All of you know that I have announced exactly a year ago that I will wind down my in-country application practice by the time of Brexit.   I always  knew that innumerable shambles were on the way in the new system for post-Brexit  handling of EU-related applications, and I did not want to be anywhere near it. It now turned out, of course, that the surprise was bigger than that — our government simply gave up on ALL immigration applications! that’s it. And what’s our government’s answer to EVERYTHING it cannot deal with (usually anything that required admin skills and scalability)? That’s right – G4S, Capita, Atos, Serco and now, enter one more – Sopra Steria. Yes, you can panic now! The only reason I am not panicking is that I take Madame de Pompadour’s attitude towards it – apres nous, le deluge. Pardon my French.

When is this happening?

Now, already — and already to a growing dismay. All of the circulars I received and announcements I read seems to have contradictory information (which seems to be due to the drafter’s unfamiliarity with the immigration system), but it seems like the last opportunity to make your application actually to the Home Office directly, on paper, and send whatever you want with it by post, will be roughly as follows:

  • Naturalisation and registration (AN, MN1) – 29 November, and for clarity I’d better make sure they receive it by that date.
  •  All PBS applications — 29 November, last application date (meaning, we can still post on the 29th?!) Actually people are already forced online for the application, and it’s been a while – but maybe you can still print and post it until the 29th? it is not clear to me in this case whether they did not just mean that until the 29th you could technically still use old PSCs. I am not sure if post/post office biometrics is still a thing.
  • FLR(M)  I can’t tell for sure, but gov.uk already says right now that it no longer accepts paper applications, except for fee waivers. So I am guessing 29/11 will be when you can still at least print it out and post it (the online application itself is atrocious as it seems to be attempting to blend FLRM and FLRFP, thus asking some people really uncomfortable questions for no reason – so I always used the paper one)..
  • FLR(FP)  – I an cautiously going to say, 8 January 2019. I took on several pro bono FLR (FP) cases recently and hope to complete by then. I hope I am not wrong. Those will apparently NOT be handled by private contractors though, but by special government-run centers yet to open. For many applicants in these categories, this will have an unfamiliar implication of having to give oneself up in person, where many of those are made by people at risk of detention. I think applications will go way down, because people will be afraid to make them.
  • EEA Applications — so help me, I can’t figure it out. Some brochures say 29/11 but I don’t believe it. In fact I think they will continue as they are for now, and eventually go to the separate new system post-Brexit. However I have not been able to get confirmation of this from any of my contacts. I wonder if they had been all sucked into a black hole lately. So I am filing what I can BY ACTUAL EU CITIZENS by 29/11 just in case.

 

Existing Premium Service Centers will close 29/11 and it had not been possible to make appointments for weeks.

What exactly is happening?

So what is the gist of the so-called new application system? It is entirely outsources to a firm called Sopra Steria (as I understand, they are also a company to whom software to handle future EU citizens applications post-Brexit was outsourced — I must point out, that in recent years Home Office had fudged, across UKVI and Border Force, millions of pounds on entirely failed software developments, such as  E-borders or a replacement to the CID system – so I am not watching this one with interest, bur rather with boredom).

The main gist of it is, that no one is going to post anything anywhere, everything will be scanned and online, except you have to bring it to a “service center ” to either be scanned or be checked. All customer interface will be in-person, and handled by Sopra Steria employees (except as described above where a few UKVI-employee led customer service centers are supposed to open – again, since we had all this years ago – except of course, just because there will be SOME UKVI employees there, doesn’t mean they will be the right kind ones or competent ones). They promise some sort of complex system I do not yet understand, of large application service centers at strategic points around the country, apparently supplemented also   by neighbourhood more easy-to-access application points (in libraries — you know that patronising Library receptionist  that teaches a grandpa to use the computer? that’s the gist).

Majority of them will be paid for to access, and there will be a multitude of paid extras and add-ons. This is basically, once again, a free reign for a for-profit business to cash in on vulnerable groups who need a government service. our government had done it over and over.

