Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 7 of Session 2004-05, dated 1 March 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"UKvisas has done a lot to streamline its procedures to handle the increased demand for visas in the last few years. But there is a worrying tension between quick processing and proper control over the visas issued. Entry clearance staff are expected to deal with a visa application in about 11 minutes which is surely too little time to look closely at the supporting documents. I urge UKvisas to look at whether more time is needed for rigorous scrutiny of applications.

In the case of the European Community Association Agreements (ECAA) in Bulgaria and Romania, UKvisas' staff raised concerns about the granting of visas on the basis of standardised business plans about which applicants knew nothing. The Home Office was wrong to dismiss these objections without getting legal advice on whether its interpretation of legal precedents was correct. The Home Office now needs to focus on removing those who have not set up a valid business, bearing in mind that entry clearance staff estimate that they would have granted a visa to fewer than 10% of the 7,000 individuals who entered the UK under the Scheme."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 7th Report of this Session, which examined the work of UKvisas in managing the entry clearance operation at visa-issuing posts overseas. Entry clearance, normally in the form of a visa, is required for over 100 nationalities prior to travel to the United Kingdom, whatever the purpose of their journey. In addition, people of all nationalities who intend to enter for certain purposes, including to settle or to marry, must also obtain entry clearance. Responsibility for entry clearance is allocated between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Home Office. UKvisas is the joint FCO/Home Office body responsible for managing the entry clearance operation and implementing immigration controls at visa-issuing posts overseas. In 2002-03 UKvisas dealt with 1.94 million visa applications at 162 Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates worldwide.

The Committee found that demand for visas has increased by over 33% in the past five years, placing increased pressure on the entry clearance operation. UKvisas has responded by making significant efforts to streamline its procedures for processing entry clearance applications. But there is a tension between achieving a more efficient process and allowing sufficient time to apply robust checks, and at times, staff felt that efficiency took precedence over the application of effective controls. UKvisas is developing a number of ways to improve its emphasis on control, through better risk assessment and through tackling specific abuses such as bogus students. But the lack of feedback on the subsequent actions of visa holders after entry to the United Kingdom makes it impossible for UKvisas to evaluate whether it is achieving its objectives.

The Committee also explored the operation of the European Community Association Agreements (ECAA) in Bulgaria and Romania, where allegations were made that applications were being granted despite the concerns of entry clearance staff. A difference of opinion between Home Office and UKvisas staff in the standards which should be applied to such applications was not satisfactorily resolved. This failure to resolve the dispute, together with ineffective communication and a lack of monitoring, resulted in over 7,000 people entering the United Kingdom under the scheme, of which entry clearance staff estimated that they would have issued visas to fewer than 10% of them.

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