For the past few days I have been in the Gulf with colleagues from the Home Affairs Select Committee. We have seen the close police co-operation between the UK and Qatar and the UAE and visited anti-terrorism centres with which the UK works in both countries.
The main purpose of our trip, however, has been to inspect the UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) work. UKBA employs thousands of staff overseas to support issuing 2.6 million visas annually.
Abu Dhabi is a hub for visa issuing work where UKBA employ over 400 staff, most locally recruited, but many career civil servants from the UK. In Dubai we have a visa application centre, where VFS, our private sector partner, take in over 80,000 UK visa applications annually.
The efficiency and customer focus shown by VFS as they confirm information provided and take biometrics/fingerprints from visa applicants in my view shows outsourcing at its best. The centre is based in one of Dubai’s landmark shopping malls. The service presents a shop front for Britain where tourists can plan their UK travel from booking visitor attractions through to purchasing an Oyster card. With the best will in the world it is hard to see how the service and experience could be replicated by our consular service.
Applications are then couriered to Abu Dhabi where they are assessed by UKBA staff, along with all applications from other countries such as Bahrain and the 100,000+ visitor applications we receive every year from Pakistan.
Our Committee is often critical of UKBA and the visa issuing hub in Abu Dhabi received a negative report in 2010 from John Vine, the UKBA Chief Inspector. We were delighted to see on our trip that the service, at least in Abu Dhabi, has been turned round. The processing of applications appeared efficient, morale was good in a pleasant working environment and we saw Entry Clearance Officers writing refusal notices which clearly explained their reasons in plain English, something which our Committee has been demanding for a long time.
In 2011 we restored the discretion for Entry Clearance Officers which had been disgracefully removed by the Labour government under its ‘Points Based System’ where applications which ticked the required boxes had to be approved even where the immigration officer suspected fraud or and applicants ostensibly going to a UK university could not speak English. In Abu Dhabi I was able to sit in on an interview between such an officer and an applicant for an English course in the UK where he was again able to use his judgement as to whether she was genuine and should be allowed into our country.
There is a long way to go but our government is on the way to delivering what we promised on immigration.