Part 1: Introduction

Inquiry into immigration matters (Volume 1): Visa and permit decision-making and other issues.

In this Part, we explain:

How our inquiry came about

In May 2008, the then Prime Minister and the then Minister of Immigration asked the Auditor-General to look into various concerns and allegations about Immigration New Zealand, a business unit within the Department of Labour.

Concerns and allegations had arisen in the public domain about:

  • the operations of Immigration New Zealand’s Pacific Division and incidents involving certain senior personnel;
  • the conduct of Mary Anne Thompson, the former Deputy Secretary (Workforce)1 of the Department of Labour; and
  • how any integrity concerns had been previously handled by others, including successive chief executives of the Department of Labour, State Services Commissioners, and Ministers.

The Auditor-General agreed to carry out an inquiry, and released the terms of reference on 4 June 2008 (see the Appendix).

The terms of reference acknowledged that other agencies were carrying out related work. We did not seek to duplicate those individual processes, but to clearly and comprehensively assess what had taken place.

Since we began our inquiry, the State Services Commission (SSC) has released its report on the Department of Labour’s response to concerns about immigration matters involving family members of Ms Thompson.2 The New Zealand Police also investigated Ms Thompson’s claim to have a doctorate degree (PhD), and in November 2008 she was charged with three offences under the Crimes Act 1961.3 An external review commissioned by the Department of Labour into Immigration New Zealand’s Pacific Division was released by the Minister of Immigration in early March 2009.4

Scope of our inquiry

The terms of reference for our inquiry stated that we would inquire into:

  • the integrity and probity of decision-making systems, processes, and practices within Immigration New Zealand, especially within its Pacific Division, including whether such practices generally comply with relevant law, policies, procedures, and public sector ethical standards;
  • particular situations that raise concerns about the integrity of senior immigration staff ;
  • the processes used to recruit Ms Thompson within the public sector;
  • the awareness and management of concerns about integrity issues at Immigration New Zealand (including about Ms Thompson) by the Department of Labour, the SSC, and Ministers; and
  • any other issues that the Auditor-General considers relate to, or arise out of, the above matters.

This volume (Volume 1) covers Immigration New Zealand’s visa and permit decision-making and related issues. Volume 2 covers the public sector processes used to recruit Ms Thompson and the handling of recruitment-related concerns.

The Appendix includes information about what we did not seek to do with our inquiry, and refers to reviews that others were carrying out at the time of our inquiry. Where applicable, we comment on some of the findings of those other reviews in this report.

Immigration New Zealand’s role

Immigration New Zealand is the part of the Department of Labour responsible for immigration. The Workforce group within the Department of Labour is responsible for making visa and permit decisions, but uses “Immigration New Zealand” as the branding name for its immigration services. We refer to Immigration New Zealand throughout this report because it is the more commonly known name.

Immigration New Zealand’s work includes giving policy advice, managing border security (of people rather than goods), operating the country’s refugee functions, and making visa and permit decisions.

Visas are issued as proof of a person’s permission to travel to the New Zealand border, and people apply for them from off shore. Permits are permission to enter or stay in New Zealand, and people apply for them at or within our country’s borders. Most visa applications are decided off shore, while all permit applications are considered onshore.5

A permit allows a person to stay in New Zealand either permanently or temporarily. People can stay permanently under the family-sponsored, international/ humanitarian, or skilled/business streams of the New Zealand Residence Programme. Permanent entry is commonly referred to as residence. Temporary entry allows people to visit, study, or work in the country for a set period.

Figure 1 shows that the total number of visa and permit applications has increased in recent years, although growth has not been steady. The total number of visa and permit applications accepted by Immigration New Zealand grew from 395,000 in the 2001/02 financial year to 543,000 in 2007/08.

Figure 1
Visa and permit applications accepted for processing, 2001/02 to 2007/08

Figure 1: Visa and permit applications accepted for processing, 2001/02 to 2007/08.

Source: Department of Labour, Business Information Branch.

More than half a million visa and permit decisions were made in 2007/08. Figure 2 shows that most decisions about visas and permits – 95% in 2007/08 – granted applicants temporary entry into the country. Figure 2 excludes people who could temporarily enter the country under one of the more than 50 “visa free” arrangements the Government has with other countries, including our largest tourist markets such as Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Japan.

Figure 2
Number of visa and permit decisions made in 2007/08*

Application types Number decided in 2007/08 % of all decisions
Permanent entry 27,013 5
Temporary entry 495,319 95
Total number of applications decided 522,332 100

* Excluding people temporarily entering New Zealand under “visa free” arrangements.

How Immigration New Zealand is organised to make visa and permit decisions

Overall, around 60% of the visa and permit decisions are made in branches located in New Zealand (onshore branches). This includes about 80% of the applications from people seeking permanent entry to this country.

The remaining decisions are made overseas in a network of sites around the world. The offshore sites include 16 Immigration New Zealand branches (offshore branches), and 29 Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade agency posts. The agency posts are contracted and supervised by Immigration New Zealand to process immigration applications on its behalf. Historically, offshore branches have been set up in response to a demand for visas or perceived risk levels in different regions.

