Home Office shambles is clearing

Head of CMS Cameron McKenna's Immigration and Nationality Team Julia Onslow-Cole finds things can only get better at the Passport Office.

After the well-publicised difficulties at the Home Office and Passport Office in recent weeks, Jack Straw must be glad of his summer break. Despite continuing press reports to the contrary, I believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that the Government is taking significant measures to ease the problems.

The announcement that 600 extra staff are being recruited, and an extra u120m will be spent over the next three years, is welcome news, and demonstrates the Government's desire to alleviate the situation.

However, this is mainly targeted towards asylum applications, reported to be at an all-time high, and may have little effect on applications from the business community.

Everyone who deals with immigration applications will be fully aware of the problems at Croydon, but it may be helpful to consider the history of the situation.

The Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate deals with all immigration applications apart from work permits. These are dealt with by the Department for Education and Employment in Sheffield.

The Home Office has often been described as Dickensian, but no one imagined that the service could deteriorate from Dickensian to plainly pre-historic levels.

The previous government examined the situation at the Home Office and decided to implement a radical move from a system where there were several hundred thousand files to a completely paperless system.

It entered into a contract with a third party to undertake an enormous computerisation programme. The programme was much larger and more difficult to implement than had been envisaged and none of the initial deadlines were met.

To compound matters considerably, there was a substantial increase in asylum applications, placing an inordinate burden on the already overloaded system.

There was a severe reduction in the Home Office workforce in anticipation of the new system. When the system did not work they did not have experienced staff to deal with applications.

In addition to this problem, the Home Office had to vacate its building, Lunar House, and move hundreds of thousands of files to another building in Croydon.

The movement of these files turned into a farce.

Thousands of them were not labelled properly and several hundred thousand were put into an underground car park which was then declared unsafe, delaying their retrieval. Generally, the move caused enormous disruption. Not only were staff spending their time moving offices, but many files were lost.

In an effort to gain control of the situation, the Home Office decided to close down all telephone access to caseworkers dealing with immigration applications and route all phone calls through to a telephone enquiry line. During its first week of operation, this telephone line received more than 200,000 phone calls. Six per cent were answered.

Several thousand files were lost and distraught people who needed to travel for urgent business or compassionate reasons started to queue outside the Home Office building in Croydon.

Although the situation has improved considerably over the last 12 weeks, there remains little room for complacency.

During the height of the Home Office problems, I received a telephone call from a Russian client ringing from Moscow. He wanted to know what the situation was with his application.

I had to explain to him that his Home Office file was in an underground car park which had been sealed off because of toxic fumes.

Things have definitely improved since then. I believe that there is a real willingness and anxiety on the part of the Government to sort out the problems. The Government is particularly aware of the contribution that the expatriate community makes to the economy.

The current situation is that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate will stay at its new home in the Whitgift Centre for approximately two years while the old building is refurbished.

The Home Office is taking steps to deal with a backlog of approximately 22,000 cases in storage as well as trying to keep up to date with current cases. There is also a correspondence linking unit for letters which cannot be linked to files.

At its height, there were 21,000 outstanding pieces of mail. By May, these had been reduced to 7,000. There is a fast track postal service for legal representatives which is generally working well.

It has been a very difficult few months but there is cause for optimism and Jack Straw should not be too afraid of returning to work after the summer recess.

Julia Onslow-Cole is a partner and head of CMS Cameron McKenna's immigration and nationality team. She is also the chair of the International Bar Association's Immigration & Nationality Committee, a member and assessor of the Law Society's Immigration Law Panel and secretary of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association.