The work of the UK Border Agency (October-December 2012) - Home Affairs Committee Contents

3  Entry clearance operations

18.  Since 2007, the UK Border Agency has been operating a "hub and spoke" model for overseas visa applications. The world is divided into six regions,[18] each of which has a number of visa applications centres (spokes), where visa applications are received, and a smaller number of decision-making centres (hubs). So, for example, in North America, there is a single decision-making hub in New York, which receives applications from biometric enrolment centres throughout the USA, run by the Department of Homeland Security, as well as six application centres in Canada run by commercial partners.

19.  This arrangement is intended to improve the quality and consistency of decision-making, by processing applications in larger centres with more specialist staff, to improve efficiency by benefiting from economies of scale, and to improve resilience and flexibility by locating hubs in more secure and stable environments. We visited the visa-processing hub in Abu Dhabi and its "spoke" visa application centre in Dubai

20.  The Agency operates in a total of 358 locations in 137 countries and overseas territories, using a mixture of commercially outsourced facilities and UKBA-run operations. The Agency employs around 1,700 staff (including locally-engaged staff employed directly by the Embassy, High Commission or Consulate) and processes 2.6 million visa applications each year.

21.  We visited the visa processing hub in Abu Dhabi—the largest UK visa section in the world—and its local visa application centre spoke in Dubai, which is run by VFS Global. The Gulf Iran and Pakistan region covers Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen, employing approximately 295 staff. Of these, 166 staff work in the Abu Dhabi office (34 UK based, 132 Locally Engaged); 6 staff are employed in the UKBA Dubai office (3 UK based, 3 Locally Engaged) where their main focus is interdiction at Dubai Airport. We were told that the UKBA total number of staff working at the British Embassy site in Abu Dhabi was around 400, making it the fourth largest UK Government overseas team.

22.  Abu Dhabi processes work from the UAE and Bahrain, and also deals with the majority of the non-settlement work from Pakistan. It is also the designated post for the submission of applications from Yemeni and Iranian nationals following the closure of visa sections there.

Regional performance

23.  The UK Border Agency told us that this is a diverse and high risk region, active in interviewing, upstream disruption, tackling criminality, and supporting the prosperity agenda. A joint audit of the whole Mission was delivered by Internal Audit Directorate (IAD) and The National Audit Office (NAO) who visited Abu Dhabi in September 2012 to complete an audit of the business processes in place. A second one-day audit by the NAO was delivered in October 2012 on the specific business area handling appeals decisions in preparation for a pilot project to speed the transfer of appeals bundles between Abu Dhabi and the UK. The recommendations from both audits have been implemented to remove some elements of double handling and increase productivity. The appeals pilot has been ongoing since October 2012, using a bespoke document courier service to and from Abu Dhabi which is quicker than using the Diplomatic Bag. Emerging findings are positive and it is likely that the pilot will be extended to further test the benefits.

24.  The region has undertaken a significant amount of work to address the high numbers of Pakistan asylum claims which it describes as "abusive" linked to visa applications. The Agency suggested that it was possible that the decrease in asylum claims linked to family visit visas could be attributed to improved decision quality, increased work on questionable sponsors, the sponsor match database and improved work on appeals. There is an emphasis on cross-agency co-operation to improve customer service.

25.  We had a meeting in Abu Dhabi with staff who were working towards delivering Customer Service Excellence accreditation.[19] The Abu Dhabi office is at the forefront of this work within the Border Agency. They are in the final stages of seeking CSE accreditation, and full assessment will shortly take place, having been delayed from 24 February due to problems with the assessor's availability.

Risk and Airline Liaison Network (RALON)

26.  RALON officers in the UAE work with airlines to identify inadequately documented passengers at Abu Dhabi and Dubai Airports and prevent them from reaching the UK. Working with carriers, UKBA have been directly involved in preventing inadequately documented passengers reaching the UK, a significant proportion of which are harm cases. Significant intelligence and debriefing is conducted within the constraints of the liaison officer role.

27.  UKBA has a longstanding engagement with the UAE authorities specifically Dubai Immigration based around the positioning of successive Immigration Liaison Managers/Airline Liaison Officers in Dubai since 1999. Dubai airport is of particular importance, given that tourism makes up 28% of the UAE's economy, and it is predicted to overtake Heathrow

  • The airport is critical to the aviation/tourism sector which makes up 28% of the UAE's economy, and creates 19% of employment (250,000 jobs); Dubai Airport provided US$1bn in dividend to the Dubai Ministry of Finance last year.

  • Passenger arrivals are forecast to increase about 15% every year, reaching 90 million in 2018, up from 60 million now (Heathrow, at 68 million, will be overtaken in 2014).

Visa Application Centres

28.  The Visa Application Centre in Dubai is one of nine in the region operated by VFS Global. Another four in Pakistan are operated by their local partner, Gerry's, which is part of FedEx.

