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Entry clearance decision making: a global review


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John Vine

The Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, John Vine, has published a global review of entry clearance decision making. The findings are strongly critical in important respects. The sample size was nearly 1,500 case files from every entry clearance post, so the review certainly was a global one. Vine states as follows in his forward to the report:

While there were no decision quality issues revealed in 761 cases, I found there were errors affecting decision quality in 515 cases. In a further 201 cases the lack of evidence retained on file made it impossible for me to assess whether the correct decision had been made…

In 483 cases, representing 33% of the sample examined, I found errors in the way evidence was assessed by entry clearance officers; and in 135 cases, or 9% of the sample, I consider that those errors potentially undermined the decision to refuse entry clearance.

The general quality of decision-making can and must be improved. The principal method of ensuring quality at present is the Entry Clearance Manager (ECM) review. It is therefore disappointing to find poor quality decision-making in 144 cases where an ECM review had supposedly been carried out.

This supports my findings in other reports. The ECM review is not working effectively in its present form. The Agency needs to strengthen its quality assurance process to ensure that decision quality is improved consistently across all of its visa posts.

I was particularly concerned to find a significant proportion of cases where applicants were refused entry clearance for failing to provide information which they could not have been aware of at the time of submitting their applications. This was unfair. I found this in 235 cases, representing 16% of the sample. In 82 of these cases I consider that the errors in respect of assessment of evidence undermined the basis for the decision to refuse entry clearance.

On a more positive note, he also found that customer service targets on application processing times and the time taken to respond to complaints were being met in the vast majority of cases, that additional checks were being more widely used and that the quality of refusal notices was much improved.

Only three recommendations were made, but they were important ones:

We recommend that the UK Border Agency:

  • Ensures that when applicants have followed published guidance, but Entry Clearance officers require further information to make a decision, applicants are given an opportunity to provide this.
  • Acts immediately to ensure that supporting documents relevant to entry clearance decisions are retained on file, to provide a transparent decision-making process.
  • Strengthens the quality-assurance methods currently used by Entry Clearance Managers, to create a more effective and robust decision-making process.

In summary, the processing speed is fast but at the expense of quality and fairness of decision making.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.


4 Responses

  1. A good starting point would be for the UKBA to employ ECOs not as tick-box monkeys but as properly trained staff who have a fundamental understanding of the legislation governing their job.

    Unfortunately, the perception of many ECOs is that it doesn’t matter if they come to the wrong decision: there’s always an appeal/JR to fall back upon if the applicant feels aggrieved. But that is to put the cart before the horse, and most egregious of all is that there’s no sanction upon an individual ECO for having come to an unequivocally ‘wrong’ decision. Instead we get Mr. Vine’s generalised platitudes of the best way to proceed.

  2. Some of the case reviews detailed in the report make interesting reading. Having considered them, there appears to be something else going on.
    ECO has decided in advance not to issue the visa and raises the threshold of proof too high.
    ECO is too suspicious and makes up “excuses” not to issue a visa, when he should.

    The above and the lack of ECM quality control suggests to me that numbers of successful applications has been decided in advance by him, and hence that’s why he doesn’t properly check those application refusals.

    “tick-box monkeys” – Pay peanuts..?

  3. There’s certainly more than an element of truth in the suggestion that a given ECM dictates to his/her staff the regime under which they will operate: some adopt a more ‘rigid’ approach than others.

    There is also a huge amount of peer pressure amongst the ECOs themselves. Within any one visa section you will have a ‘refusal king’ (or queen) who basks in the ‘glory’ of having refused more applications than their colleagues, all of whom then strive to emulate the king’s refusal stats: after all, you wouldn’t want to be known as a soft-touch amongst your workmates.

    However, that one might refuse x per cent of applications is no measure of the sustainability of those decisions.

    The tick-box approach to deciding visa applications is something that has insidiously crept in over the past 10 years-or-so. In the interests of saving money, UKBA management has determined that their staff don’t need to be aware of the finer nuances of the law, and instead should tick boxes on a proforma, thereby obviating any direct consideration of both the Immigration Rules and the balance of probabilities. In short, the individual ECO’s ability to exercise his/her own knowledge, interpretation, judgment, common sense and discretion has been overridden by a deliberate management policy to make as many decisions as feasible within the shortest timeframe, hence Mr. Vine’s conclusion that visa sections live up to customer service standards.

  4. There needs to be administrative law providing that ECOs (and the UKBA in country) are obliged to name missing documents and give applicants a period in which to procure them before being allowed to refuse for that reason. (Works in some European countries.)

    There also needs to be law providing for not just minimal compensation for decisions which were blatantly/obviously incorrect. The courts should define “blatantly/obviously”. Examples might be where an applicant missed a wedding or funeral because a visit visa was unreasonably refused, or where spouses have remained separated/remained outside the UK awaiting appeal even though it was clear that the application should have been approved.

    That way there would be a vested interest in maximising correct decisions in accordance with the law rather than tolerating refusal kings/queens. At the same time processing targets should be binding from the point when all documents are submitted. After all many fees are up to double the actual processing cost, so the applicant should be able to expect a certain level of service.