This will be, in all, a dangerous cross in two previously derided forms of immigration-related incompetence: overseas VACs (see below) and Nationality Checking Services (which were awfully incompetent as I described here, but mind you at least they had actual council employees there, who actually sat some sort of abbreviated OISC exam).

There is a lot still unclear — or rather, I think, the architects of the new “system” were happily oblivious to it. There are, for example, dozens of various grounds for forms of British nationality, besides your run of the mill application of a naturalising adult under 6(20 and 6(3)  and children under 1(3) or 3(1).  Requirements and rules for many types of nationality registration are extremely complex, and documents may include someone’s parent’s 1946-issued passport. Who is going to handle those? Sopra Steria?

The new system generally does the same thing EVERY Home office failed policy does. It assumes things are black and white, or easy to tell, or can be checked against a checklist by anyone who had a half-an-hour Powerpoint presentation. They forget that there are about 10% of cases that are unusual and/or complex. That whether or not you qualify might be in dispute, and people may choose, upon receipt of legal advice, to submit things that are not in compliance with a Home Office checklist or official guidance — but often it also knows, internally, of a recent case law that compelt it to actually grant when the application is submitted. It is inherent in our rules to be able to submit what you want, and then wait for a refusal, if that be the case,  and appeal or sue or whatever. A lot of applications are borderline. They often turn, to my mind, on how they feel, more than on a nominal list of documents or evidence in them — after all, there is a myriad ways in which a nominally same document can tell a very different story to a person holding it in their hands.

All of this will be now gone. It is my understanding that even those cases the govt understands are complex by definition (the problem being that ANY case can be complex due to something in it) will be forced into those customer service centers, which, even if they are staffed by the government, will not be staffed by their leading legal minds. And Sopra Steria centers? I guarantee you, they will be staffed by half-witted and entitled  people who only heard of immigration yesterday, and will be trying to “run” cases, refusing to accept documents they consider unnecessary, and passing judgments on things they cannot even begin to understand.

I had a run in yesterday here in the US with a moronic vet receptionist, a girl aged all of maybe 19, who yelled at me, among other incoherent nonsense, that she is Australian and “therefore herself from Europe and knows everything”. Thijs was merely me trying to explain to a local vet rules on re-entering the EU with EU pet passports, and of course they have never seen one. For people like this, in low-level menial admin jobs, anything outside of their experience zone simply does not exist.   So how is anyone going to submit anything??? And where will there be actual procedural record, in cases where a stupid untrained employee intimidates an applicant against including a cdocument they had actually brought with them — but there will be no record of it? This had happened A LOT in VACs (as discussed below).

Who are these companies?

I don’t have to tell you folks how much harm have the private contractors done previously in our country by f***ing up various functions of the government. If you read papers and watch TV, you would have heard of terrifying G4S abuses of immigration detainees and deportees, some of whom died — they run virtually all of our immigration enforcement and have generated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, pounds of claims in unlawful detention, mistreatment and wrongful death. I read that in some parts of the country, they have won the bids to privatise police forces. If you live in those parts, by the way, I suggest you consider moving. Most people would also remember the big shambles with security for London 2012 Olympic venues, when only half of people needed had been hired, and even of those a further half did not show up. That was G4S! The government had to call in the Army to prevent the collapse of the Games. Foreign tourists were all like, “why are you guys so militarised? Ha-ha. We simply cannot get anyone except the military to show up in sufficient numbers and follow orders!

Serco run half of our medicine, they are in control of several large NHS trusts. I read some long rare leftwing conspiracy article in something like the Guardian or such like once, from which it became very clear that they control half of the world basically.

ATOS is particularly infamous for shambolic “fit-to-work” assessments, in which they had told terminally ill palliative patients that nothing prevented them from working; they also generated hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions, of wrongful death claims, as those people usually died hungry and cold, having their benefits stopped courtesy of ATOS. They are also behind a latest wave of mismanagement of FLR FP applications, and again it is them who process initial data-entry and payments for EEA Applications in Durham, which I found out the hard way when some of my clients’ EU passports disappeared there. They have employees there who work for both HMPO and UKVI and apparently can’t tell one from another. You can read about it here and here.

