23 July 2018

The UK’s visa system is a rigged, expensive mess


For all Theresa May’s fine words about welcoming immigrants who “want to contribute to our economy and society”, our recent history is far from proud. Having lived and worked in many non-EU countries, with a non-EU wife, I’ve seen UK immigration from the other side.

It’s an ideal system – for those prepared to defraud the British state. The problem is it doesn’t work nearly so well for job-creating entrepreneurs, high-skilled workers, high-paying students, doctors, nurses and many others. Having proactively terrified one valuable immigrant population, the Windrush “celebrations” were tokenistic and insulting. We must now see wholesale reform to make sure we stop alienating the most talented visa applicants.

Loss of control

In 2005, the Home Office outsourced the front line of visa applications to a private company, VFS. They now manage UK visa applications in 77 countries. Few applicants ever meet a UK government employee.  Instead, we rely on a bewildering array of paperwork, filtered by low-paid VFS clerks, with decisions made in UK. Many submissions run to over 100 pages with supporting documents.  It’s a situation that weakens both our security and our understanding of applicants’ context.

The unfortunate truth is that many applicants come from countries suffering corruption, rendering local documents unreliable. These are often the same countries with the highest growth in technology skills, entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses and wealth.

Decisions often feel arbitrary. I’ve met the CFO of a high-growth tech firm whose visa was rejected three times as he tried to establish a UK head-office for his company, employing thousands. Student applicants, already accepted by UK universities and paying far more than EU students, spend months gathering largely irrelevant paperwork. Bear in mind it’s their higher fees which fund a big chunk of our institutions’ research and facilities.

All this bureaucracy causes pain and uncertainty to applicants, British businesses and our public services, as well as doing unnecessary damage to our reputation abroad. India and other allies are furious. In 2011, the Home Office put further restrictions on student visas, resulting in a calamitous 50 per cent drop in Indian applicants to our universities.

And there’s no shortage of alternative destinations. Researchers at UCL say Australia has pushed UK into third place for overseas students – students that add £20bn to our economy, and Canada is fast catching up. Earlier this year Indian prime minister Narendra Modi refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to return illegal immigrants, with the Indian High Commission stating that the UK hadn’t eased visa policies as promised and was still “cancelling visas on small pretexts.” Hardly a promising sign when it comes to a trade deal with India.

But while legitimate applicants are bogged down in red tape, I’ve also heard of others bragging about getting their UK visa on the back of fraudulently acquired documents. We would have a better chance of rooting this out with more face-to-face interviews with applicants. A Deputy Ambassador at a non-EU German embassy told me that well-trained German government employees meet every applicant, even for tourist visas, and can tell within five minutes whether an applicant is fraudulent, regardless of the documentation.

The second problem is money – not how much visas cost, but how little goes to UK Treasury. VFS effectively holds a monopoly and working with the Home Office, has steadily increased complexity and paperwork to justify eye-watering fee increases. At least they have done us a favour by proving the high value people attach to UK visas. For instance, a technology expert (tier 2) on the “shortage occupations list” pays a visa fee of £1,200 plus a healthcare surcharge of £200 per year.

But that’s just the beginning. Due to the complexity of the paperwork, an entire visa consulting industry has sprung up, clustering around VFS offices in non-EU countries. They tell you exactly how to write your application and which documents will trigger acceptance or rejection. They exist to game the system. With their costs and other charges, and a UK immigration lawyer, the total can easily breach £4,000.

If the application is rejected for any reason, they (or the UK company/NHS paying) get nothing back. “Shortage occupation” visas have a monthly cap, leading to thousands being rejected recently. The only money received by the Treasury is the health surcharge and a fraction of the visa fee — though we don’t actually know what fraction. VFS doesn’t report its UK visa accounts separately and isn’t a UK company, it’s Swiss. We’re not alone — VFS now operates in many other countries. But we don’t need to follow the herd over the cliff.

The Hostile Environment laid bare

Talking to these visa consultants is revealing. They are the first to say that the Home Office uses its distance from applicants to treat them as numbers, and that the most irrelevant missing paper will justify rejection — not questions, outright rejections.

This mess is not an intended policy outcome – it has metastasised as a consequence of an arbitrary net migration target, outsourcing our interface with applicants, restricting student visas and capping visas for those we need the most. But it seems to have become a tool to reduce immigration numbers through painful attrition out of site of the UK electorate. This is the “hostile environment” at work.

Sajid Javid has made a good start as Home Secretary, relaxing caps for doctors and nurses that saw 2,360 visas for NHS doctors rejected in five months, while almost 10,000 doctors’ posts remained unfilled. However we still have a situation where thousands of high-skilled workers — the brightest and the best we hear so much about — are rejected due to caps.

How to fix it?

First, we need to regain control of the application interface and ditch VFS. Second, we must treat applicants as a potential asset, rather than pesky threats. The private sector is just as adept as defining unwanted customers as wanted ones. Often this is done through pricing. Thanks to high visa application costs, we know we can set the bar high rather than relying on potentially fraudulent documents to prove wealth.

If a certain visa is valued at £4,000, why doesn’t the UK government streamline the paperwork, negate the middlemen, charge that much and use it to fund public services? One stressed graduate student applicant gave me a simple solution. “My grandfather is paying my university and living costs. It’s taken four months to gather, translate and notarise paperwork proving our relationship and the income of three generations. Can’t they just ask us to pay upfront?”

Good point. Other countries have better system — the Malaysian government proves wealth by requiring a level of savings to be moved to a Malaysian fixed deposit which can be used by the government should visa conditions be broken (e.g. unpaid health bills, crime).

With EU net migration plummeting since the Brexit referendum, we need a non-EU immigration system that works for our economy and people. Either way, the Windrush debacle should be enough of a lesson to build a system which is fair, efficient and contributes to our prosperity.

Tim Gocher is founder of the Dolma Impact Fund and Honorary Professor of Sustainable Business at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus