Author :Jamie Grierson and Sarah Marsh
A wave of devastating incidents of vital personal papers being lost in immigration cases has led to renewed calls for the Home Office to overhaul the way it handles documents.
The problem has been so severe that at its peak the department routinely mislaid thousands of files, a former senior immigration official said.
In the wake of the coverage of the Windrush scandal, the Guardian has spoken to people whose immigration status has been left in limbo after documents submitted to the Home Office have vanished.
Despite this the Home Office has never made a voluntarily self-referral to the data protection watchdog over lost papers.
The Home Office is now facing questions from the UK’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, in the light of the Guardian’s reporting.
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the influential home affairs select committee, said: “This is a question of basic competence. Too often we have heard about lost documents and simple errors by the Home Office that can have deeply damaging consequences for people’s lives.
“The Home Affairs committee and the independent inspectorate have warned the Home Office repeatedly to improve the competency and accuracy of the immigration system.
“It’s crucial they get the basics right. We’ve even recommended digitising and changing the system so people don’t have to submit so many original documents in the first place, given the risk of loss and delay.
“But ultimately this is linked to weaknesses in the Home Office casework system that urgently need to be sorted out. The immigration system is far too important a public service for these kinds of mistakes to be acceptable, or for repeated warnings from the inspectorate and the select committee to be ignored.”
The Guardian has heard cases ranging from lost birth certificates, children’s passports going missing, education certificates disappearing and appeal bundles misplaced.
Among them are a 36-year-old woman from a post-Soviet territory whose passport was lost by the Home Office, ultimately leaving her destitute for 10 years. One woman has been fighting removal for years, despite meeting requirements to remain in the UK and having lived here for over 21 years. Her application was refused and documents she sent were never returned. The situation has left her suffering significant financial losses.
There have been numerous references to missing files in reports by the borders and immigration inspectorate and MPs have raised the issue in parliament.
Stephen Doughty MP, who sits on the home affairs select committee, raised the issue back in 2013, said: “The Home Office has a shocking history of losing documents from passports to identity papers which I flagged up as early as 2013.
“In more recent times, increased delays in processing cases has also meant people often being without key documents for months or even years on end.”
The former borders and immigration inspector, John Vine, previously told MPs the issue of lost documents features “in every inspection”. In one inspection, 150 boxes of post, including correspondence from applicants, MPs and their legal representatives, were discovered in a room in the immigration office in Liverpool.
Campaigners have said the problem of lost documents has been compounded by data protection legislation that came into power on Friday that gives the Home Office sweeping exemptions that will limit anyone seeking information about their immigration status in future.
The changes brought in by the data protection bill deprive applicants of a reliable means of obtaining files about themselves from the department through what are known as subject access requests.
Charities and campaigners have warned they are each dealing with hundreds of cases in which original documents such as birth certificates, payslips and marriage certificates have gone missing.
Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) charity, said: “We would have had hundreds of these cases. That’s just us. We’re one of the larger organisations, but we’re still small compared to the vast ocean of people who require assistance.”
Singh has experienced lost paperwork himself when applying for a spouse visa for his wife. “We see it every other day,” he said. “It’s even happened to me.”
After submitting the application, they contacted the Home Office and were told the application was lost. A week later, the couple were told the visa application had been rejected because certain documents had not been submitted.
“That was pretty horrendous,” Singh said. “A lot of those were original documents, we had no idea how we were going to get replacements for them. Things like proof of our income, original payslips, original share certificates, original marriage certificate, birth certificates, university certificates, all of that stuff.”
Singh wrote about his case in a blogpost and ultimately the visa was granted.
“We have clients where it’s much more significant in terms of the immediate impact of it,” he said. “You’ve got people who are facing removal and the Home Office can’t trace a file and because someone at immigration enforcement hasn’t been able to look at those documents, someone’s removal window can be brought forward or just not cancelled in the way the law said it should be.
These are the most vulnerable cases, Singh said. “If there’s misplaced documents, it can be life or death or the difference between remaining in the UK and being completely uprooted. Once you’re out of the country, it’s very difficult to appeal.”
Bethan Lant, casework manager at Praxis Community Projects, which works with vulnerable migrants, said the applicants she works with have been left “distressed”.
“They’re very anxious about the application in the first place,” she said. “And now the body that is responsible for looking after their applications has now lost the documents. It causes a lot of anxiety.”
“We get lots of clients who are reluctant to send their original documents to the Home Office because everyone knows a story of someone who has had a document lost.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office takes its data protection responsibilities extremely seriously and have robust safeguards in place to make sure we handle the millions of documents we receive in the appropriate way.
“When documentation goes missing we make every effort to locate it. Each case should be reported to Home Office Security who will assess whether the Information Commissioner’s Office should be informed.”
But the ICO said this has never previously happened but a change in the law means self-reporting in certain cases is now compulsory. An ICO spokesperson said: “Under previous data protection law, there was no formal obligation to report data breaches but that has changed under new legislation, from 25 May breaches are notifiable if they affect the rights and freedoms of individuals. We’ll be contacting the Home Office and making enquiries.”
“We have no self-reported incidents from the Home Office in relation to loss of documents.”