Capita  used to run at least two immigration functions known to me, they had a “human rights cases” unit — that’s right! quite the experts they are – for HR applications a while back — I think it went to ATOS now – and they also had a hilarious “pre-action protocol” unit at the Lunar House in Croydon. People there churned out such nonsense that it literally looked like random strokes of characters (I think this had been subsequently phased out). Capita also handles payments for local councils, and various other misc functions. If you go online to pay your council tax, I bet you get confirmation from “paycapita” domain address.

I recall that when Capita employees supposedly handled human rights cases reconsideration, they did not have a “READ” access to CID (which was wise, although I guess the reason was not wisdom but privacy laws). So they could not look up a person or see their current status, other than the case they were working on – but could make comments on the system (which no one read, because UKVI is so disorganised). I recall discovering this from reading a SAR disclosure for one client, who had a “human rights reconsideration” linger with Capita for years, during which he also married an EU citizen and was involved in several applications and appeals over Residence rights, all subsequently to whatever was frozen in time at Capita’s.

Capita recently moved on – it signed a contract for £330million with the NHS, where it immediately started to put lives at risk by losing 43,000 cervical screening invitations, failing to send an almost 5 thousand women their results,  and scrambling up a published list of registered GPs.

Sopra Steria I never heard of, but from what I can gather, they are just one more of those.

Why is it that our government so uniquely incompetent that it can’t do anything my itself! NO OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD gives up so utterly on its basic functions of government! United States, Russia, Spain, Latvia, India, you name it — everyone else manages to run a government staffed by civil servants! They can be good, bad, some are even corrupt, but trust be none of them, in no country whatsoever, are as bad as those private contractor employees.

Civil servants are always — 99.9% — people who started out wanting to serve the people and do good. They may be misguided, but they have employment benefits and seniority, relevant training, they follow orders and are background checked, and in the immigration field they are also citizens of relevant countries. Home Office caseworkers are British citizens.

Contractors such as ATOS, even those working in UKVI functions, are NOT required to be British citizens and NOT background-screened by UKVI. ATOS itself is responsible for screening them. I found this out through a FOI request after those Polish passports got stolen, as we suspect, by an employee in Durham.

It would not occur to any sane country to outsource immigration enforcement, or policing, of social security functions, to a private company. Russia does it all itself, so do Spain, Latvia, you name any country. US manages to have civil servants do all those things. Sure it privatised some juvenile prisons and apparently subcontracted some war-related stuff or something. But imagine if it tried to subcontract ICE, USCIS or USPS?  Of course our. government wanted to even privatise Royal Mail, so I guess it figures. It inherently does not believe it can do ANYTHING.

It is true that UKVI in recent years was drowning in the sea of low-level admin incompetence. Processes were outdated, checks and balances did not work, many workers were barely half-competent, morale was low and turnover high (just read some of the Chief Inspector’s reports!).  Yes. But the UKVI employees — its actual employees — are still NOT THAT BAD. Compared to contractors, where there is low pay, low motivation, no meaningful training, and high turnover.

What does this remind us of?

Applicants for UK visas from overseas — or indeed any other visas from anywhere –  will be familiar with global behemoths, VFS and Teleperformance, that run our VACs (visa application centers).  They are less evil than those world-controlling mega contractors that help run governments without employee background checks. Both of those primarily do only visa applications.

 

It used to be that countries processed visa applications themselves. They had consulates, which had visa officers in them, and you could queue up and submit your application. Then VFS came along to all those countries to which at least someone wanted to go, and said — well , you guys don’t have to do it!  We will deal with people, the unsafe public you do not really want to let into your consulates. We will take their documents, put them in pouches, process biometrics, and ship to you with barcodes — you will make decisions and ship back.