29.  Visa applications are first submitted online, via the UK Border Agency website. On completing the online process, the applicant makes an appointment at their local VAC, to hand in supporting documents and for biometric information to be captured. Applicants then return to the VAC once the application has been processed, to receive the outcome.

30.  VFS provides a range of administrative services as part of the visa application process, including a website, telephone/email enquiry service and an application tracking service. their staff are not involved in any aspect of the visa decision-making process. In addition, VFS provide a range of optional paid-for services for customers including:

a)  Premium lounge service, for an extra fee of about £50. This includes access to a nicer waiting area with refreshments, a photocopying service, a courier service for the return of passports, and an SMS alert when the application has been processed. The premium service has no bearing on the way the application is processed once it has been received by the Border Agency.

b)  Prime Time service, for a similar price, to enable applicants to submit applications outside normal office hours.

c)  Priority Visa service, at a cost of about £100, which fast-tracks the application.

Entry clearance in the Gulf: conclusions

31.  We were impressed by the entry clearance operations in the Gulf Region. As we have previously noted, the processing of out-of-country visa applications is one of the Agency's great strengths. Processing targets are consistently met or exceeded and on the few occasions when they are missed (as with Tier 1 visas in Q4 2012), it is never by a significant margin.

32.  At the heart of the entry clearance system are good and effective clearance staff and managers. Although the standard does vary an effective Entry Clearance Manager or Director can look outside the box to solve problems, see a problem immediately and ultimately cut costs. We want to recognise the excellent work of Janice Moore in Mumbai, Carole Doughty and Kevin Woods in Abu Dhabi and Mandy Ivemy in Pakistan. We were impressed by the VSF Global operation which has developed a customer friendly 'can do' approach. They were efficient, helpful to applicants and were a great advertisement for the UK. Since they provide face-to-face contact with the public their success reflects on the entire entry clearance operations as a whole.

33.  The UK Visas and Immigration Directorate should look to the out-of-country visa processing operation as a model of good practice, to be disseminated more widely around the directorate. We recommend that the Home Office establish a programme of short- to medium-term secondments in and out of the entry clearance operation so that staff throughout the Directorate can have an opportunity to share their knowledge and skills, and senior managers can develop a better understanding of what works, and apply it to those areas of the operation where improvement is required.

34.  We were struck by the extent to which the whole operation in the Gulf (as elsewhere) still relies on the physical transportation of pieces of paper. Papers submitted at the VAC in Dubai are taken by secure courier to Abu Dhabi, a motorway journey of a couple of hours. We saw the courier control room, where vehicle movements can be tracked using GPS technology. While the security arrangements are impressive, they are doubtless expensive, and the whole business of moving paper around its time-consuming. We were told that documents are also routinely photocopied and returned to the UK via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We understand that, when appeals are lodged, the relevant paperwork is sometimes not in the right place, which can make it difficult for the Agency to make its case. Officers in overseas entry-clearance hubs are often out of the loop when it comes to appeals involving their cases. Sometimes, they can find themselves dealing with a successful applicant, yet are unable to process the visa because they have not received the right paperwork from London, a situation which can drag on for days or weeks and result in the local Member of Parliament becoming involved when all that is required is for the Agency to act on the determination of the tribunal.

35.  It is clearly necessary for passports to be transported securely, and at the RALON in Abu Dhabi we were shown examples of forged passports which underlined the need for the original document to be inspected very carefully. But there is no excuse for the continuing reliance on the distribution of information on paper. Supporting documents could perfectly well be captured electronically at the visa application centre and transmitted electronically between the VAC, the entry-clearance hub, and the Home Office in the UK.

36.  The Home Office should set a target for making its entry-clearance operation paperless by the end of the next Parliament in 2020. The flow of information and documentation should be electronic from the visa application centre, through the entry-clearance operation and any appeal. The paperless system should also extend to in-country visa renewals, an area of persistently weak performance.

37.  The decision letter for Refusal of Entry Clearance is an example of a poor system that must be addressed. The basis for an appeal is determined on this decision letter. If the refusal were made clearer applicants would be able to determine what additional documents were needed and would not need to contact their MP. The Home Office should remodel the refusal notice to make it more understandable to both applicants and sponsors, clearly detailing the additional documents needed for a successful application. This would considerably reduce both the amount of time spent by MPs on such cases and the level of correspondence between MPs and the Home Office. We were glad that Mr Sedwill and Ms Rapson accepted this and we see no reason why this cannot be implemented immediately. We remain surprised by how unclear much of the guidance is for applicants; even those experienced in immigration matters can easily miss details buried in the supporting documents provided. The guidance should be amended so that it is clear what information is required, and how it should be provided. We further expect that where the additional information required is relatively minor, a clear request for it to be provided could lead to a quick reconsideration, rather than starting the entire process again.

18   Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Euro-Med, South Asia, and Pakistan, and the Gulf Back

19   The successor to the Charter Mark. Back

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Prepared 13 July 2013