer care.
- Minor misconduct complaints: complaints about the professional conduct of staff and/ or contractors which are not serious enough to warrant a formal investigation, but if substantiated, would normally lead to discipline. Examples include: incivility; brusqueness; isolated instances of bad language; an officer’s refusal to identify themselves when asked; poor attitude, e.g. being unhelpful, inattentive or obstructive.
- Serious misconduct complaints: complaints against any unprofessional behaviour which, if substantiated, could lead to serious or gross misconduct proceedings. Examples include: criminal assault; sexual assault; theft; fraud or corruption; racism or other discrimination; unfair treatment (e.g. harassment); other unprofessional conduct.
Service and minor misconduct complaints are handled by correspondence teams within the department’s three immigration directorates, which are: Border Force; UK Visas & Immigration; and Immigration Enforcement. Serious misconduct complaints are investigated separately by the Home Office’s Professional Standards Unit. Complaints are to be handled within the Home Office’s service standards, which are:
- Service complaints: 95 per cent to be completed within 20 working days.
- Minor misconduct complaints: 95 per cent to be completed within 20 working days.
- Serious misconduct complaints: 95 per cent to be completed within 12 weeks.
Now we can look at volumes. Figure 1 shows the number of complaints received as regards UK Visas & Immigration customer service operations. This directorate handles immigration casework. As figure 1 shows, the vast majority of immigration complaints are service complaints, with much lower levels of minor and serious conduct complaints. There is an obvious downswing and upswing in line with the pandemic.
Figure 2 shows the proportion of complaints completed within service standards. The timeliness of service and minor complaints has varied significantly over time. By contrast performance on serious misconduct complaints, which are far fewer in number, has been relatively good. With service complaints, the volumes matter. The issues here include staff shortages within UK Visas & Immigration, high turnover of staff and the need to move staff around in response to backlogs and pressures as regards in immigration caseworking, a major area of activity for the department.
It is not just individual complaints. There is also a high volume of correspondence from MPs on behalf of their constituents. Figure 3 shows the amount of written correspondence to the department from MPs. The service standards for MP correspondence is: 95 per cent to be completed within a timescale of 20 working days.
Figure 4 shows the number and proportion of unanswered MP correspondence that is outstanding and outside of the service standard that 95 per cent be completed within a timescale of 20 working days. It is quite apparent that with COVID, a substantial amount of outstanding MP correspondence has built up; about 60 per cent are now outside service standard.
Looking at figures 2 and 4, it is apparent that the timeliness of complaint handling and MP correspondence is variable. This is just the nature of a large scale, high pressure system that has to process millions of casework decisions per year quickly and in which there are millions of interactions between people and the department which then generate a variety of complaints. In his diaries, former MP, Chris Mullin, recounted a conversation with Mike O’Brien (Minister of State for Immigration, 1997-99):
Mike talked about the chaos he discovered at the Immigration and Nationality Department when he was at the Home Office. Once, on a visit to IND, he opened a cupboard and found it full of unanswered mail, having just been assured there were no more outstanding letters. A hapless junior official was summoned. His explanation? “We put them there so that the Minister wouldn’t see them”.
At a very basic level, the problem is just another illustration of perhaps the central tension of administrative justice. If we want better redress, then it needs to be paid for. Even in normal times, administrative justice activities, complaint-handling and so on, come very, very low down HM Treasury’s list of priorities. But, we are not in normal times; there have been enormous increases in public borrowing during the pandemic, which seem likely to shape public spending choices – potentially for decades to come.
Criticisms of Home Office complaint-handling
What then of the substance of complaint-handling? The department’s handling of complaints has long been criticised for its variable quality and ineffectiveness. In 1985, the then House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office (HC 277 1984-85) noted that the complaints procedure ‘cannot be effective unless it is generally regarded as fair, which is not the case at present’.
Since then, more information has come to light through other inquiries and reports published by the Home Affairs Committee and the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. Shortcomings with immigrant complaints have included: a fragmented and inefficient complaints process; a defensive culture, with complaints being seen as a nuisance; a lack of complaint-handling skills; no agreed standards and effective procedures for complaints; and not using complaints as a basis for improvement. The continual refrain has been the need for improvement. There has been some positive developments. For instance, the consideration of complaints by different units within the department from that which prompted the complaint provides a degree of internal separation. However, complaint-handlers, although separated internally, are likely to be influenced by the department’s culture and approach. In 2013, the then Chief Inspector described immigration complaint-handling as ‘shockingly poor’ (HAC, The Work of the UK Border Agency (July-September 2012) HC 792 (2012-13) , quoting the oral evidence of John Vine, Chief Inspector).
A 2016 inspection identified various weaknesses. The department had regularly failed to respond to complaints within 20 working days. Written responses to complaints often failed to indicate whether the complaint had been upheld and what the complainant could then do. Quality assurance of complaint handling was limited. While Border service complaints were investigated thoroughly, some minor misconduct complaints were not and all reasonable lines of enquiry were not pursued. The recording and reporting of complaints was variable. Recommendations have included: a fundamental review of complaints guidance; better handling of complaints; quality assurance checks to ensure that complaints guidance is applied; responding to complaints are made within the 20 working days service standard, or adopting a more realistic timescale; proper recording and tracking complaints and details of investigations and findings; ensure all minor misconduct complaints are thoroughly and fairly investigated; and ownership of complaint-handling by an appropriately resourced and dedicated team.
A subsequent report in 2020 found some improvements, but emphasised that the department needed to do better (ICIBI, A Re-inspection of the Complaints Handling Process (2017); ICIBI, An Inspection of the Handling of Complaints and MP’s Correspondence by the Home Office Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) (2020)). Clearer ‘ownership’ of complaints across a fragmented system was needed to ensure consistency and high quality responses to complaints and that high-risk and cross-cutting issues could be quickly identified and addressed. Further, there was a need for more transparency about complaints received and the lessons learned and changes made following complaints. The Chief Inspector’s focus has largely been on procedural aspects of complaint-handling rather than substantive quality. The Chief Inspector cannot consider individual complaints.
This is what reviews and reports has uncovered. By contrast, the Home Office itself has noted that it is ‘committed to take any complaints made seriously. Every complaint is investigated thoroughly by a specially trained officer at the appropriate level of authority.’
This raises the question: what are the outcome of immigration complaints? This will be considered in the second blog.
This blog is part of a wider piece of work on administrative law and immigration administration, which will be published as: R Thomas, Administrative Law in Action: Immigration Administration (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2022).