How well is the new,
out-sourced immigration
service doing?

The process for handling UK visa and citizenship applications changed in November last year, when the Home Office appointed a commercial partner, Sopra Steria, to deliver its new immigration customer service throughout the country.

Sopra Steria promised ‘increased convenience and choice’ for those applicants submitting in-country UK visa applications such as Tier 2 work extensions.  The procedure requires migrants to book a free biometric appointment at one of six core centres in major cities or pay a supplementary fee for an appointment at one of the 50 ‘enhanced service points’, usually situated in local libraries.

The third option is to pay a premium fee to gain a VIP-style experience by booking into Sopra Steria’s premium lounge in the City of London.

Following a Freedom of Information request, Smith Stone Walters has discovered how well the new system has been functioning in the first four months of 2019 – and how profitable it has been for Sopra Steria.

On the frontline

The headquarters of UK Visas and Immigration has been centred in Croydon for decades. It therefore came as little surprise when Sopra Steria chose to establish one of it’s core application centres just round the corner from Lunar House.

This new office is open every day except Sunday, a total of 60 hours a week. Our Freedom of Information request confirms that the overall number of Croydon appointments booked by customers between January and April this year was 52,504 – that’s an astonishing 500 applicants processed every working day.

Of those, 17,000 people chose to incur an additional booking fee, for instance, to secure a same day appointment or one that was outside of office hours.

Local service points for local people?

But what about those applicants do not live near  one of the core centres?  SSW also researched into the uptake at a local service point.

We looked at Bournemouth as it has a large population, a university and is a thriving hub for a number of industries including the creative, financial and tourism sectors.

The service point situated in Bournemouth Library and operated by library staff, has completed 249 booking in four months. That is an average of 3 every working day and totally inadequate for the region.

If residents of Bournemouth are not able to secure one of the very few appointments available, they are burdened with travelling either to Salisbury (30 miles away without a direct train) or all the way to Croydon (a journey of over 100 miles) to complete the process.

This isn’t the only region facing problems. For instance, people in Northern Ireland have only one location to book a free appointment in Belfast. The next nearest site for a free appointment is, according to the Sopra Steria website, 124 miles away across the Irish Sea in Llandudno, Wales.

Customers in a university city like Durham which is likely to have a large migrant population, must go as far as Newcastle or Manchester for a free appointment. If Sopra Steria is going to fulfil its promise of ‘increased convenience’, a better solution needs to be found to enable the migrant population to file UK visa applications more easily.

Paying a premium

The most revenue-generating part of the changes appears to be Sopra Steria’s premium lounge option. According to the commercial partner, it is modelled on a first-class airport lounge and offers ‘greater privacy and comfort’ during appointments.

Applicants are also offered high-speed wi-fi, newspapers and snacks while they wait for staff to gather biometric information and validate supporting documents.

Smith Stone Walters has found that more than 8,000 appointments have been booked at the premium lounge in the first four months of 2019. Whilst some migrants will have chosen this route to make use of the ‘benefits’, we are also aware of many clients being left with little option but to purchase a premium appointment just to secure a biometric appointment within the foreseeable future.

However, this comes at a price. Appointments at the premium lounge start at £200 off-peak, rising to £260 during office hours.  Sopra Steria has therefore collected nearly £2 million in premium fees at this location alone. Nice work if you can get it.

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