£22m immigration fines uncollected

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A catalogue of failures by the Immigration Service, including £22m in uncollected penalties against airlines and ferry companies caught bringing illegal immigrants into the UK, was disclosed by the National Audit Office in a report published yesterday.

Parliament's public spending watchdog says outdated practices lead to immigration officers failing to detect some illegal immigrants at ports and airports, while causing unnecessary delay to many legitimate visitors and residents.

Intelligence files are kept on paper and updated by hand daily and hold only about 2 percent of information available. Shift patterns at airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick meant queues forming during understaffed mornings while in the less busy evening staff were under-occupied.

The report - the first comprehensive review of a service that deals with 57 million people passing through passport control each year - says it is impossible to discover how many illegal immigrants are entering the country. ut a doubling of immigration enforcement staff led only to a 50 per cent increase in the number of offenders caught - to just over 10,000. That will be seen as undermining some politicians' claim that the UK is being "flooded".

The report says it costs about 12 times as much to find and deport an illegal immigrant inside the country as to detect him or her at a port of entry. That puts "a premium on identifying potential offenders at the arrivals control".

The report says that because immigration detention centres are overflowing, some potential immigration offenders are wrongly given temporary permission to enter the country until their cases are decided.

At the same time it criticises the poor conditions in which detainees are held and lack of information given to them. In Manchester for example there are no windows, some are held in police cells and some with criminals in overcrowded jails.

To curb illegal immigration, the Government in 1987 imposed a £2,000 charge on airlines and ferry companies bringing in passengers without proper documents, a move criticised by refugee groups because those fleeing persecution often have to travel on false papers. The report said that of the £62m charges levied, only £40m had been collected by the end of 1993. It said debt recovery had been hampered by inadequate information systems and insufficient staffing, although it accepted that procedures had recently been tightened.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that since the NAO did its investigation, things had changed. Of £75m owed, the Immigration Service had collected or had under offer £62m, leaving £13m outstanding.

n Entry into the United Kingdom. HMSO, PO ox 276, London SW8 5DT. £11.65.