Informative new academic research by Robert Thomas, Professor of Public Law at the University of Manchester
Blog series by the UK Administrative Justice Institute considers the Home Office’s handling of immigration complaints
12 August 2021
The UK Administrative Justice Institute (UKAJI) has this week published an informative three-part blog series looking at the Home Office's handling of immigration complaints.
The blog series is authored by Robert Thomas, Professor of Public Law at the University of Manchester, and its forms part of a wider body of work on administrative law and immigration administration, which will be published as a book next year (see details here).
Complaints are defined by the Home Office as "any expression of dissatisfaction that needs a response about the service we provide, or about the professional conduct of our staff and contractors."
Part one of the UKAJI blog series, available here, examines the key trends, features, and criticisms of immigration complaints.
Professor Thomas notes that immigration complaints are a high-volume area of complaints, with the vast majority being service complaints. These relate to the actual service provided by the Home Office or the operational policies behind them, and includes complaints about the following: delay; administrative/ process errors; poor communication; provision of poor, misleading, inadequate or incorrect advice; lost documents; queues; damage; and poor customer care.
Far fewer in number are misconduct complaints, which are complaints about the professional conduct of Home Office staff or contractors, and which are categorised as either minor misconduct or serious misconduct.
Thomas looks at the timeliness of complaint handling (found to be good for the relatively few serious misconduct complaints, but variable for service complaints), and summarises some of the inquiries and reports that have examined, and criticised, the Home Office's performance.
He notes of the various criticisms identified: "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, however, been some positive developments identified, such as complaints being considered by a different unit within the Home Office to the one that generated the complaint in order to provide a degree of internal separation.
The second blog post in the series examines the outcomes of complaints and the collection of data about outcomes.
As the Home Office does not publicly release any information about individual complaint investigations, the principal source of information about the outcomes of complaints comes from those that have been escalated to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). Professor Thomas highlights that from these "there is a considerable amount of evidence of serious mistakes, including some disgraceful instances of maladministration which are then compounded by poor quality initial complaint-handling."
Attention is drawn to the recent, highly critical PHSO investigation finding that a serious injustice had been done to the late Rupert Everett of the Windrush generation (see our piece on EIN here).
In the absence of any published official data on the outcome of immigration complaints, Thomas submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Home Office. The data could not be supplied as the Home Office's systems do not enable the data to be collected in a readily accessible way. The cost to supply it would have exceeded the designated £600 limit specified in the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004.
While the lack of data is not deliberate concealment by the Home Office, Professor Thomas complains: "What is really necessary is for government departments to have the right systems and processes in place by which they can effectively manage and learn from complaints. But if the department's systems do not even collect the relevant data about complaint outcomes, then it is difficult to see how it can make the best of them and learn for the future; without data, complaints outcomes cannot be measured let alone managed. This results in an undesirable and avoidable lack of transparency both inside and outside the department. Within the department, it is difficult to see how senior managers and Ministers can properly understand complaint outcomes if there is no systematic data. It is difficult to see how senior boards can understand what is at happening at the front line, the types of problems that people who interact with the department are experiencing and what can be done about them."
He continues: "This lack of data on complaints outcomes is wholly inadequate. There is a legitimate public interest in knowing the outcome of complaints to public bodies. The outcomes of complaints should be properly recorded centrally. It should not be necessary to have to resort to FOI requests. This type of data should ordinarily be released online as part of the department's transparency data. This really should be standard practice across government."
The third and final blog post looks at data on complaints made by detainees in immigration detention centres, and considers the scope for improving the handling of immigration complaints.
Thomas notes that while the Home Office does not collect data on the outcome of 'ordinary' immigration complaints, it does for complaints made by people in immigration detention and this data was able to be supplied in response to an FOI request.
The data, available here, shows that 24% of service complaints made by immigration detainees between 2015 and 2020 were substantiated or partially substantiated, as were 12% of minor misconduct complaints and 10% of serious misconduct complaints.
Thomas says: "[I]t is important to bear in mind that serious misconduct complaints are defined by the Home Office as including any unprofessional behaviour by its officers which, if substantiated, could lead to serious or gross misconduct proceedings. These are very serious types of complaints and include some very bad types of behaviours from officials and contractors: criminal assault; sexual assault; theft; fraud or corruption; racism or other discrimination; unfair treatment (e.g. harassment); and other unprofessional conduct."
He adds: "Having 10 per cent of serious misconduct complaints made by immigration detainees that were then substantiated and partially substantiated is significantly higher proportion that what should be the case. It is not possible to compare with the outcomes with non-detention complaints because, as explained in the second blog, there is no data on the outcomes of those complaints. But what we can say is that it would be wholly wrong simply to assume that having 'only' one out of ten such complaints upheld is not too bad. These complaints are about unacceptable serious unprofessional misconduct by the state and its agents."
Looking to the future, Thomas speculates that various recent developments post-Windrush could lead to an improvement in the Home Office's handling of immigration complaints.
He notes, for example, that it now seems there will be a second-tier adjudicator/examiner for immigration complaints to provide independent assurance and enable people to escalate their complaint if they are dissatisfied with its initial handling.
The Home Office has also been engaging with the PHSO's complaint standards framework, which Thomas strongly suspects is a direct response to Windrush.
"[P]erhaps this is the best occasion for improving immigration complaint-handling that there has been. Overall, there are positive and encouraging signs of improvement, but there is a long way to go. Establishing a credible and authoritative second-tier complaint-handling body would be a major step forward. Ultimately, good complaint-handling comes down to embedding the right culture and ethos about the value and benefit of complaints. Let's see what happens – but don't hold your breath either", he concludes.