Government ‘exploits migrants for profit’ by outsourcing visa services to private firms

Anna Tims

The government has been accused of exploiting migrants for profit and leaving them in legal limbo after its visa application services were outsourced to private firms.

The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) says that those seeking to work or settle in the UK are being pressed into paying premium rates for a fast-track service that does not reliably deliver.

Visa services for overseas applicants were outsourced to a Dubai-based firm, VFS, in 2014 and the process for those applying for residency permits was handed over to a French company, Spora Steria, last year.

Home Office revenues from overseas visa applications have soared ninefold to £1.6bn after VFS took over and much of the income is from heavily promoted add-on services such as fast-tracking and document checking. Applicants are warned that they must wait six months for a decision unless they pay an additional premium of up to £800 for a 24-hour “super priority” service.

“We are concerned that these services may exploit vulnerable and less well-informed migrants, who may feel pressured to purchase an expensive service which will not provide them with any benefit,” said ILPA chief executive Nicole Francis.

No one should be treated and squeezed for money like this, regardless of where they are born

Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, student

“The contract between UKVI and the subcontractors may have resulted in UK Visa and Immigration [UKVI] benefiting financially from the selling of additional services to customers.”

A shortage of free appointments for those already in the UK has forced some to pay the fee to renew their residency permit before their visas expire.

However, the prominent promotions of priority services on the government website do not specify that the 24-hour timescale applies only to the decision about a visa application, not to how long it will take to receive a biometric residency permit (BRP). These hold a person’s fingerprints and photograph on a secure chip, and can be used to confirm information on work and benefits entitlements.

The delays by the Home Office and its subcontractors are leaving some applicants unable to work or leave the country for weeks after they have paid the premium.

Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a university research fellow from Mexico, paid £2,350 to extend his work visa, including £500 for the priority service to avoid the six-month wait.

Over two months later he was still awaiting his residency permit after it was delivered to the wrong address by DX, the courier contracted by the UKVI. He was told that he could not contact the Home Office directly, and that since its subcontracted helpline has no access to application details his only option was to apply again.

He was obliged to pay another £1,135 in priority fees as no free appointments were available and DX was unable to locate his office block. “Royal Mail, Amazon, even Asda manage to deliver to my building, which happens to be a conspicuous national research facility – and they charge £4.50 or so for a delivery,” he says. “The Home Office cannot manage the same feat for £3,485.20.”

His request for his priority fees to be refunded was refused. UKVI instead advised him to change his delivery address, which he is unable to do because DX can’t provide a tracking number for the order.

“No one should be treated and squeezed for money like this, regardless of where they are born,” he says. “My experience shows how little the Home Office cares about the applications it receives for work visas, the fantastically large sums of money involved in the process and the lack of channels to appeal against flagrant negligence.”

His BRP eventually arrived via Royal Mail after the Observer intervened. The Home Office told the Observer that he was not due a refund of his priority fees since both applications had been processed on time and the delays were due to delivery errors.

A DX spokesperson said: “We are obviously very disappointed that Mr Lozada-Hidalgo had a poor experience with our delivery service and we wish to apologise to him. We have looked into the matter and have identified steps to improve our service in the light of his experience.”