UK visa outsourcing criticised by immigration lawyers
The French provider Sopra Steria has been criticised for its handling of UK visa applications for migrants already living and working in the UK. Some people are at risk of being removed, as they have found it difficult to book appointments and Sopra Steria employees have been unable to offer correct information. Furthermore, many applicants have to travel considerable distances to access the facilities.
About UK visa services from Sopra Steria
The UK government outsourced this £91m contract to Sopra Steria, with effect from November 2018. The service is supposed to test out the government’s stated ambitions of digitising all visa services. However, there have been problems with Sopra Steria operations from the outset. It is also possible that the company’s services may be subject to legal challenge, due to their endorsement of the immigration advice service offered by a separate contractor in India. This is believed to constitute a commercial conflict of interest. The Sopra Steria website is currently promoting immigration services offered by BLS International, which is considered to conflict with the company’s core UK activity as it endorses the advice of a business in which it holds a commercial interest.
Sopra Steria currently operates more than 50 service points in the UK and visa applicants need to personally attend a centre in order to provide physical biometric data, like fingerprints and also upload relevant documentation. Although a handful of the service points are free of charge, most of them tend to be based in UK libraries and a fee of £60 is charged for visits. There is also a London-based “premium” service centre, with fees from £200 per appointment and applicants requesting home visits for VIP treatment will be charged £9,100.
Immigration lawyers have also pointed out that the scheme rollout was flawed, with no available centres in major cities like Leeds or Sheffield. Furthermore, where centres are available it is difficult to make appointments, and even applicants paying £600 for a high priority decision are having to wait up to a week to find out whether or not their application is successful.
A spokesperson from Sopra Steria commented that improvements to their booking system are needed and said: “We are working closely with [UK Visas and Immigration] to address any early challenges but since the launch less than 1 per cent of appointments were re-scheduled, and a very small number of super priority visas have not met the customer service timelines,” a spokeswoman said. “Each of these cases have been dealt with individually to discuss reimbursement”.
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