The Home Office outsourced the processing of immigration applications made from inside the UK to a private company, Sopra Steria, in November 2018. Following a number of issues which have arisen, MPs and lawyers have called for an urgent review of the Home Office’s partnership with Sopra Steria.
The new application process
The key changes introduced were:
- A move to online applications. Most paper forms were withdrawn. In principle, this was a welcome change as historically forms had been lengthy with many sections often being irrelevant to an applicant’s individual circumstances. However, the questions on the new forms are often badly drafted. In addition, the checklists generated after an application is submitted sometimes omit key documents required in support of an application.
- The requirement to provide original documents was removed. This was a significant change. Under the new system, applicants instead upload copies of their supporting documents after submitting their online form. This can however be time consuming and not always easy to manage. In some cases, documents uploaded online have not been visible on the Sopra Steria system. Applicants should therefore still take their original documents with them to their appointment.
- Mandatory attendance at an appointment at a UK Visa and Citizenship Application Service (UK VCAS) centre. There are just six “core centres” in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and Croydon offering free appointments. These are supported by an additional 51 service points located in libraries across the UK offering paid for appointments starting from £60. A premium appointment service is also offered in London where fees start at £200. In reality, it is often very difficult to obtain an appointment close to the applicant’s home address and there can be lengthy waits for an appointment.
It was reported that more than £2 million was made from appointment fees between January and April 2019. Politicians have written to the National Audit Office requesting an investigation is carried out into the operation of the contract with Sopra Steria and for a report to be provided to Parliament.
The aim of the new system was to put in place a more streamlined and efficient process but there have been serious problems since the start of the roll out last year. This includes concerns about the lack of clear visibility on fees charged by Sopra Steria. Appointment availability also continues to be an issue, with a lack of free appointments and, in most centres, limited paid for appointments. In practice, even if paying a fee to attend, appointments are often not available for at least two to three weeks. When the new system was rolled out, we were told that an appointment would be guaranteed within 5 working days of submitting the online form. More than six months on, this timescale is still not being met.
While private firms are collecting millions of pounds, applicants have been faced with travelling hundreds of miles to attend a free appointment at a core centre or, where free appointments are unavailable, they have had to pay expensive fees to submit applications at the other locations in the UK. The appointment fees are in addition to the Home Office application fees. Costs can quickly mount, particularly where family members are applying at the same time.
We recommend factoring in additional time for any upcoming applications as an appointment is unlikely to be available quickly.
There have also been instances where Sopra Steria employees have provided immigration advice to applicants, even though they are not meant to do so under their contract with the Home Office and we understand that at times their advice has been incorrect. Applicants should therefore take care not to rely on any immigration advice given by Sopra Steria.