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Editorial: Our immigration system is still far from fit for purpose

The UK Border Agency remains grossly inadequate - this service could do much better

When the then Home Secretary, John Reid,  declared our immigration operation “not fit for purpose”, British taxpayers might reasonably have hoped that such a damning judgement would spur the “wholesale transformation” he recommended.  Seven years after his remarks, however, that has not happened.

MPs have found that the total backlog of unresolved immigration cases remains at more than 300,000, and that many of the ills at the centre of the earlier complaints persist. Almost the only area that has registered any improvement, the Commons Home Affairs Committee found, was the ingenuity with which officials disguised their lamentable performance. 

No one would contend that policing Britain’s borders is simple, or that mistakes will never be made. But from the queues that still routinely build up at ports and airports to the casual appearance and manner of many border officials, the continuing failure to re-establish routine exit controls, the snail’s pace at which paperwork is handled, and the propensity for key documents to be lost, the UK Border Agency remains grossly inadequate. This is a service that could and should do much better.

For visitors, the UKBA is the first face of the country they encounter. It should be efficient, professional and competent, and until these qualities are more in evidence, John Reid’s characterisation deserves to stick.

MPs were taken to task yesterday for their specific criticism of Lin Homer, the former head of the agency, on the grounds that she left more than a year ago to head HMRC. Their point, though, is that while at the UKBA she “repeatedly misled” them about the agency’s performance, and that, rather than being called to account for the agency’s continuing faults,  she was subsequently promoted.

That someone deemed to have failed at one high-profile government job was elevated to another, with seemingly so few questions asked, is eloquent testimony to what is wrong with the workings of our state bureaucracy. MPs are right to seek accountability in public servants. Moving on, even upwards, should not automatically clean the slate.