More than 2,000 immigrants, including many who want to join husbands or wives already in Britain, have been waiting up to 10 years to learn whether they will be allowed to stay in this country because of a bureaucratic blunder.
John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration, raised further doubts over the UK Border Agency’s ability to cope in a report published today.
He expressed his shock over the discovery of a box of applications shipped by the UKBA between its offices in Croydon and Sheffield and then left to collect dust. Officials found details of 2,100 cases, some dating back to 2003. Mr Vine also found that a backlog of people refused the right to remain in Britain to join a spouse now stands at 14,000, with many waiting up to a year for their applications to be heard.
The latest delays were “completely unacceptable”, he said, and he expected UKBA to deal with them as a “matter of urgency”. He added: “Applicants have been waiting for considerable periods of time for their cases to be resolved. This situation causes anxiety, uncertainty and frustration.”
"Delays in deciding applications also mean that enforcement action is likely to be more difficult in the event that the case is ultimately refused.
"This is because the individual will have been in the UK for a number of years and may have developed a family or private life."
UKBA staff are not consistently applying the "income support threshold" rule to applicants who want to stay in the UK due to marriage, the inspector found.
In one case, an applicant applied to stay in Britain because he was married to a person settled in the country who had a disposable income of around £200 per month - far below the minimum income support level.
The inspector also found that the percentage of allowed appeals in marriage cases was too high at 53% between April 2011 and February 2012.
Mr Vine said: "The agency needs to improve the quality of its initial decision-making to avoid the cost of unnecessary legal challenges and to reduce the proportion of allowed appeals where its refusal decisions are challenged."
The inspector's report also highlighted problems with the agency failing to take into account the rights of children when refusing further leave in the UK.
Mr Vine said children's rights were given specific consideration in one out of 21 examined cases of applicants refused leave in the UK, while the impact on UK-based children was not considered in any of the 39 overseas cases examined.
In a separate report on customs offences, the inspector found that the policy of using swift removal as an alternative to prosecution was not available in a large proportion of immigration cases.
Some 73% of the individuals covered by the investigation claimed asylum, meaning they could not be removed from the UK until decisions had been made.
Some 36% of cases remained in the UK awaiting the outcome of an appeal or a decision on their initial claim and nine individuals were found to be waiting nearly a year without a decision.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The Agency is taking action to deal with historic backlogs and has a transformation plan that will put the Agency on a surer footing.
"This group of people have already been refused but are trying to circumvent the appeals process by requesting an informal 'reconsideration'.
"We've changed the rules to make clear that those not happy with the original decision should re-apply or appeal and if they choose not to, they should leave the UK voluntarily. We are contacting them to make sure they do this, but if they refuse we will enforce their removal."
Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "I am astonished that the chief inspector has found yet another backlog to add to the backlog of a third of a million cases that the Select Committee discovered in its last report.
"It is inexcusable that there is a backlog of people who have been refused the right to stay and have no right to appeal but are waiting for cases to be reconsidered.
"Why is UKBA the only agency in the country which is unable to respond to people's letters in a quick and efficient way?"
He added: "These backlogs are a disease that has infected our immigration policy. What is more, as the backlog increases each month it is clear that this disease is spreading. The way the Agency operates requires urgent surgery of the most profound kind."
Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant attacked Home Secretary Theresa May's management of the UKBA.
He said: "In recent months we have learnt of files left unopened, letters left unanswered, hundreds of original decisions being overturned on appeal and applicants coming to Britain who did not prove they could support themselves.
"It all adds up to delay, confusion and a massive waste of taxpayers' money.