Immigration chiefs were accused yesterday by MPs of presiding over "complete chaos" when the bungled introduction of a new student visa regime led to an influx of migrants to Britain to work illegally.
The most senior civil servant at the Home Office confessed the department had been taken by surprise by the "surge" of foreign nationals using the system as a backdoor route to a job in the UK.
The exchanges came ahead of today's appearance before MPs of Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, to explain how three-hour-long queues were allowed to build up last month at Heathrow Airport.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) expressed astonishment that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) brought in the new student visa system in 2009 before proper controls had been put in place to detect bogus applicants.
The public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, estimated that up to 50,000 people could have entered the country to work rather than study in the first year of operation.
Visas issued to students and their dependents rose by one-third to 313,000 during that period.
The former Labour minister, Margaret Hodge, the PAC's chairman, said: "It is one of the most depressing reports that I have read in terms of policy implementation."
She added: "There was complete chaos. There was an increase of one-third in applicants and an increase in the number of people using the system to work rather than go to study."
Lin Homer, the former chief executive of UKBA, said: "It didn't feel like that when we were doing it... [the system] has proved very useful."
But Dame Helen Ghosh, the Home Office Permanent Secretary, admitted that the surge in applications "was indeed a surprise to us".
Mrs Hodge said the £263m cost of the visa system amounted to around £1,000 per applicant. She said: "You are spending a lot of money and I can't understand what you are spending it on."
MPs also challenged the officials on the frequency with which the regulations governing immigration altered.
But Dame Helen told them: "I can't possibly give a commitment that if there was an abuse we identified we wouldn't change the policy."
Jackie Doyle-Price, the Tory MP for Thurrock, said: "On the doorstep, lack of confidence in the immigration system is the most regularly reported issue I find."
- More about:
- Civil Service