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The absolute state of the UK visa application system

The absolute state of the UK visa application system

There is a growing furore about the poor state of our visa application processes, which seem to have hit an all time low. The application systems for getting a visa, extension, settlement or citizenship are now mostly online and outsourced. But far from becoming more efficient, there is growing evidence that the visa system is not fit for purpose.

The Home Office has long been headed in the direction of complicated yet (allegedly) predictable visa rules, with little human engagement. The decision-making system is extremely punitive of small errors and resolving issues can take months. It is a source of disruption to business and anguish for families.

In recent months this has been combined with an imprecise, confusing and ineffective process to apply for a visa.

How the visa application system works

This is now essentially a two-stage process. The application starts on one of two government websites. Some are done on the relatively new Access UK website, others through the older Visa4UK site. (The older site still has the message: “this is the new UK visa application website.” This message has been on the site for at least the last five years.)

The applicant is then directed to the website of an outsourcing company hired by the Home Office to arrange the necessary documents and “biometrics” (fingerprints and a photograph). There are three main commercial providers: Sopra Steria for applications made within the UK, and either VFS Global or TLS Contact for applications from abroad.

These providers essentially act as the gatekeepers between the “customer” (or visa applicant) and the UK government. An applicant will increasingly not deal with the Home Office directly for the administrative requirements of applying for a visa, but rather with these third party commercial intermediaries.

The problems in brief

The Twitter accounts of immigration practitioners are full of examples of this system failing to function as it should. From conversations with colleagues, I would categorise the issues along the following lines:

  • Ambiguous application forms
  • Contradictory communications
  • Incorrect specification of documents
  • Inappropriate up-selling
  • Inappropriate provision of advice
  • Non-functionality of upload systems
  • Biometrics not taken properly
  • Delays
  • Inability to secure appointments

Taken individually and on a case by case basis, these issues might not amount to much. But cumulatively it is a cause for serious concern. Practitioners say that their job essentially involves wrestling with transitory and flawed systems.

What follows are examples of these problems — and why they matter. Readers should bear in mind that the visa applicants grappling with them are paying through the nose for the privilege. It costs £600 for an overseas business representative visa, for example, and over £1,500 to apply for settlement in the UK. This is before paying for added extra with the outsourcing companies, or for a lawyer to help navigate the system.

Website problems

Ambiguous application forms

For starters, the Visa4UK website is beset by irrelevant and poorly phrased questions.

For example, applicants are asked “have you ever left the UK voluntarily?” This has a specific meaning in immigration law terms — namely that a person who has breached the UK’s immigration laws left without the Home Office having to actually remove them — but to any normal person it is a bizarre question.

The Home Office will ruthlessly punish what it classifies as “deception”, so ambiguous questions leading to inadvertently wrong answers are concerning.

Contradictory communications

Other issues with the Visa4UK site include automated emails advising on application processes that directly contradict each other.

In a recent example, one of my American clients received two emails about supporting documents for a visa application. The first told her not to bring her passport etc to her appointment, and to post them to a UK government office at 80 Broad Street in New York. The second advised her that she must bring her documents to the appointment, as well as giving the postal address as 845 Third Avenue.

Whilst this might seem trivial, the provision of the correct documents to the right place in a visa application is of critical importance. Get this wrong and the application can be delayed, invalidated or even refused. All of which has financial costs (directly and indirectly). It is also a source of anguish given the importance that is placed on procedures, and yet the correct procedure is hard to identify.

Incorrect specification of documents

Visa4UK is being phased out, and replaced with the Access UK portal. It has a much more modern presentation and is, on balance, better than Visa4UK.

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Access UK’s problem is that it often gives the wrong information on supporting documents. A case in point was an application I made for a new-born child to be granted a visa, in line with a parent who holds a Tier 2 work visa. Under the heading “mandatory documents”, the system failed to advise on the need for a birth certificate, which is self-evidently required to prove the child’s parentage. A similar situation arose for an unmarried partner of a Tier 2 applicant, with the online form failing to specify that proof of cohabitation would be required.

Failure to put in the right documents can be fatal to a visa application and cause significant delay and expense.

If you have a problem with the online application services you are directed to contact UK Visas and Immigration. It now charges for an email or telephone call. Those who have availed of this advice report that it is usually utterly useless.

Outsourcing problems

The websites of the outsourcing firms are often confusing, with imprecise and ambiguous language (and often atrocious grammar). There is often an inability to secure an appointment unless you pay a premium.

Indeed the hallmark of the commercial partners is their singular focus on up-selling of “user pay services”. This commoditisation of central government services has long been a concern.

Inappropriate up-selling

VFS Global is a particularly relentless pursuer of profit. In reality often the only service an applicant will want is a quick decision, yet the VFS website punts all kinds of couriers, form-filling assistance, luxury cars, document checks, and a “health concierge” (whatever the hell that is).

