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,
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
Dhabithe largest UK visa section in the worldand
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.
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
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
25. We had a meeting in Abu Dhabi with staff
who were working towards delivering Customer Service Excellence
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
Risk and Airline Liaison Network
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
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
b) Prime Time service, for a similar price, to
enable applicants to submit applications outside normal office
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
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