The Home Office has been urged to “get a grip” of its departmental responsibilities after its own chief inspector of borders said it was outsourcing immigration operations “on the cheap”.
Lawyers and MPs said “grave problems” had arisen in the immigration system since parts of it were subcontracted out to private firms and certain responsibilities outsourced to external agencies, such as landlords and doctors, as part of the government's "hostile environment".
It comes after David Bolt, who provides independent scrutiny of the UK’s border and immigration management, admitted this week that in order to “manage its capacity”, the Home Office had made subcontracting part of its “modus operandi” – and as a consequence had reduced control over its own operations.
He questioned whether there was “sufficient visibility” around the way the department had increasingly placed the onus on external other public bodies to carry out immigration checks, and around the manner in which immigration detention, visa processing and other provisions had been outsourced to private firms.
The Independent revealed last month that Sopra Steria, a French firm that took over in-country visa processing in November, had raked in millions for providing what lawyers branded a “substandard” service, which had forced some applicants to pay high fees and travel hundreds of miles to submit applications on time.
The department has also come under fire recently for wrongly treating those with a right to live in the UK as illegal immigrants – an issue that was encapsulated by the Windrush scandal last April.
In light of Mr Bolt’s comments, Simon Davis, president of the Law Society, said: “We have been raising the alarm on systemic problems in UK visa and immigration for a long time now and outsourced services have been a can of worms from the very start.
“A maze of misinformation and misdirection in the contracted system could all too easily lead to unlawful or incorrect decisions for applicants, delays for others and some may be excluded from the system because of inflated prices, knock on costs and inaccessible services.”
Mr Davis warned that there was 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”.
He added: “These grave problems in our immigration system undermine the rule of law, while also damaging our country’s reputation for justice and fairness.”
Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, who has asked the National Audit Office (NAO) to investigate the Home Office’s contract with Sopra Steria, urged ministers to work with the chief inspector to “get a grip on these core departmental responsibilities”.
He added: “David Bolt has confirmed the dangers of the Home Office’s approach to outsourcing immigration services – it’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and doing it ‘on the cheap’.
“These services make decisions which change lives. It is simply not good enough for the Home Office to use public money to pass the buck to private companies, who can make millions of pounds of profit from immigration detention and visa processing."
Chai Patel, legal director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said outsourcing immigration operations to ordinary people like landlords and doctors created "borders and division" and called for the Home Office to be "rebuilt from the ground up".
He added: “The Home Office habitually makes the wrong decisions in immigration cases and is forced to overturn these on appeal. These mistakes have seen large numbers of people – the Windrush generation among them - lose the right to work, to rent a property, and even be detained and deported.
"Outsourcing immigration control to private profit making companies decreases transparency and incentivises rushed, shoddy decision making."
Speaking at a parliamentary event organised by the APPG for visas and immigration last week, Mr Bolt said also questioned whether the Home Office had “the capacity to do anything about” the issues because it was “short of resource generally, meaning everything is under pressure” – likening the situation to “changing a tyre as you’re driving down the motorway”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering an immigration system that is fair and delivers value for money for the taxpayer. We work closely with all partners to make sure they provide an excellent service to all customers and that they deliver the high standards our contracts demand.
“The UK has one of the most attractive visa systems in the world. Its effectiveness is shown by the fact that the vast majority of applications are processed in line with service standards.”