Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office reported today on the entry clearance operation run by UKvisas at British Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates around the world. It is government policy to facilitate the entry of those qualifying for visas as quickly and simply as possible, while turning away unqualified applicants. UKvisas faces a real challenge in balancing these competing priorities of delivering an efficient visa service whilst giving each application adequate consideration (see note 2). The NAO found that despite increasing demand for visas and a rapidly changing policy environment, UKvisas is improving its efficiency and providing a high quality of service to applicants. However, the use of better information on the application of controls would assist UKvisas in making firm and fair entry clearance decisions.
In 2002-03 UKvisas processed 1.94 million applications, an increase of 33 per cent over the last five years. In response to this increase, UKvisas has implemented a number of initiatives to improve the efficient delivery of its visa service, including changes to working practices and improvements to information technology. These are resulting in demonstrable benefits and are enabling visa-issuing posts to handle the increasing number of applications. But there remains some variation in the performance of posts and in the extent to which they have adopted efficiency initiatives to-date. The NAO surveyed visa applicants at 12 posts and found that 80 per cent were satisfied with the quality of service they received. However, 35 out of 162 posts could not consistently meet the daily demand for visa applications in 2003. The increasing demand for visas and potential changes in immigration policy mean that more posts could face such difficulties in the future. In the light of this, there is a need for UKvisas to explore further the options for managing demand.
UKvisas places a strong emphasis on applying robust immigration control and carries out a range of checks on each application though the implementation of this policy cannot be fully evaluated since there is no means of knowing the extent to which those receiving visas breach their conditions of entry eg, by overstaying their allotted time in the UK. UKvisas has sought to enhance the application of its controls by devoting more resources to forgery detection, making better use of intelligence information and by developing a more sophisticated approach to risk analysis. More remains to be done, particularly in collecting and disseminating information to visa sections to inform decision-making and to provide better feedback on visa compliance. The high profile case of the European Community Association Agreements in Bulgaria and Romania illustrate the importance of co-ordination, guidance and feedback in making decisions. UKvisas’ existing performance targets focus primarily on efficiency and the establishment of indicators to assess the effectiveness of controls would ensure that sufficient emphasis is given to control issues. However, a full assessment of whether the objectives of entry clearance are being met would require better information on the actions of visa holders after they enter the United Kingdom.
UKvisas seeks to encourage consistent decision-making through a range of measures, including its staff training programme and the provision of support and advice to staff at posts. The fact that staff consider each application on its own merits and that there is a degree of judgement involved makes it difficult for UKvisas to measure whether firm and fair decisions are being made on a consistent basis. In 2003, 50 per cent of appeals against entry clearance decisions on family visit cases led to the original decision being overturned although this represents only 5% of the applications that UKvisas refused. While there are several contributing factors, this does raise some questions over the quality of decision-making. The Report identifies that stronger quality review and additional focused training would give greater assurance of consistent decision making and could therefore lead to fewer borderline refusals reaching appeal.