Report exposes need for better immigration data

10 May 2012

The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration John Vine today hit the headlines after he criticised the time passengers were having to wait to clear border control at Heathrow airport.

A report released by his office today highlighted problems in the data collected by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) on the length of queues at the airport.

It said that the way the UKBA had recorded its statistics "did not always provide a true reflection of the volume of passengers in the hall during the hourly period."

As Full Fact reported last week, these figures have caused some confusion. Immigration Minister Damian Green told the House of Commons on 30 April that the maximum waiting time at Heathrow during the recent peak was an hour and a half, only to concede four days later that they could have in fact been double that.

The root of the problem was that, while the best available UKBA data did suggest that waiting times had not risen any higher that one hour and 31 minutes, other figures provided by the airport operator BAA appeared to show much higher waits in immigration halls.

And the Chief Inspector's report notes today that the BAA monitoring might have more accurately captured the varying length of queues. For example, it notes: "We found that [BAA] took measurements every 15 minutes as opposed to the hourly measurement taken by the Agency."

This isn't the first time that the quality and availability of UK Border Agency data has been called into question.

In November 2011 in response to the debates over a relaxation of border controls this summer, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary both referenced UKBA statistics which were unavailable to the public, and the accuracy of which was therefore uncertain.

Full Fact has also found this problem with statistics for student visas, both in September 2010 and March 2011 where, although the press had been briefed with the information, it was not published.

This makes it very difficult for the public to have confidence in the information it is given on immigration, an issue that it frequently ranks as one of the most important facing the country.

These concerns have also been voiced by the Home Affairs Select Committee, who said in a report released earlier this year that:

"figures used by the UK Border 'Agency' can be, at best, described as confusing and at worst, misleading…It is difficult to see how senior management and ministers can be confident that they know what is going on if the 'Agency' cannot be precise in the information it provides to this committee."

The UK Border Agency — as the body tasked with monitoring and controlling our borders — has an effective monopoly on the production of much of the data we use to understand immigration.

Given the public interest in the issue, it isn't surprising that ministers should wish to use this information in public. When they do so however, they need to be sure that the information given is accurate and, where possible, publicly available. Too often, this isn't the case.

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