Overseas applications for UK visas

A recent report in The Independent newspaper states that the Home Office has increased its profit on UK visa applications by millions of pounds a week since outsourcing visa operations to a Dubai-based firm that has been the subject of many complaints.

VFS, which has its headquarters in the UAE but is owned through holding companies in Jersey, the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg, faces claims of “gross maladministration” and “aggressive” selling of optional services since taking the UK government contract in 2014.

Prior to the outsourcing of the contract, the majority of visa applications for the UK were submitted at British embassies, high commissions or consulates. Applicants submitted their documents at the relevant diplomatic post where the application was processed and a decision made.

Fees have increased since then, with the cost of applying for a standard visit visa rising by 14 per cent, from £83 in 2014 to £95 in 2019. Applications for settlement have increased from £885 to £1,523, a rise of 72 per cent.

When the service was outsourced, decision-making was concentrated in larger hubs run by VFS, which the Home Office said at the time would “improve the efficiency and consistency” of decision-making.

During that time, The Independent reports, the Home Office has made £1.6bn from applications which is a nine-fold increase on the five years prior to the start of the contract.

A joint investigation by The Independent and Finance Uncovered found the amount the department makes on average per visa application has increased from £28.73 to £122.56.

Many applicants applying through VFS, the majority of whom are from lower-income countries, with a quarter from south Asia, have said they missed flights and were wrongly denied visas due to delays and administrative errors, including apparent failure to scan vital documents.

The Independent went on to report that an analysis of Home Office annual accounts shows that the department’s surplus from visa applications has increased at an even higher rate. The figure stood at £178.6m for the five years before 2014, but over the past five years, the department has made £1.6bn, and £438.1m last year alone – equating to £8.4m each week.

Fees were also introduced for applicants wishing to make a query about their application, at £5.48 per query for the email service and £1.37 per minute for the telephone helpline.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is investigating the outsourced visa system, with a report due later this year looking at the experiences of applicants and whether the contract had delivered on the promised benefits.

The report in The Independent paints a stark picture of how the Home Office has massively increased visa fees while at the same time providing what many believe from experience is an inferior service.

Certainly the feedback that we have had from clients confirms this. It is a disgrace that individuals, many of whom come from poorer regions of the world and who require a visa to enter the UK are charged such outrageous amounts of money while at the same time suffering a deterioration in the service provided.

Surely it is not too much to expect that the Home Office provide a service at levels of fees that cover the cost of administration and do not make large profits at the expense of applicants.

The report in The Independent comes at the same time as complaints increase about the privatisation of the Home Office’s in-country visa system, which was outsourced to French firm Sopra Steria in November 2018. Yet again, these complaints refer to the introduction of an inferior service for inflated fees.

We have covered this in a separate article.

Nelam Trewin, November 2019