Immigration chiefs were last night accused of misleading Parliament after a “devastating” report exposed a catalogue of incompetence and inefficiency at the UK Border Agency (UKBA).
Efforts to trace tens of thousands of asylum seekers were abandoned after minimal efforts to find them and despite promises to MPs that “exhaustive checks” would be carried out, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration concluded.
Last night the Commons home affairs select committee said it was summoning Rob Whiteman, the UKBA chief executive, to “check every fact and figure he has given us”.
The UKBA operation was so inept that more than 150 boxes contained letters from asylum applicants, their lawyers and MPs piled up in an office in Liverpool without even being opened. At one point the agency had accumulated a backlog of more than 100,000 letters that it had not read.
The chief inspector, John Vine, said errors led to “lengthy and distressing” delays for asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, as they waited for their cases to be heard. In some cases people qualified to remain in Britain simply because of the length of time it took for their applications to be processed.
He also raised concerns that full security checks were not carried out on applicants, raising the possibility that terror suspects could have been lost in the system.
Mr Vine said the agency was “quickly overwhelmed” as it examined 147,000 unresolved asylum applications, blaming a “lack of governance” for an “extremely disjointed and inadequately planned” operation.
He said cases were placed in an archive – meaning efforts to track people down had effectively been abandoned - without security checks being carried out and without trying to trace them through other Government departments or banks.
Mr Vine said: “This was unacceptable and at odds with the assurances given to the home affairs select committee that 124,000 cases were only archived after 'exhaustive checks' to trace the applicant had been made.“
He added: “Through the inefficiency and delay of the agency, those who would otherwise have faced removal will have accrued rights to remain in the UK.”
Senior UKBA managers received £25,000 in bonuses this year, although Mr Whiteman turned down the hand-out to which he was entitled.
Keith Vaz, the select committee chairman, urged them to give the money back and added: “This is a devastating report into the way in which the UKBA administrates the immigration system.
“It appears senior officials of the UKBA have misled the committee about facts and figures. To mislead a Committee of the House is an extremely serious matter.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The UKBA has now reviewed the cases within the controlled archive and undertaken a robust process to trace those we can find evidence are still in the UK and, where appropriate, remove them.”
He said: “We have known for some time that UKBA is a troubled organisation with a poor record of delivery. Turning the agency around will take time but we are making progress.”