VFS was a trailblazer of this service — in many countries, they combine VACs for several countries in one VAC location — which is quite efficient and eventually means that they got business even of those countries whose inbound traffic is not that volumnous. (For instance, to apply for a Russian visa in the UK now, you would also do it through VFS).  There is now a second growing player in this market, Teleperformance, which since 2014 has won over from VFS a huge contract for British visa application centres, although VFS still controls some of them.

In the early days, there were already problems, that remain to this day. VAC employees, who have no legal training and no connection with consulates — effectively they are a courier service — usually use aplomb and self-assurance –as well as silly often inapplicable checklists – to lecture applicants on what they should and should not be submitting — and, to negate any value of legal advice they may have received, they usually do not let lawyers in. In Moscow I only really managed to get in with a child or with a VIP who paid a VIP fee. Employees are usually hostile to reps, do not address them (us), and attempt to talk applicants out of following our advice. VFS is a menace (and so is Teleperformance).

I talk more about VACs here in this video (as it swallowed the last bastion of sanity, applications from the US)..

Numerous people had been refused visas because VAC employees threw out supporting documents they thought unnecessary, or intimidated applicants out of including them — the UK government does not understand the moral power trip that an employee of a VAC has over an unsophisticated applicant. Majority of such visa applicants do not understand that the VAC employee is not in any way affiliated with the government of the country they are applying to, and they are always acting like they know what they are doing, but usually they have no idea. This is a scam, basically.

Fastforward to today, where “scanning” basically means those same employees just dump copies of everything you brought (which you also bring) into the scanner, in random order and in no mind as to whether pages stuck together — and then, decisions are taken in remote DMCs that have nothing to do with culture or reality of the applications’ country.  Quality of such decision making drops like a real big rock. Also, on occasions entire scanned files get lost or disconnected from applications. Basically this process didn’t work long even before they started using it.

 

United States, by the way, is quite an efficient bureacracy. It has always dealt with its own visa applications at its actual embassies, something many countries no longer do. On Grosvenor square, from which US EMbassy London recently moved, I noticed they processed 500 people a day, in usually 2-3 hours  from intake to decision. (I do not have any insider knowledge, just had the misfortune to be kept late once and noticed the last ticket was something like 500.)  I’d guess Nine Elms may even have more capacity.

The Hidden effect – the new system actually effectively deprives people of legal representation in immigration applications. This will also effectively kill the OISC scheme in a very short time, I fear.

We are going to have all these challenges inside the UK now.  We already had Premium Service centers, of course — and although they were staffed with civil servants, many suffered from the same problems. PSCs (which were once called PEOs) really went through an evolution — or rather, devolution – in the quality of service and customer experience. It used to be in the early days you went and sat across from caseworker who literally went through your files. In the end, it became “just turn in your stuff and wait” — which was 100% fair enough.

Croydon however, was always severely overbooked and problematic, I once had a spat there with an intake caseworker that insisted that my clients take off all sticky notes and paper clips from her approximately 100 pages of docs, and that they be reshuffled in random order. She also yelled at me that she knows better than I do what to do, because this will “make it easier for caseworkers”. How, exactly? i was there and I was objecting, and eventually the manager came in and ordered her to take everything I want to submit as is (again, the actual HO-employed manager knew they HAD TO). Interestingly this actually had continuation, the intake lady refused to follow the order and was dismissed for the day.

When the manager then sat down to process the case herself, I literally witnessed her write the wrong ticket number on it — which again she corrected, because I noticed. I also noticed that they reshuffled and stuffed into several folders supporting docs of those who had larger cases — and some people have say 300, 500 pages of very complex documentation. You really do not want your original degree certificate stuck somewhere between pages 28 and 29 of a 5-year old bank statement! This was some really bizarre nonsense — and again, this was no Capita, this was UKVI itself – except that Croydon, which itself never housed any UKVI caseworking teams, was always the less enlightened bit of it.

