The Home Office should release more details about a “cryptic” computer programme that scores visa applicants as high, medium and low risk, the immigration inspector has recommended.
Mr Bolt’s latest inspection report notes that the Home Office’s Visas and Citizenship directorate has been using a computerised streaming tool since 2015. It scores visa applicants as Red (high risk), Amber (medium risk) or Green (low risk).
The inspector says that among the factors that influence ratings are:
the nationality of the applicant, all immigration harm data collected globally by Immigration Enforcement over the preceding 12 months and attributable to particular cohorts of applicants, attributes from local risk profiles (for example, the applicant’s occupation, sponsor), and any other relevant information (such as age, reason for travel, travel history).
The inspector’s interest in the tool was piqued by a highly critical report by MPs on the difficulties faced by Africans applying for UK visit visas. He found that 99.5% of African visit visa applications initially scored “Green” were successful, whereas only 55% of applications given a “Red” flag were granted.
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Mr Bolt declares his inspectors “confident… that that applications streamed RED were not automatically refused”. Decision-makers were “comfortable in recommending a visa be granted” after looking at the individual evidence accompanying a red-flagged application.
But the inspector acknowledges that his verdict will not satisfy campaigners, and recommends that the Home Office “make an effort to demystify the Tool”. Among his five recommendations to the department is:
Including as much detail as possible, publish an explanation of how the Streaming Tool works, avoiding jargon and opaque language, and establish an auditable review and assurance system that covers all three RAG ratings, using the outputs to build stakeholder confidence in the Streaming Tool and the way it is used.
The department’s jargon-free response is that the criteria assessed by the tool “include the Global Visa Risk Streaming (GVRS) data provided by Immigration Intelligence (II); and local, case specific, attributes identified in conjunction with Immigration Intelligence based on research they have conducted on a type of risk that has been identified at an Operational Review Meeting (ORM) held by II and UKVI (and as recorded in a decision log that is signed off at Regional Operations Manager level)”. Its position is that releasing any more information about the tool would “provide a reference point for unscrupulous parties to actively manipulate the immigration system”.
Mr Bolt retorts that “the vast majority of visa applicants are not looking to manipulate the system but simply to understand how to make a successful application”.
The more cryptic the Home Office is seen to be about the way visa decisions are made, the more it will fuel concerns about bias and poor practice. The department’s reputation and the staff who work in this area would be better served if its first instinct were to be open and engaging rather than seemingly reluctant to reveal more than it absolutely has to.
The recommendation forms part of the inspectorate’s new report into the “onshoring” of visa processing, an austerity measure which has seen UK visa centres around the world closed and decision-making concentrated back in Blighty. In 2008, there were 112 visa decision making centres overseas. There are now only 11, with five more scheduled for closure.
As well as onshoring, the Home Office has been busy outsourcing. Mr Bolt comments that getting private firms to handle the administrative side of visa processing “makes perfect sense”. But he cautions that handing front-end visa services over to VFS Global and Teleperformance doesn’t absolve the government of all responsibility:
The Home Office remains accountable for them working efficiently and effectively and meeting applicants’ needs. As such, it must do more to show that it has heard and acted upon the various complaints, about the availability of appointments for example.
Accordingly, Mr Bolt recommends that the department:
Publish on GOV.UK service standards and performance data for the Visa Application Centres (VACs) (in addition to anything published by the commercial partners themselves), covering availability of appointments, average waiting times, and any other factors affecting the ‘customer experience’, together with any agreed improvement plans for particular VACs.
The Home Office has promised to work with the outsourcing firms “over the next few month” to publish more performance data.