The UK Border Agency: after four years, a car crash in slow motion finally comes to a stop

The agency that's caused so much misery and cruelty is to be restructured, but without proper resources its successor won't be able to avoid the same mistakes.

If you want to understand the misery the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has created in its four troubled years, you don’t want to start with the really juicy stuff - the acts of unwarranted violence against people it’s attempted to boot out of the country, the detention of rape victims, the numerous alleged cases of those deported, only to be tortured. Ignore that for now.

No, the devil’s in the more mundane cases. Like that of Emily Deane, 29, who’s been told she’ll be sent back to her native Philippines before the end of the month, forcing her to decide whether to take her one-year-old daughter, Lucy, with her, or leave her child with her husband.

Deane married Brian, from Preston, in the United Arab Emirates. They returned to the UK in September, and had intended to remain for no more than six months, but Brian lost his sales job with the medical company that employed him in the UAE.

Due to bad legal advice, they’d applied for the wrong type of visa, so began applying for Deane to receive permanent residency to remain in the country. But now they were trapped in the proverbial Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. Sceptical immigration officials began questioning whether the couple really had a baby together. On Monday, they 
were told their application had been rejected.

Brian told the Lancashire Evening Post: “My wife already has a visa to visit the UK which expires soon and I am told the main reason is because we have applied for a permanent visa from within the UK. I can only assume they have thrown all this other nonsense at us about the marriage not being valid and saying we "claim" to have a daughter to back themselves up. If they don’t believe I have a daughter, I’ll take her along to meet them – and take a dirty nappy with me.”

Craig Colville, 31, from Wales, married Crystal, from Vancouver, last year. Crystal applied to change her visa. That the UKBA rejected her was a shock - but more surprising was the reason: “Your spouse (Craig) does not hold settled status, is not a British Citizen and is not a person with refugee leave/humanitarian protection." Craig was born in St Asaph in Wales, works in Mold and has lived in Chester for just under a year.

The letter allowed the couple to appeal, but the Border Agency replied saying the appeal had been quashed because the Colvilles missed the deadline. In this new letter, there was a new deadline as the Agency had failed to take the weekends into account. Craig told the Denbighshire Free Press: "The Border Agency are still holding Crystal's passport, which means she can't return home to see her family. Her brother is quadraplegic and she hasn't seen him in two years."

I could keep going with these ludicrous, cruel little examples of families torn apart by bureaucratic incompetence, but I expect you’re getting the picture.

The UK Border Agency was, of course, a body born of chaos. As the Guardian recently pointed out, “The stunning thing is that some people still stuck in the backlog of 310,000 cases that sealed UKBA's death warrant are actually a direct legacy from that [late 1990s] breakdown in the system.” A botched computerisation saw its backlog of cases soar into the hundreds of thousands, while it struggled to deal with the move from a paper to a computer-based system.

In 2006 the Home Secretary Charles Clarke lost his job because his department had lost track of released foreign national prisoners. Something had to be done, and the result was the creation of the Border and Immigration Agency - and then in 2008, UKBA, following a merger with UK visas and customs staff.

The problem was that all this rejigging never solved the fundamental problems of creaking systems and an insurmountable backlog. The new body, now at arm’s length and less accountable to parliamentary scrutiny, was shambolic and, as Theresa May would this week conclude, “secretive and defensive”.

Nowhere was this clearer than in its use of outsourcing. In the great game of providing jobs for the boys, UKBA was in a league of its own. Like many government entities, it felt the safest option was to give contracts to giant corporations, regardless of expertise or know-how. So this month we learned that G4S, which has no previous experience of providing social housing, is struggling to provide housing for asylum seekers. One of the firm's subcontractors has already resigned because it is not up to the task, while two others have “expressed concerns” about being able to provide the requisite services.

But incompetence is one thing - cruelty quite another. The fact the new body was kept at arm’s length lead Theresa May to conclude it had created a "closed, secretive and defensive" culture. Staff from sub-contractor Reliance were transporting Roseline Akhalu when she ended up pissing all over herself because she wasn't allowed to use a toilet. Staff from Tascor - which superceded Reliance - allegedly beat Marius Betondi and broke his nose during a failed deportation attempt. That was one of thousands of distressing cases, the product of a system in chaos.

The failure to prosecute G4S staff over the death of Jimmy Mubenga has been described as “perverse” by the former Chief Inspector of Prisons. Just as it failed to protect victims of torture, so the system failed to protect victims of slavery. The right-wing Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found a litany of flaws in UKBA's procedures and concluded that “too often the CSJ has been told that UKBA involvement in the . . .  process acts as a major barrier to victims [of slavery] to make a referral.”

We have been told about the restructuring plans. But restructuring last time round only made the mess worse, because the root causes of the problem weren’t addressed.

As Andy Jennings of the PCS told BBC Breakfast this morning: “This has been a car crash in slow motion, there have been endemic failures for a number of years because there has not been enough staff to do the job. The line given by Theresa May ignores the fundamental issues.”

The work of Mark Sedwell, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, in trying to stop the car crash can only be applauded. But without proper resources, the misery, incompetence and cruelty will only continue.

David Cameron talks to UKBA workers, who are not suspected of any misconduct, at Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.