The Sopra Steria site seeks to punt customers to a firm called World Migration Services for “immigration advice”. Now a website does not tell the whole story, but it is of some concern that the World Migration Service website is beset by glaring grammatical errors, and refers to closed immigration categories such as the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route.

For example, the firm says that “A visitor’s visa allows to come and visit the UK for up to 6 months. If you wish to visit the UK for any reasons we can advise and assist with your application to ensure it is processed accordingly”. Apart from the grammatical errors, it’s probably not appropriate to imply you can visit the UK for “any reasons”. The acceptable reasons for a visit are actually strictly defined.

My personal favourite is aimed at EU citizens: “BREXIT is coming into effect on 30 May 2019 so it is of paramount importance that if you need to make any EEA applications then you should do it before 30 May 2019”. Where they came up with this date is anybody’s guess.

Inappropriate provision of advice

Clients frequently say that VFS staff have offered their unsolicited and usually incorrect views on the merits of an application, or the decision-making process. Similar charges have been levelled at Sopra Steria and its outsourcing partner BLS International. This normally serves only to cause confusion and distress.

Non-functionality of upload systems

VFS’s site in theory will allow for the uploading of documents rather than sending originals to the Home Office. However the uploading system is beset with technical problems and is often completely inoperable.

The alternative is to have, for a fee, VFS Global sort the documents and arrange to scan them. This process too has been beset with issues, with documents incorrectly scanned by staff.

TLS Contact has a different website and a different approach. Its site does not properly link to VISA4UK, so customers applying under that system cannot upload documents.

Biometrics not properly taken

For visa applications made within rather than outside the UK, the commercial partner is Sopra Steria. Of particular concern is the lack of sites that people can visit to have their biometrics recorded.

The capturing of a customer’s biometric information is a critical stage in the process. This used to be handled by the UK Post Office, and so sites were plentiful. Now biometrics can only be captured by Sopra Steria, and the available sites are limited.

In Scotland the only office is in Glasgow, which is completely inadequate. For Bristol, it’s Cardiff.

There have also been reports of biometrics not being properly captured by Sopra Steria, necessitating a further appointment, and further delay.

Just yesterday there were reports of a company called FIVEfoot9 offering biometric enrolment services on behalf of BLS International. Given that the service has at this point been outsourced from the Home Office, to Sopra Steria, to BLS International, to FIVEFoot9, it must be unclear to customers whether this is a legitimate offering. Exercising caution would be understandable: in the past, prior to Sopra Steria’s involvement, there were instances of organisations block booking premium visa appointments, and then selling these on to visa applicants.

Administrative problems

Delays

Customers have reported long delays in decision making, even when electing for priority services (and some refunds have been issued).

This has included visa applicants paying a premium for a 24-hour decision, and receiving it a week later. A recent, and very straightforward, Tier 2 application that I handled took four weeks for a decision, when the applicant had paid for a five-day service.

Of course the Home Office always caveats its offers of a quick decision with a get-out clause if the application is complex. There is never a guarantee of a speedy service. But it seems increasingly that the outsourced operations lack the capacity to provide the advertised commercial services. One might even say that perhaps they should ditch the added extras and just focus on a quick, efficient visa process for everyone.

Inability to secure appointments

In recent weeks the Access UK site has carried ominous warnings of delays in appointments, particularly as nationality applications have now been transferred to that process. The Independent recently picked up on serious failings at the Croydon office, as long queues developed and dozens of applicants were forced to wait outside in the cold.

The immigration minister said on 29 April that the Home Office “continue[s] to work with [Sopra Steria] to increase the number of appointments available to its customers”.

Yesterday there were reports of a total absence of appointments in Manchester.

By contrast, when the system still relied on “Public Enquiry Offices” run by the Home Office to engage with visa applicants, there was in my experience rarely any significant delay in securing appointments — or certainly not on the same scale as everyone is now experiencing.

Out of country there have also been some system collapses, in particular in the US. Biometric enrolment for UK visas was temporarily suspended, because, it was reported, the Home Office forgot to pay their bill.

The inability to secure an appointment is a key concern, primarily because the online application form produced by Access UK stipulates a deadline to attend these appointments. It is unclear if applicants who cannot secure an appointment would then have their applications invalidated. An invalidated application could be catastrophic, as it would make the applicant an overstayer.

Conclusion

It is difficult to know what to do. The prevailing view among immigration lawyers is that our system is going to hell on a handcart. We do know that the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) is on the case and meeting with the Home Office on these issues. Ultimately, though, the over-reliance on commercial partners and flawed IT systems seems to be the problem.

Darren Stevenson

Darren Stevenson is a solicitor at McGill and Co.. Prior to joining the firm in 2008, Darren spent 6 years working at the Home Office with what was then the UK Border Agency, including representing the Secretary of State at tribunal hearings. Darren has extensive experience in all areas of UK immigration law with particular expertise in navigating difficult and technically complex areas, including the Points Based System, EC law and British nationality law.

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