With permission Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the use of DNA evidence in immigration applications.
Many thousands of immigration applications are received every year that involve people applying to come to, or remain in, the UK on the basis of a family relationship with somebody who is already here. If an individual does not have sufficient evidence to show that they are related to someone in the UK, they sometimes choose to take a DNA test to prove the relationship. Officials then consider this evidence as part of their claim. Very often, it will be to the advantage of the applicant because it can establish family relationships beyond doubt where the other available evidence is sometimes insufficient.
The provision of DNA evidence must, however, be entirely voluntary. At the end of June, it was brought to our attention that there were some immigration cases where the provision of DNA evidence had been made a requirement for the issuance of a visa or the granting of leave to remain, and not simply a request. Such demands are unacceptable. I want to take this opportunity to apologise to those affected by this practice. In this context, the law states that the provision of DNA evidence should always be voluntary and never mandatory. My predecessor made that absolutely clear when she brought in changes in 2014.
Once we were made aware of the issue, we immediately commissioned an urgent internal review, which I am publishing today. Copies will be available in the Library. My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister will also be writing today to the Home Affairs Committee to outline the key points of the review and to provide a copy. The review covered the legal aspects of DNA use, policy and guidance, caseworking practice and correspondence with applicants, as well as oversight arrangements relating to the use of DNA. It outlines a number of areas in which guidance was unclear or wrong. It also outlines areas of operational practice where DNA evidence was improperly required and provides some initial information on the possible scale of the issue. The review makes a number of recommendations about how to address the root causes within the border, immigration and citizenship system that led to this operational practice.
This review is not, however, a conclusion to the work. The numbers and information in the report have been collected at pace and still need to be fully assured and are subject to change. Further work is needed to ascertain the full scope of the issue. Regardless of the number of people affected, one case is still one too many, and I am determined to get to the bottom of how and why in some cases people could be compelled to supply DNA evidence in the first place.
The majority of cases identified so far have been part of Operation Fugal, which, according to the report, started in April 2016 to address patterns of fraud in some specific family and human rights immigration applications. Letters sent as part of that operation incorrectly stated that the applicant must provide DNA evidence and that not providing such information without a reasonable excuse would lead to the application being refused on suitability grounds. It has been reported that 83 applications had been refused at the time the report was written, and seven of those seem to have been refused on suitability grounds due solely to a failure to provide DNA evidence. A further six appear to have been refused on suitability grounds for failure to provide DNA evidence, although that was not the sole reason.
In addition to Operation Fugal, we have identified an improper approach to the use of DNA evidence in two further areas. The first relates to adult dependent relatives of Gurkhas. In January 2015, a scheme was expanded to allow adult dependent children of Gurkhas who were discharged before 1997 to settle in the UK. Published guidance stated that DNA evidence may be required and that applications may be refused if that evidence was not provided without a reasonable excuse within four weeks. That published guidance was wrong and has now been updated. The report suggests that 51 cases were identified where DNA evidence was requested from applicants at their own cost. At the time the report was written, we were aware of four cases from the same family unit whose application was refused solely because they did not provide DNA evidence. Those decisions have now been corrected.
The second case relates to Afghan nationals. In 2013, applications to resettle in the UK from Afghan nationals who were formerly employed by the UK Government began to be accepted. The terms of the scheme included mandatory DNA testing for family groups, paid for by the UK Government. Current investigations suggest that no one making an application under that scheme was refused because they did not take a DNA test. None the less, mandatory testing should not have been part of the scheme, and that requirement has now been removed.
Let me be clear: across our immigration system, no one should have faced a demand to supply DNA evidence, and no one should have been penalised for not providing it. In particular, I extend my apologies to those Gurkhas and Afghans who have been affected. The two schemes I have described were put in place to help the families of those who have served to keep our country safe, and I am sorry that demands were made of them that never should have been made.
I reassure the House that I am taking action to correct the situation. First, I have given clear instructions that officials must not seek DNA evidence on a mandatory basis in any immigration case. Secondly, I have set up a new taskforce so that anyone who feels that their case may have been influenced in any way by an inappropriate demand for DNA testing can get advice and support. Thirdly, we will be looking to reimburse any individual who has suffered financial loss because we required DNA evidence when we should not have done so. Fourthly, we will continue closely to examine whether this approach might have been taken in any other parts of the immigration system. So far we know that three cohorts have been affected, but we must investigate whether there are any more. I will be asking for independent assurance on everything we do as we establish the facts. Finally, I know that the immigration system is operated by many highly committed people, but we must ensure that the structures and processes they use are fit for the modern world and fit for the new immigration system that we will be bringing in after we leave the European Union.
I will review more broadly our structures and processes to ensure that they deliver a system in a way that is fair and humane. I will now consider what form that review will take, but my starting point is that it would be helpful to have independent oversight. The review will also need to build on the lessons learned from the Wendy Williams review, and I will want Wendy to play a full part in this wider exercise.
When I became Home Secretary, I made clear that I would be prepared to take action to put right any wrongs as and when I became aware of them. Today, I promise the House that I will get to the bottom of what has gone on in relation to DNA evidence, and I will build an immigration system that provides control but that is also fair, humane and fully compliant with the law.