Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Immigration chaos 'won't ever be fixed': UK's new immigration boss can't rule out further backlog of unprocessed cases

The boss of Britain’s new immigration body yesterday said its chaotic visa processing system will never be fixed.  Sarah Rapson, who started as director general of UK Visas and Immigration 54 days ago, believes she will 'never finish the job'.

She told MPs she could not rule out finding more backlogs of unprocessed cases in the system she had inherited. 

‘Are we ever going to say about this really quite difficult organisation, with a set of complex things it has to do, ‘it is perfect’? I don’t think so,’ she told the Home Affairs Select Committee.  ‘My intention is to make some improvements. I would be grateful for the committee’s advice on where we should prioritise. But will we ever finish the job? No.’

She told the committee the agency was currently processing 190,000 cases.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz replied: ‘You do realise you’re giving us new figures we didn’t know about. These are astonishing figures.’

Miss Rapson said she would not have taken the job if she was not ‘slightly optimistic’ she could make a difference.  But she added: ‘There are lots of people in the organisation who have got ideas about how we can make things better. Is it ever going to be fixed? I answered that question from you earlier, I don’t think so.’

The body was formed earlier this year when the UK Border Agency was split in two – with Miss Rapson’s department focusing on the visa system and another authority dealing with immigration law enforcement.  Both are directly under ministers’ control.

Announcing the UKBA’s demise in March this year, Home Secretary Theresa May said she wanted to end its ‘closed, secretive and defensive culture’ after years of failure. It followed a series of damning inspections and reports exposing horrendous backlogs in asylum and immigration cases.

Earlier this year, the Home Affairs Select Committee warned it would take the UKBA 24 years to clear a backlog of asylum and immigration cases the size of the population of Iceland.

Last year the Government also hived off the UK Border Force, which is responsible for frontline controls at air, sea and rail ports, from the wider UKBA.  That followed a scandal over border controls when it emerged thousands of people had been admitted to Britain without having been checked against a watch list.

Yesterday, officials downplayed the significance of the 190,000 figure given by Miss Rapson, pointing out it had been supplied to the committee before.

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘We receive and process thousands of applications every day and so there will always be a large number of cases on our systems.

‘This year we have reduced outstanding applications substantially in the vast majority of routes, improved in-country processing times and maintained out of country service standards.’

Meanwhile, Labour could introduce targets to drive up the number of immigrants entering the UK, it emerged last night.

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna suggested the party wanted to see more foreign students coming to Britain.

He told the left-leaning IPPR think-tank he was ‘certainly open’ to the idea of a ‘clear numerical target for growth’ in student visas.

The comments risk undermining Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has openly criticised the last government’s ‘open doors’ policy.

Tory MP Nick De Bois said Labour ‘still don’t get it’, while Sir Andrew Green of Migrationwatch said Mr Umunna had got his facts ‘completely wrong’.


Australia: Row over asylum health costs as Victoria leads revolt

THE Gillard government is facing a states' revolt over the soaring cost of healthcare for asylum-seekers and refugees, with the influx costing tens of millions of dollars and straining an already overloaded system.

The three most populous states want the commonwealth to be held accountable for fast-rising health costs incurred, due to the rising tide of community-based asylum-seekers and refugees since the Rudd government dumped the Pacific Solution five years ago.

The ministerial Standing Council on Health is set to demand the Gillard government share the burden of increased costs for basic services, including immunisations for asylum-seekers, mental health and dental services, interpreters and stronger support for foreigners seeking access to the primary care system.

Victoria - with the backing of NSW and Queensland - will on Friday demand a better funding deal for the states to eliminate cost-shifting and for Canberra to accept responsibility for the surge in asylum-seekers.

Victoria has conducted a detailed assessment of how the states are being forced to pick up extra health costs, when it argues that border protection is a federal issue.

Victorian Health Minister David Davis said yesterday his state was prepared to help asylum-seekers and refugees but the commonwealth needed to contribute to the cost, which was leading to further pressure on already strained budgets.

"If they are coming, you can't put your head in the sand," Mr Davis said. "You've got to get ahead of the game."

Health ministers will debate what to do to immediately help new arrivals who have been released into the community, a move aimed at easing pressures on the detention centre network, which has been unable to cope with the influx of more than 43,000 irregular marine arrivals in the past 4 1/2 years.

Paris Aristotle, a member of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, has backed the push by the three states, warning that many foreigners are being left stranded by the current system and the lack of community support.

Mr Aristotle said while Australia had a generally strong record on helping people, the large numbers had exposed many services. "Those pressures are playing out in the forms of people being destitute, people being unable to sustain themselves or their families adequately," Mr Aristotle told The Australian.

The ministers will debate whether all asylum-seekers not in detention should be eligible for Medicare.

They will also discuss forcing the commonwealth to ensure eligibility for healthcare funding regardless of their stage in the immigration queue.

"Any services, such as public hospital care, provided by state and territory health systems, which would normally be paid for through Medicare, should be reimbursed by the commonwealth on a fee-for-service basis," Victoria will argue.

It will say the commonwealth currently only funds healthcare for asylum-seekers in a form of detention and for health services under Medicare. But asylum-seekers are eligible for almost all state health and aged services, and the states are picking up the bill for hearing, dental and immunisation.

Victoria acknowledges that most asylum-seekers are eligible for Medicare.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor said: "Primary healthcare for refugees who are permanent visa holders and those in the community on bridging visas are covered by Medicare. Using Medicare . . . represents the most efficient method of providing these health services to asylum-seekers in the community, reducing the burden on the states and territories."

Queensland Health Minister Lawrence Springborg has backed Victoria's position, saying he raised the issue last year in the context of health services and costs affecting northern Queensland.

A spokeswoman for NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner said she was looking forward to the discussion: "NSW will be participating in the debate at the Standing Council on Health to ensure there is sufficient funding to cover the increased cost of healthcare for refugees."

The cost to the states of dealing with the extra community-based asylum-seekers and refugees is likely to near $100 million.

Victoria, which makes up a quarter of the national economy, allocated more than $22m extra to help deal with the issue in this year's budget.

The Victorian paper estimates the number of asylum-seekers by boat and living in the community on bridging visas was 20,000 nationally in the nine months to last month and 6600 in Victoria.


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