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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British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.