Why outsourcing is destroying our immigration system...


Where to begin...

So, last month our new Prime Minister unveiled a radical plan to 'shake-up' our immigration system - this revolutionary plan would help Great Britain attract the 'best and the brightest' in a post-Brexit world. 

The problem with this plan is that it is neither 'radical' nor a 'shake-up' -  a quick google search has told me that such a plan to attract 'the best and the brightest' has already been rolled out on several occasions by several different politicians. But my issue is not with the political soundbites or even the idea of reforming our immigration system. 

Oh no. 

My concerns centre around that of profiteering and outsourcing. 

The problem is that the Home Office have just been found to have made £500 million profit in the last year and yet the Chief Inspector of Borders states that the Home Office are having to outsource aspects of our immigration system because of 'funding shortages'. This simply does not compute. Especially when the same investigation into the finances of our immigration system found that the Home Office had made £1.6 billion from visa applications in the past five years. That is nine-times more than the five years before that. So the money is there. 

Most, if not all, immigration scandals or issues can all be traced back to outsourcing. 

For example, there is whole 'TOEIC/ETS' debacle (where an undercover investigation found that three English test centres were involved in fraud by 'selling' English language certificates). ETS was the name of the test provider, TOEIC the name of the test itself. For a fee, an overseas student could pay to have a British speaker take their English language test for them. Clearly illegal. No one disputed that. Problems arose though when the Home Office sought to remove nearly 40,000 students on the basis that they simply had taken a TOEIC test. There was no evidence that the fraud had been committed in every test centre and indeed there was no evidence to suggest that 40,000 students had committed fraud. Numerous experts and court cases were fought where the conduct of the Home Office had been criticised. Even the National Audit Office investigated the conduct of the Home Office in this matter. But if you were to ask the question, why this happened, then the answer is simple. This was an English language test that had been outsourced to a private company. The Home Office lost complete oversight over the whole process. There was no control over franchising and no scope for the Home Office to complete vetting of business owners or test invigilators.  Prior to the scandal breaking, the Home Office asked ETS to conduct an audit of a test centre where the test results appeared suspicious. ETS have alleged in court that a surprise audit was conducted and there was no cause of concern. 

TOEIC isn't the only example. 

Towards the end of 2018, the Home Office started phasing out their own visa application centres and instead handed over control to a private company called Sopra Steria. Their remit was simple. Process visa applications and take biometric data. Yet, hundreds of applicants have turned up at appointment centres only to be greeted by a grim faced 'agent' who tells them they must purchase additional ('optional') services in order to ensure their application is processed correctly. To make matters worse, the agent will then review the application and given their 'opinion' on its merits. Just to be clear, these agents are not regulated to give immigration advice. And it is a criminal offence to give immigration advice unless you are regulated to do so. These issues have been raised time and time again with the Home Office and yet no action has been taken. 

Years before that there was the Capita scandal - the Home Office outsourced immigration enforcement to a private company. The only problem was that Capita didn't just contact those who did not have a visa - they also contacted migrants lawfully in the UK, telling them they had to leave the UK or face a penalty (or prison). I will never forget that client of mine who, having invested £5 million into UK government bonds, received a phone call from Capita to say that he had to leave the UK because he was 'illegal'. It turned out to be a clerical error and the Capita agent had been reading off the wrong spreadsheet but it took numerous phone calls, letters and the threat of legal action to rectify the error. 

The greatest weakness of our immigration system is not actually the law itself. No, the greatest weakness of our immigration system is the increasing trend of outsourcing immigration control and responsibility to private companies as this results in the Home Office having no or little visibility of the process. If the recent trends in politics is anything to go by then centralising accountability rather than dissipating it will be the only cure for our rather sick immigration system. The best and the brightest will only come to the UK if our immigration system operates with integrity and respect. If we operate our immigration system like some sort of business, where the margins and the bottom line is the only thing that matters then we will lose talent and growth to other countries.  The rhetoric of the 'best and brightest' should not be a campaign slogan. Instead it should be an actual strategic focus. 

Stop outsourcing and take responsibility. 

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The Home Office has been outsourcing immigration operations “on the cheap” because of funding shortages and a lack of interest from ministers, the government’s own chief inspector of borders has admitted. David Bolt, who provides independent scrutiny of the UK’s border and immigration management, told The Independent 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 agencies, such as landlords and doctors, to carry out immigration checks, and around the manner in which immigration detention, visa processing and other provisions had been outsourced to private firms.
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