UK

The UKBA's astonishingly troubled history

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The immigration system "is not fit for purpose", said the home secretary.

Not the current one, Theresa May, but one of her many Labour predecessors, John Reid, in 2006.

And yet seven years on, it looks like we're back in the same place.

The UK's migration system has been astonishingly troubled for almost 20 years.

Accused of incompetence and beset with massive organisational difficulties, it is the most ridiculed part of central government - a tainted brand that has a real impact on people who just want to get on with their lives.

Immigration was once a busy, but fairly banal part of the Home Office. But when immigration took off in the 1990s, the system wasn't geared up to cope.

And slowly, but surely, the problems began to mount.

Some critics say the problems began when departure gate checks were scrapped in two stages between 1994 and 1998. Almost two decades on, the UK still does not have a completely comprehensive and single electronic record of movements across the border.

The first real problem noticed by the public was the creaking asylum system. The then Prime Minister Tony Blair was under so much pressure he pledged in 2003 to halve the number of applicants.

And that pledge became one of many ministerial attempts to win a game of bureaucratic whack-a-mole: hammering one immigration problem and hoping that another two wouldn't emerge elsewhere.

Foreign prisoners

The crunch moment came in 2006 when then-Home Secretary Charles Clarke lost his job because his department had lost track of released foreign national prisoners.

It was a devastating blow to what public trust there was in the immigration system.

His replacement, John Reid, announced there would be radical change and the eventual result was the UK Border Agency, as BBC News reported at the time.

This arm's-length body brought together the teams managing immigration applications with the law enforcement parts of Revenue and Customs.

Ministers set the policy and the agency was charged with delivering it. The separation also had political benefit because the home secretary was no longer directly responsible for any disasters.

The UKBA, under its chief Lin Homer, had a mission statement to protect borders, tackle immigration crime and to take fast and fair decisions. Did it achieve any of those?

In its scathing report published on Monday, the Commons Home Affairs Committee accused the agency of providing, time and again, inaccurate or misleading information and bungling its casework.

It was specifically critical of Ms Homer who, in turn, has rejected the allegations made by MPs.

Backlogs mounted as the agency shuffled resources around to deal with emerging crises.

Inspectors and MPs currently calculate the total backlog of unresolved or disputed cases at 312,000 - although the true figure could be different.

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Media captionHome Secretary Theresa May: "The agency has been a troubled organisation"

Part of the UKBA's problem was that it was never, strictly speaking, a wholly separate executive agency.

Many immigration decisions must involve ministers because they involve fine judgements on the law and policy.

That blurred boundary became a public row that threatened the home secretary herself when she suspended borders chief Brodie Clark. He was accused of relaxing controls without authority. They eventually settled the dispute out of court.

So where now?

Labour has accused the coalition of worsening the situation inside the UKBA by forcing it to take a 43% funding cut since the general election and by closing thousands of open files where it can't trace the particular applicant.

But Mrs May's decision to bring immigration back in house reverses Labour's earlier decision as a failure in itself.

There will be two new commands ultimately answerable to the minister. One will deal with visas and applications and another will take care of immigration enforcement. The UK Border Force will continue to operate as a third command at the ports.

Mrs May thinks the new organisations will do the job better because they will be smaller and more focused. She says she wants to ensure they are transparent rather than part of a "closed, secretive and defensive culture".

But the biggest challenge, other than the backlogs, is how to modernise the UKBA's systems. There have been occasions at the Croydon headquarters when the system has shut down, leaving hundreds of applicants stranded.

Paperwork - including applicants' passports - can go missing for months, leaving people unable to travel.

Can the new agencies work? Given the record of failures, Mrs May knows the UKBA's successors have to be more than a rebranding exercise.