Private firms have raked in millions of pounds through the Home Office’s newly outsourced visa system as people are forced to pay “extortionate” fees and travel long distances to apply for UK status.
Immigration lawyers have warned legal migrants risk being “thrown into the hostile environment” after the visa processing service was outsourced to French firm Sopra Steria last November.
Those affected include some people applying for EU settled status ahead of Brexit – despite the government stating that this application is free.
While visa applicants could previously go to their local post office to upload documents and provide biometric data such as fingerprints, they must now attend one of just six “core centres” across the country which offer a free service, or another 51 which charge a fee starting from £60.
Sopra Steria also offers a “premium service” through a partner company called BLS, where appointments start at £200. The service made more than £2m between January and April 2019, according to data obtained through a freedom of information (FOI) request.
Solicitors said applicants had been unable to book free appointments due to a lack of availability on Sopra Steria’s website, with some forced to travel hundreds of miles or pay high fees in order to submit their applications on time.
Other applicants have been met with a “maze of misinformation and misdirection” while completing the new online application forms provided by the firm, which lawyers said had led people to abandon the process or submit inaccurate applications, potentially leading to erroneous refusals.
The Independent has also learned that family members of EU nationals must go through the privatised system to obtain biometric residency cards in order to apply for the EU settlement scheme, despite the government pledging that the application to settle their status post-Brexit was free.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws raised concerns that the “inconsistent” and “substandard” system could lead to unlawful or incorrect decisions for applicants, or exclude people from the system because of “inflated prices and inaccessible services”.
She said Sopra Steria applicants were being offered “often very costly, unnecessary supplementary services when they may be particularly vulnerable”.
“There is 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,” she added.
“These grave problems in our immigration system undermine the rule of law, while also damaging our country’s reputation for justice and fairness.”
FOI data shows more than 8,000 appointments were booked at the premium lounge in the first four months of 2019. With appointments starting at £200 off-peak and rising to £260 during office hours, this indicates that the firm has collected nearly £2m at this location alone.
The data also shows that of 52,504 appointments booked at the Croydon centre – one of the six core centres that offer free appointments – between January and April this year, a third (17,000) paid a fee in order to secure a same-day appointment or one outside office hours.
David Hugkulstone, director of Smith Stone Walters immigration practice, who obtained the figures, said he was aware of many clients who had been left with little option but to buy a premium appointment or pay additional fees just in order submit their application in time.
He accused the Home Office and Sopra Steria of placing an “unhealthy emphasis” on “upselling additional immigration services to their customers wherever possible”.
David Pountney, a senior solicitor at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, who works mainly with refugees applying for settlement, said many of his clients had been unable to complete their applications on time due to the “limited number of appointments”.
“Sopra Steria is now adding one day at a time at about 7am in the morning, and by 9am they’ve gone. We have to keep doing that every day,” he said.
“Our clients are very anxious because they can’t complete their application. It’s been submitted, but no one is going to make a decision on it until they’ve completed the process, which involves going to the appointment, handing over the documents and having their biometrics taken.
“There is a deadline on getting your biometrics. After that your application is rejected and then you don’t have the right to be here. You lose all your rights and you’re thrown to the hostile environment.”
Bryony Rest, an immigration solicitor at David Gray Solicitors, said the new system had been “dropped without any warning” and that with it there had been a surge in cost for the same service.
“Applicants used to pay £600 extra for a same-day decision, for which they would meet an immigration officer. Then suddenly from November they were being charged £600 for a 24-hour decision. And now it’s £800 for a 24-hour decision, and they’re no longer seeing anyone face to face,” she said.
“It’s making it all very difficult and expensive for people. Visa fees themselves have shot up in the last few years. It’s a really blunt way of making people not apply, by pricing them all out so they all go home. It is part of the hostile environment.”
A Sopra Steria spokesperson said its service was experiencing “higher than anticipated demand” at present and that it would be increasing the availability of free appointments at its core centres as well extending capacity at user-pay locations.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are sorry for any inconvenience caused to those unable to access appointments, which have been subject to a higher than expected demand.
“The Home Office is working closely with Sopra Steria to ensure additional appointments are made available at existing sites across the UK. In addition, Sopra Steria will be opening six new enhanced service locations [by the end of the month] to provide extra capacity for customers in England and Scotland.
“We are also working to make sure that anyone affected by technical issues suffered by Sopra Steria are offered a free appointment as soon as possible. A full refund will be provided to those who paid a fee for an appointment that was not completed as a result of technical issues.”