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Independent Report On the “Efficiency, Effectiveness and Consistency” of UKVI’s Front End Services Published

On 25th November 2021, an independent report on the “efficiency, effectiveness and consistency” of the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) Front End Services (FES) was published on the Home Office website. The report was prepared by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Neal. The findings and recommendations are important in ensuring that improvements are made to the immigration system in terms of ease of access for all applicants from around the world and in the UK. In this article, we will summarise the findings of this report and how the immigration system may change in the future as a result.

What are the UKVI Front End Services (FES)?

The UKVI’s FES are the aspects of the immigration system which service users interact with to make an application. As the Home Office explains, “UKVI’s ‘front end services’ (FES) are intended to provide individuals wishing to submit a UK visa or citizenship application with a readily accessible, easy-to-use means of making their application”. This includes the range of online digital services on the Home Office website.

Why was this report commissioned?

In the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) Inspection Plan for 2020/21, it was noted that an inspection of UKVI’s FES would be undertaken “to examine the efficiency, effectiveness and consistency of FES delivered by UKVI and through its commercial partners (CPs), particularly its streamlined and digitised UK Visa and Citizenship Application Service (UKVCAS) in-country and Visa Application Centres (VACs) overseas”.

What areas of the front-end immigration system did the inspection look at?

The inspection looked at a number of front-end touchpoints for the UK’s immigration system, including:

  • The information and help were given to applicants
  • The availability of free appointments
  • The level of customer experience provided
  • Resourcing and training of immigration staff
  • Quality assurance, feedback, and complaint processes
  • How well vulnerable individuals are catered for
  • Continuous service improvement

What did the report find/recommend?

The report made a number of key findings and recommendations in relation to the way in which UKVI delivers its Front-End Services, including:

Provision of guidance and information by UKVI to service users

  • Navigating the sheer volume of online information is difficult; “There are multiple links and landing pages to peruse, and they felt that they needed to do in-depth ‘research’ or use paid agents to assist. This all adds to the costs of what is already seen as an expensive service when all the immigration fees and other application charges are taken into account”.
  • The wording used in much of UKVI guidance is “overly official language, hard to follow and not easily understood”. As evidence of this, it highlights that there are many external forums online which allow those who have gone through the system or others with knowledge to assist those applying to the UKVI.
  • As information is only available in English and Welsh, this can be a real challenge for those who speak a different language.
  • On the matter of the complexity of guidance, it was noted that vulnerable applicants such as refugees face significant barriers, especially when factors such as poor mental health, exclusion, and lack of English language skills are taken into account. This means that it is difficult for many to prepare their own applications, and they need to seek assistance; as one respondent explained, “this impedes their ability to be independent, to learn and integrate. Unfortunately, this process is counterintuitive and makes them feel like they are not capable of achieving anything [….] from a casework perspective, the system is not designed appropriately to cater to the needs of refugees. The system is set up in one size fits all, as soon as you don’t fit in the framework, you are stuck and can’t proceed. Furthermore, there are no adjustments for people with special needs, like those who are visually impaired.”

Availability of free UKVI appointments

  • Applicants are often forced to choose UKVI appointment slots which incur a cost – this is despite efforts to make free appointments available to all applicants.
  • The system used to get free appointments is “difficult to navigate, busy, limited and available only at a small number of sites”.
  • Call centres are dealing with a high volume of questions about the lack of availability of free appointments

‘Customer experience’ when dealing with Front End Services

  • Government sites are typically easy to use, but those provided by commercial partners are seen as “frustrating”, “dated and clunky”, “full of glitches”, and sometimes “slow and non-responsive”.
  • Some customers reported frustration with the distance they needed to travel to attend appointments

Other findings:

  • There is a need to publish performance data on waiting times and the availability of free appointments
  • Improved communication is needed to make it clear to customers that ‘Added Value Services’ (AVS) are optional, and free services remain available and will not disadvantage them
  • Greater consideration is required for vulnerable applicants

Final words

Many of the findings in this report will be of no surprise to many who have used or are involved on a daily basis with UK immigration. The issues identified in relation to the lack of support and unsuitability of front-end systems for vulnerable applicants such as refugees and those with physical and cognitive disabilities is of particular concern. Even for those who speak English to a high standard and have the resources needed to prepare a visa application, the process can still be complex and full of potholes. The feeling of foreboding when facing a mountain of complex and often overlapping information written in a foreign language that must be fully understood in order to prepare an immigration application in the UK must be considerable. It is, nevertheless, positive that these limitations and areas for improvement have been identified and will hopefully gain the attention they need in the next year and beyond.

If you need any assistance with your application, speak to an immigration Solicitor who will be able to advise you.

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