The Home Office should try to become more open and less “cryptic” about how it makes visa decisions to assuage the public’s concerns about the risk of “bias and poor practice”, a watchdog has said.
Independent chief inspector of borders and immigration David Bolt made the comments based on his inspection of a programme to close overseas visa decision-making centres – in which he identified a reticence to publish information about its processes.
ICIBI was inspecting UK Visas and Immigration onshoring programme, which has seen it close more than 100 visa decision-making centres since 2008.
Just 10 such centres were left open as of last September, when the chief inspector submitted his report to the Home Office. Visa decision-making is now concentrated in the UK, mostly in Croydon and Sheffield, with some decisions made in Liverpool.
The closures were developed into the most recent iteration of the network consolidation programme, known as “network consolidation”, in 2015. At that point, visa decisions were divided geographically according to theme – with student visas dealt with in Sheffield and visitor visas in Croydon, for example.
But the Home Office has published very little information on its plans for the next phase of the programme – and nor has it published much data on how the changes have affected UKVI’s performance to date.
Bolt said it would be logical to assume UKVI would go on to close its remaining overseas centres and move all decision-making to the UK – but added that "UKVI has made it clear in responding to this report that this is my opinion but it is not its current policy."
The chief inspector said closing the last centres would require “better performance data than the Home Office currently collects, better analysis, and better communication about its thinking and short, medium and long-term plans for processing visa applications”.
He urged the department to share its proposals with staff and other affected organisations “as part of a revised and more inclusive communication and consultation strategy”.
But responding to the report, the Home Office said it had “no plans at present, even in outline” yet for the next phase of the project.
'We do not intend to release further information'
Bolt's report also urged the Home Office to publish more information about the so-called "streaming tool" UKVI uses to assess risk attached to particular visa applications, in a bid to "demystify" visa decision-making for the public.
“Some stakeholders remain deeply suspicious of the streaming tool, believing that it unfairly discriminates against particular applicants, resulting in high levels of refusals,” he said.
But while the Home Office shared some information about the types of data used by the tool, it argued that providing more detailed information could help “unscrupulous parties to actively manipulate the immigration system”.
“Whilst UKVI recognises the desire for transparency, this must be balanced with the integrity of immigration control; we do not intend to release further information about the methodology and data into the public domain,” it said.
Publishing the information could also impair some of the UK’s relationships with other countries and international engagement “in the sensitive issues surrounding migration and border security”, it added. Making datasets behind the tool public “would compromise that integrity and the effectiveness of immigration control”, it said.
Commenting on the response, Bolt questioned whether the Home Office had "got the balance right" between transparency and security, "given that the vast majority of visa applicants are not looking to manipulate the system but simply to understand how to make a successful application".
“The more cryptic the Home Office is seen to be about the way visa decisions are made, the more it will fuel concerns about bias and poor practice,” he said.
“The department’s reputation and the staff who work in this area would be better served if its first instinct were to be open and engaging rather than seemingly reluctant to reveal more than it absolutely has to.”
The Home Office did, however, accept Bolt’s remaining three recommendations. It agreed to reiterate ministers’ support for the current phase of the programme; to ensure it gathers enough data to come up with a “before and after” comparison of costs and performance; and to publish service standards and performance data for visa application centres on gov.uk.
Report's publication comes late
Bolt’s report was published, along with the Home Office’s response to the report, today – around four and a half months after Bolt submitted it to the home secretary on 23 September.
The publication falls well outside the department’s own target to publish and lay ICIBI reports before parliament within eight weeks of receiving them.
Last month CSW revealed that the Home Office had failed to publish a single one of the 14 reports Bolt submitted in 2019 within its own eight-week target. Five reports are still yet to be published.