In this report, we discuss three business groups within Immigration New Zealand. Each group has roles and responsibilities for making visa and permit decisions (see Figure 3):

  • The Service Delivery group consists of Immigration New Zealand branches in New Zealand and overseas, excluding the Pacific Islands region.
  • The Service International group includes the Pacific Division, which is responsible for managing and delivering immigration services in the Pacific Islands region.
  • The Border Security group contains two specialist units involved in immigration decisions. The Central Verification Unit is responsible for verifying skilled migrant category residence applications in the Auckland region. The Immigration Profiling Group processes and assesses the risk of all visa and permit applications from high-risk countries.

Figure 3
Elements of the Department of Labour's organisational structure involved in making visa and permit decisions

Figure 3: Elements of the Department of Labour’s organisational structure involved in.

Note: Figure 3 shows only the groups and divisions that are discussed in this report.

* Ten locations onshore, 13 offshore branches.

** One location onshore, three offshore branches.

Aspects covered in this volume

This volume covers the aspects of our inquiry that related to the integrity and probity of making visa and permit decisions, the allegations made, and what others knew and did with concerns about Immigration New Zealand. By integrity and probity, we mean that Immigration New Zealand staff should act honestly and in good faith, and comply with stated requirements when making or managing visa and permit decisions. Doing so helps to ensure that visa and permit decisions are of a good quality - appropriately assessed for risk, consistent with policy and with each other, and complete. Therefore, we examined the practices and behaviour of staff, and we assessed the appropriateness of the systems and processes used to support those staff with making visa and permit decisions.

Many of the allegations that prompted our inquiry related to the period between 2004 and 2007. This period was, therefore, a focus of our inquiry.

However, our examination of visa and permit decision-making, and existing practices and processes, took place in mid- to late 2008. We looked at the quality of the decisions made, the systems and processes supporting good quality decisions, and the wider contextual factors that can affect the quality of the decisions made. These contextual factors include organisational leadership, management practices, and the workplace culture.

Some activities of Immigration New Zealand were excluded from our inquiry because they do not directly relate to making visa and permit decisions or were not specifically raised as concerns when we decided to carry out our inquiry. These activities include managing and settling refugees, and Immigration New Zealand’s border security responsibilities.

How we carried out our inquiry

Interviews and documentation review

In carrying out our inquiry, we reviewed a significant amount of Department of Labour and Immigration New Zealand documentation about how visa and permit decisions are managed and made. We also interviewed current and former senior managers and staff in the Department of Labour.

Part of our inquiry examined what the SSC knew and what it did in response to the integrity allegations about Immigration New Zealand. We also interviewed Members of Parliament who held the portfolios of Minister or Associate Minister of Immigration between 2002 and 2008, the current and two former State Services Commissioners, and other current or former staff of the SSC.

We received many submissions from interested parties and members of the public in response to the announcement of our inquiry. We reviewed all these submissions and interviewed some of the people who provided us with information. In some cases, we also investigated specific allegations and reviewed visa and permit decisions based on the information we had received.

Examining systems and processes in Immigration New Zealand branches

A major part of our inquiry involved examining how visa and permit decisions are made at six onshore and four off shore Immigration New Zealand branches. We chose the branches based on the number of visa and permit decisions they made in 2007/08. We also chose branches that operated in risky immigration markets, or where specific integrity and probity issues had been raised either publicly or with us in submissions for our inquiry.

Figure 4 lists the Immigration New Zealand branches we visited for our inquiry work. In total, we interviewed nearly 100 staff and reviewed more than 400 visa and permit decisions in the 10 branches we visited.

Figure 4
Immigration New Zealand branches visited for our inquiry

Onshore branches within the Service Delivery group Offshore branches within the Service Delivery group
Auckland Central Bangkok, Kingdom of Thailand
Christchurch New Delhi, India
Palmerston North London, United Kingdom
Pacific Division branches Border Security group
Pacific Division Manukau Immigration Profiling Group
Apia,Independent State of Samoa Central Verification Unit*

* The Central Verification Unit does not make visa and permit decisions, but does verification work for Service Delivery branches in the Auckland region. We did not review visa and permit decisions there.

In each branch we visited, we:

  • observed how the branch was organised and managed;
  • interviewed branch staff involved in making or supervising visa and permit decisions; and
  • reviewed a random sample of visa and permit decisions.

1: In this role, Ms Thompson was the head of Immigration New Zealand from 2004 until 2008.

2: State Services Commission (2008), Investigation of the Handling by the Department of Labour of Immigration Matters Involving Family Members of the Head of the New Zealand Immigration Service, State Services Commission, Wellington.

3: The charges are under sections 228 and 229A of the Crimes Act 1961, and relate to claims Ms Thompson made in 1989, 1998, and 2004 about holding a PhD.

4: Ernst & Young (2008), Department of Labour Pacific Division Review: Final Report, Minister of Immigration, Wellington.

5: There were plans under immigration legislation before Parliament at the time of our inquiry to discontinue using the term "permit" and refer only to "visas".