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Home Office facing investigation for breach of law over outsourced visa service deluged with complaints

May Bulman

The Home Office is facing an investigation by the complaints watchdog after it breached the law by failing to respond to complaints about its “incompetent” outsourced visa service, The Independent has learnt.

The parliamentary ombudsman has escalated a complaint regarding misconduct by VFS Global, which is contracted by the government to process overseas visas, after the private firm gave an Australian man incorrect instructions on how to submit his visa.

Officials said they would launch a formal investigation next week unless the department responded to requests for information, which it has so far repeatedly refused to do.

Lawyers said the case highlighted a lack of accountability over poor service provided under the subcontracting deal. Since the arrangement was set up in 2014, it has been deluged with complaints and accused of exploiting vulnerable applicants for profit.

The Independent revealed that the Home Office has made £1.6bn from visa applicants under the arrangement – a nine-fold increase on the five years prior to the start of the contract – despite widespread claims of “gross maladministration” and “aggressive” selling by the Dubai-based firm.

Chris Williams, 32, was wrongly informed by staff at a VFS Global centre in Australia last August that he could not submit two stages of his Tier One worker application at the same time, which he needed to do in order to get his visa on time to start a new job in the UK.

The Australian national subsequently made a complaint to the Home Office, to which he received no response for three months, during which time he was able to submit his application and move to the UK to start work.

He pursued the complaint nonetheless and following intervention by his local MP, Kate Hoey, the Home Office responded saying it would not uphold the complaint because “VFS stated they considered they acted in accordance with UKVI requirements”.

It has subsequently emerged, however, in documents obtained by Mr Williams through Freedom of Information requests, that the Home Office had privately acknowledged that VFS Global was wrong not to allow him to submit both stages of the application – yet it still refrained from upholding the complaint.

Mr Williams referred the case to the parliamentary ombudsman in February. The watchdog requested that the Home Office release communications between itself and VFS Global, but the department informed the watchdog that it could not as the firm had requested it not to.

The ombudsman said that unless the Home Office had a legal basis for withholding the communications, its failure to do so constituted a breach of the law. But it has repeatedly failed to respond to the request.

On Thursday, Mr Williams received a letter from the ombudsman stating that the issue had been escalated and that, if it does not receive a response from the Home Office next week, an investigation will be launched.

Mr Williams said: “I had hoped it would be resolved quickly and I would be able to get my visa and get back here so that I wouldn’t lose a job that I wanted, and because of the delays I almost lost that job.

“Now, I want an acknowledgement of the horrendous 14 months that I’ve been through, an acknowledgement of the dishonesty, of the breaking of the law.

“I know the Home Office has a bad reputation, but this has shown me that they have no obligation to truth or honesty or morality, and then whenever they are caught they just double down.”

Nicole Francis, chief executive of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said the case highlighted how the outsourced visa system had led to a lack of transparency and accountability for poor service.

“We’ve seen a number of people being caught between the Home Office and VFS in this subcontracting arrangement. Whose responsibility is it? How do people get redress when something goes wrong? What is the route to getting some kind of response?” she said.

“When they set up these kind of arrangements, it’s not just that people get the poor service – a lack of availability of appointments, correct documents not being uploaded, people being made to pay for things they don’t need to pay for – it’s how do you then get things corrected.”

The Home Office said it was aware of the complaint but declined to comment.

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