I was however there — and, I must say, for the whole day. I was insulted, my entire day wasa ruined, and my client, by the way, was basically just about to do anything the ignorant intake staff person told her to — in fact, my client turned on me and said that I wasn’t serving her interests not doing everything they say. The average IQ person falls under some sort of hypnosis when they are in an official building and a purported person in position of power speaks to them self-assuredly — they lose all sign of the idea of this person being a nobody and the whole government being the opposing party. I remember the client then refused to pay me, in a rare move, until she got her BRP a few days later, believing her case to have been somehow in danger because I argued with a receptionist. No money would ever make an experience like that worth it for me. After that I stopped going to Croydon.

I must say for the record that neither Solihull nor Sheffield had such nonsense going on, but Solihull did once throw me out on the street in the rain because there was nowhere to sit — while I assume that it is my role to be there in case there are questions — and I really, really do not wish to visit Touchwood shopping centre any more – and, both of them have signs on the walls saying that they will not speak to legal representatives, but to applicants directly. In reality they do speak to me if I am there, usually – well, thanks for as much – but why? Why such hostility? One thing they also do, is they always ring the applicant, not the rep, on the mobile during the consideration. I have never ever understood why Home Office has such hostility toward legal reps, especially given that, even though some reps are really bad, overall certainly, I assume, represented applicants file much more approvable applications. But in their PEO/PSC system, the HO always did everything to demean and disenfranchise representatives.

Again, actual caseworking teams, that consider postal applications, always communicate with lawyers only. In one case where correspondence was sent to my client’s home address instead (and she happened to have moved and there was a huge problem) they later apologized and retracted all consequences, because they acknowledged they have to communicate with reps. But there was never a proper place for reps in the PEO system — certainly not since they stopped considering stuff right in front of you in 2012 or something.

Overseas VACs are already very hostile to reps, in that they do not let us in at all, at least in Teleperformance – unless client paid for VIP section. This basically deprives applicants of a right to be represented – and my understanding is that it is part of Teleperformance agreement with HO to do that. And again, as it happens, the applicant is then one on one with a rude, uninformed, and very self-assured, dominating staff member, who has absolutely no idea what they are doing but wins influence over a timid applicant by suggesting that some things are not needed, or denying that pages stuck through a scanner.

Why, do you ask, do you even want to accompany clients to those places? Well, it is my principle that I do not represent people in any in-country applications unless I am the one who personally is submitting it. I will somehow allow a long-time repeat client post something I put together for them, for instance, once they enclose a passport, if the case is simple. But it’s a leap of faith. Normally in 99% of cases it has to be me — only this way can I be sure what is being submitted, and be responsible for the outcome.

Many clients are difficult people to deal with – they forget things, resist reality, or have their own ideas, and will later claim that the responsibility is mine. If I am not the one submitting it, it is not representation. So I have since given up working on PSC cases at all, simply because it added immesurable time, cost and stress — especially when my thing was low rates. Plus there was always enough of the business that was not PSC-suitable anyway, EEA, nationality and of course FLR FPs from people without status.

But PSCs were not the only attack on legal representation in recent years.  Nationality checking services, incredibly incompetent council-led service that certified copies for nationality applications, was staffed with people qualified through a dumbed-down 1/2 OISC exam, below even level 1 accreditation — yet, again, it mysteriously bewitched thousands of applicants into believing that they had somehow provided something ordinary lawyers could not.  In fact, NCS caseworkers incorrectly told innumerable people with at least slightly unusual circumstances that they will never get naturalised, refused to accept cases with any degree of variation from standard, and, to make matters worse, apparently made notes on some cases they did not like to indicate to caseworkers they thought them to be problematic!

This soon-to-be discontinued service was VERY low quality and malicious at its core, yet tens of thousands of people believed that since a dumb council employee did that, this somehow gave them the upper edge. This was basically financial fraud perpetuated by the government — since the only value it provided was certification of copies, and it charged about £75 on average – while you could always use a high street solicitor instead to certify your passport copy, which costs on average £10-£20, but the government did not want you to know.

The government did take note however that legal representatives competed with NCSs, to whom they presumably gave some sort of income guarantee. So it moved in 2016 to cut the legal reps out again – when it introduced its “European passport return service”. This was not a very sucessful attempt, since it did not apply to applications containing a non-EU family member, and those were mostly the legal rep’s clients.

