Leading article: An amnesty would be sensible

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A report from the Commons Home Affairs select committee suggests that there has been a "silent amnesty" to reduce the backlog of cases of refugees whose status has been left unresolved for years. Since 2006, when the Labour Home Secretary John Reid declared that the UK Border Agency was "not fit for purpose" that much maligned organisation has been working its way through 450,000 unresolved cases.

Just over 161,000 were told they could stay, 38,000 were deported, and 129,000 cases were classed as "errors". The statistic that drew the greatest condemnation from MPs is that 74,500 cases remained on file because officials do not where the people involved are. They may be in the UK, or they may have left, or died. The figure of 161,000 was considered by the MPs to be so high that it amounted to an amnesty, even if that word was never uttered by those responsible.

The supposed reason for avoiding the word is that it would be an invitation to people all over the world to flood into the UK, as if people suffering persecution from the world's nastier dictatorships are assiduous of the words used by Home Office ministers. The true reason is that it would take a very bold politician to risk the outcry that the anti-immigrant lobby would whip up at the first sign of softening of immigration rules.

But if there was a "silent amnesty" it was a sensible way to get out of the hole created by near breakdown of the Border Agency. It was not the fault of people who fled from persecution to the UK and who have waited for years to have their position clarified, that the agency was "not fit for purpose".

If the Government is to have an effective policy it must have an effective agency to carry it out. But like so many other public bodies, the Border Agency has been targeted in the treasury's relentless search for savings. It has not had a permanent head since the last chief executive changed jobs five months ago. Last November, it was announced that the agency's staff is to be cut by 5,000, out of 24,000 during this Parliament. This begs the answer whether the slimmed down agency will be "fit for purpose" four years hence.

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