A friend of mine once worked in a university department organising visas for their foreign students. She and her colleague used to play a little game with the UK Border Agency (UKBA). They would call at the same time and ask the exact same question. And every time they received different answers.
It is hard to conceive of a more ineffective, opaque, foolhardy or incompetent organisation than UKBA. As a source at the Home Office once whispered to me, the staff sent to UKBA are some of the least talented in the civil service. But it is not just a failure of talent, it is also a failure of organisation, funding and basic decency.
Under the current rate of progress it will take 24 years to clear the 312,726-strong backlog of immigration cases in UKBA's system. We have an immigration backlog the size of the population of Iceland. It has been supplying parliament with incorrect information since 2006, both about the size of the backlog and the current checks being undertaken on applicants.
That's the one thing you can credit UKBA with. It treats MPs on select committees with the same abject disrespect it shows towards immigrants.
Now Theresa May has split it in two, with one arm being given the law enforcement functions and the other handling visas and immigration and reporting directly to her.
She's done this before. In fact it was last year, when she split the border role from the main body, with the appallingly-titled Border Force taking on the former responsibility. It sounded like a pre-pubescent fantasy about GI Joe and it was about as effective. Queues at the border have grown, with many people waiting two hours when they get off the plane. It's an appalling sight, to look over the endless lines of people at Heathrow or Gatwick. It is especially embarrassing when one returns from a trip to a developing country and discovers they have a better organised system than we do.
Whichever side of the immigration debate you're on you should be for a transparent, speedy, fair organisation at the heart of the system. If you're critical of immigration you should want cases handled speedily. If you're more sympathetic, as I am, you might want a little common decency in the way we treat the people who want to come here. As things stand, UKBA decisions are subject to entirely arbitrary and unforeseeable errors which can take years to fix – as people's lives are held in limbo. It is the one and only thing everyone in a divisive debate can agree on: UKBA is not fit for purpose.
UKBA's decision to reject practically every asylum case and then lose on appeal is an affront to natural justice. It is the cruellest possible way to treat people who have often escaped torture or genocide. Worse, some asylum seekers spend up to 15 years lost in the system, living on food vouchers, unable to work or claim benefits. They are ghosts in the machine, a sub-class which exists below the surface of society, victims of a heartless and incompetent system.
Will May's decision make any difference? Almost certainly not. But it takes us one step closer to the only feasible solution to Britain's asylum chaos. First, an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Second, the disbanding of UKBA so it can be replaced by a well-funded, well-trained body with mandatory six-month decision making targets. Third, an Office of National Statistics (ONS) programme to provide a detailed research on immigration and its effect on the local and national economy. Finally, a robust system of entry and departure checks. Most of this - particularly point one - is politically unsayable. But it is the only road out of a battered and useless status quo.