Millions of visas allowing foreigners to enter Britain are being issued by an American company and a High Street travel agent rather than British diplomats.
The system–never officially announced to Parliament–means that instead of filling in a form at a British embassy and facing an interview by diplomatic staff, visa applicants are directed to commercially run ‘official’ offices around the world.
And hundreds of thousands of applicants simply fill in a form on a website run by the US company.
The two private firms are responsible for dealing with about 80 per cent of the 2.75 million visa applications every year, two million of which are successful.
A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed that the new system–quietly introduced over the past two years–has been beset by problems, including one company’s staff selling visas. Critics fear it is fuelling the numbers of people who come to Britain and overstay after their visas expire, adding to the estimated one million illegal immigrants already in the country.
And tonight Opposition politicians called for a return of face-to-face interviews with British diplomats to help secure the UK’s borders against bogus applicants and potential terrorists.
The revelations will add to the discomfort felt by Gordon Brown last week when he faced criticism for making misleading statements about immigration figures.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that business people, foreign government representatives, students and tourists in 109 countries all have to apply for visas through the two firms rather than through the embassies.
The American outsourcing firm, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), also runs an advice hotline charging large fees payable by credit card in dollars to help applicants complete visa forms, but which is described as ‘completely useless’ in a Government report.
Details of its five-year deal, or the cost to the taxpayer, have never been officially announced by the Government. But last week the firm announced a similar ten-year contract with the US State Department, worth £1.8 billion.
Virginia-based CSC has opened visa application centres in 14 countries and is running websites and call centres covering 87 others. Its so-called WorldBridge Service uses no diplomats or other British Government staff.
A similar service is offered by VFS-Global, part of the Swiss-based travel firm Kuoni, better known for its luxury package holidays.
It is the firms’ staff, most of them employed locally, rather than highly trained immigration officers and diplomats, who the Foreign Office says it ‘entrusts . . . with the sensitive process’ of scanning people’s fingerprints and faces for encoding in the new biometric visas and to filter ‘risky’ individuals.
They then forward applications to Home Office officials in London, who have the final say on whether a visa should be issued.
But the system has been hit by problems. An official Home Office inspection of the WorldBridge visa office in Rome last year found that it replied to customers’ concerns about delays with ‘unhelpful’ and ‘generic’ wording.
And a Home Office report in December pointed out ‘higher level criticism’ of WorldBridge staff who, it said, were polite but ‘had no information and were completely useless on an expensive phone line’.
It said that ‘their absence of understanding of the application process was made apparent with conflicting answers from one call to the next’, and that staff were ‘scared to tell me something [in case it wasn’t correct]’.
The phone line, the only official visa advice available, costs $14 (about £9) for every call, payable by credit card.
The Home Office report concluded: ‘With regards to the negative experiences of seeking assistance, WorldBridge Services was mentioned more often than any other organisation.’
WorldBridge began taking over visa applications from the Foreign Office two years ago, opening its first office in Jamaica in May 2007.
Last year CSC had a turnover of £10.5billion–clients include the US Navy, Nasa and BAe Systems, Britain’s biggest defence contractor. Kuoni Travel’s VFS-Global also issues visas for Britain and around 30 other countries with offices in Africa, the Middle East, China and Japan.
It says it ‘serves diplomatic missions by managing all the administrative and non-judgmental tasks related to the entire life-cycle of a visa application process, enabling diplomatic missions to focus entirely on the key tasks of assessment and interview’.
But last year, a member of the firm’s staff issuing visas for Britain in Pakistan was arrested for allegedly taking £22,000 in bribes to obtain visas for eight people. He absconded before he could be sentenced.
Two years ago, the company faced a Foreign Office investigation into an alleged breach of security in its online application facility, which led to the system being shut down.
The new services exist despite increasing concerns over ‘scam’ colleges, where no courses are taught, but which last year enabled a group of alleged Al Qaeda terrorist plotters to get student visas to come to Britain.
Critics say that removing immigration officials from the sharp end of the visa system has been a disaster and that it is now a ‘tick-box system’ open to huge abuses.
Sir Andrew Green, a former British Ambassador and Director for the Middle East in the Foreign Office, says that in the past, many bogus applicants would have been spotted by immigration officers. Now they are easily circumventing the system.
Sir Andrew, who runs the pressure group Migration Watch, said: ‘The crucial interview with experienced staff has been rep-laced with a system where, as long as you say the right thing on the forms and have the right doc-uments, your application will be approved.’
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘It is a revelation to discover that so much of the visa system is now controlled by two private companies.
‘We have argued for a long time, particularly given all of the fraud issues surrounding student visas, that there should be far more face-to-face interviews of applicants by British diplomatic staff.
‘This is the only way to ensure that applicants coming to the UK are who they say they are. This is much too important an issue not to get right.’
It is also claimed that the WorldBridge system is costing British businesses millions of pounds in lost contracts.
An employee allegedly took £22,000 in bribes
This was dramatically illustrated by the experience of senior Iraqi government officials who were trying to travel to the UK to discuss multi-million-pound deals with British firms.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that the Mayor of Baghdad, the Governor of Baghdad and the Minister of Agriculture were forced to wait more than five days in Amman, Jordan–the location of their nearest WorldBridge office–to get visas to come to Britain to sign a helicopter deal.
But while their applications were being examined by WorldBridge, they decided to travel to France instead and bought six Eurocopters, worth £1.3million each, to use for spraying date palms.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Minister of Transport, ‘furious at the treatment he had received in Amman when trying to get visas’, also struck a deal with a French firm for the proposed Baghdad Metro–a contract potentially worth billions of pounds.
Last night, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said: ‘If struggling British businesses are losing out to European competitors because the Government can’t run an efficient visa operation in Baghdad, then that raises serious questions and must be put right.’
Last night the Home Office and the Foreign Office both claimed the other was responsible for the contract with CSC. Neither could say whether any Minister had announced the new system to Parliament or spoken publicly on the reasons behind the decision.
Mark Sedwill, head of the UK Border Agency’s international group, says he is proud of the new system.
In a CSC newsletter, he explained: ‘Five years ago, we were operating like most countries do now. If you wanted a visa, the theory was that you went into an embassy, filled in a paper application, handed over the money, did an interview and then supposedly got a verdict.
‘It sounds great in theory, but not in practice–in the [Indian] sub-continent in particular we had queues of several thousand people.’
He added that by outsourcing the ‘frontline interface’ to CSC, the Home Office was ‘focusing our resources on decision making . . . that allows us to put more time and attention into risk profiling’.
Yesterday a Home Office spokes-man denied there had been any secrecy in outsourcing the visa application process.
He said: ‘This process would have involved publicising the tender through officially recognised European Journals.
‘We categorically do not use private companies to make decisions on visa applications. They collect the information and pass it on to the UK Border Agency to make the decision. We use these companies to cut down on the queues at the embassies. It helps to make the process run more smoothly.’
Mr Visa’s £5 million lifestyle
The man who heads the American company responsible for issuing thousands of British visas is Michael W. Laphen, a former National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush.
Mr Laphen is paid more than $1million (£671,000) a year as chief executive and chairman of CSC, the owner of WorldBridge. His total annual ‘compensation’ package is worth more than £5million.
He and his wife, Rosemary, who helps run a local charity, live in a six-bedroom, four-bathroom, colonial-style mansion set in two acres of lawns in Great Falls, near the firm’s base in Virginia.
The £2million house boasts three garages, a library, a two-storey family room, a basement ‘rec’ room, a bar, an exercise room and a wine cellar.
The couple also own a £1.6million holiday home at the exclusive Mirasol Country Club in Palm Beach, Florida.