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Monday, June 17, 2019

Private firms profiting from new UK visa system

The Independent carries a shocking story this morning, claiming that private firms have raked in millions of pounds through the Home Office’s newly outsourced visa system, as people are forced to pay “extortionate” fees and travel long distances to apply for UK status.

They say that immigration lawyers have warned legal migrants risk being “thrown into the hostile environment” after the visa processing service was outsourced to French firm Sopra Steria last November. Those affected include some people applying for EU settled status ahead of Brexit – despite the government stating that this application is free:

While visa applicants could previously go to their local post office to upload documents and provide biometric data such as fingerprints, they must now attend one of just six “core centres” across the country which offer a free service, or another 51 which charge a fee starting from £60.

Sopra Steria also offers a “premium service” through a partner company called BLS, where appointments start at £200. The service made more than £2m between January and April 2019, according to data obtained through a freedom of information (FOI) request.

Solicitors said applicants had been unable to book free appointments due to a lack of availability on Sopra Steria’s website, with some forced to travel hundreds of miles or pay high fees in order to submit their applications on time.

Other applicants have been met with a “maze of misinformation and misdirection” while completing the new online application forms provided by the firm, which lawyers said had led people to abandon the process or submit inaccurate applications, potentially leading to erroneous refusals.

The Independent has also learned that family members of EU nationals must go through the privatised system to obtain biometric residency cards in order to apply for the EU settlement scheme, despite the government pledging that the application to settle their status post-Brexit was free.


The paper reports that Law Society President, Christina Blacklaws has raised concerns that this “inconsistent” and “substandard” system could lead to unlawful or incorrect decisions for applicants, or exclude people from the system because of “inflated prices and inaccessible services”. She said Sopra Steria applicants were being offered “often very costly, unnecessary supplementary services when they may be particularly vulnerable”:

“There is a real risk of an increase in Home Office refusals based on a lack of evidence simply because the subcontractor has rejected, failed to request or to transfer the relevant evidence from applicants to the Home Office,” she added.

“These grave problems in our immigration system undermine the rule of law, while also damaging our country’s reputation for justice and fairness.”


The Independent reveals that FOI data shows more than 8,000 appointments were booked at the premium lounge in the first four months of 2019. With appointments starting at £200 off-peak and rising to £260 during office hours, this indicates that the firm has collected nearly £2m at this location alone.

The data also shows that of 52,504 appointments booked at the Croydon centre – one of the six core centres that offer free appointments – between January and April this year, a third (17,000) paid a fee in order to secure a same-day appointment or one outside office hours.

This sort of profit making at the expense of migrants is completely unacceptable. It is exploiting a group of people who are already unsettled and looking for security and certainty. Now that it is out in the open, it should be up to Parliament to challenge the government on these practices and force them to be changed.
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