Yet, since HO simultaneously decided to no longer recognise the settled case of Barnet and its own guidance that said repeated ID documents were not needed at PR stage from those who already held residence documentation, some EU citizens were refused for failure to provide them, and, despite writing with these refusals to reps, Home office actually included snide notes that said : “Dear Mr _____, if you used local council [paid for] European passport return service [instead of your lawyer], the outcome would be different!  It never explained why were lawyers suddenly no good to certify copies of European passports for PR applications, if they were good to certify them for nationality applications. But that was not important. What was important that UKVI policy was always to do everything it can do humiliate legal representatives and drive them away.

In view of all that painful history, I certainly see how turning ALL of our application system into a network of incompetend NCS/VAC type things, with some PSCs on top, will make matters entirely not worthwhile. I know some reps whose only bread is straightforward PSc applications and they will probably be happy. But normal people don’t have time to spend on this, plus, it is almost never possible to guarantee any sort of outcome anymore.  I cannot get involved in  something if I cannot be responsible for the outcome. Further, as I had seen scanned docs entirely disattached from overseas applications (imagine getting a panicked email from a decision making hub asking for everything that was submitted “as attachment to this email” and suppose there were 200 pages of it?). But I predict such a degree of chaos, admin incompetence and utter despair, that, along with my inability to rationally do anything about it by means known to be within a system I spent years studying, that I think it will not be worth it. I simply refuse.

LOL This is actually good news for all those underemployed hungry barristers, who have been edging in any way they can into application work lately. They will probably have much more barristering work now, that unrepresented applicants make all these new applicatiosn screwed up by the new system, and all of it will have to be resolved in the courts, since most of them will no longer have a right to appeal in the immigration tribunal system.

Further, I predict that this will be the first nail in the coffin of the OISC scheme specifically. It’s a pyramid, essentially — there are much fewer Level 3 advisers, such as myself, than there are Level 1. Of course there will still be Level 3 work, insofar that there will super complex applications that can be made at the new shiny PSCs (I am not going there, but some of my colleagues might)  and there will be appeals. I dislike all courts — I think healthy immigration system is the one where approval is at over 90% rate, and out of remaining 10% a further 90% can be approved on reapplication, with initial errors corrected. A clogged, inconsistent, incoherent system of appeals in which cases that had been drawn by evil lottery from a pool of those factually and principally not different that are nonetheless always approved, bobble for months and years for 50% to be ultimately successful, is a crazy, unhealthy system. Our tribunals are terrible. I always said, the only way to eliminate injustice in immigration is to improve decision making quality.

But the new application system cuts legal representatives out to such a degree, that it will force majority of people to handle applications themselves, which, even after receiving legal advice, in many ways is fraught – and then,  incompetent for-profit company employees will also add their chaos and audacity to completely screw them up. Further, caseworkers no longer can tell originals form copies, genuine from maybe not so — who is going to tell that, the scanning Sopra Steria employee? So decision making quality will not improve. In fact I think it will be a disaster.

Of course there is still advice to be given, but advice about the legal position only, I must say, is always incomplete. Advice always figures in such factors as to what application can be made when, when documents can be obtained, what will happen is something is posted then or then. In other words, the process and timeline of it are huge factors in advice in many complex cases.In our immigration practice, legal theory was always distinct from what can be practically achieved from the system.

It is unrealistic to expect that overwhelming majority of OISC Level 1 advisors will be able to sustain themselves on advice only,  if they were cut out of the Sopra Steria application process. On Level 1, there is not that much advice – most people know what they want. Sure there is some advice, but this is not where there is money. Even on my level — I now operate as a non-profit,  but even assuming I picked a different model, a very substantial part of my practice is advice only. Maybe a half of it. That is because people come to me for advice on very complex situations. I could obviously switch to appeals  work only, or whatever. (In part this is something I will be doing now — I, in fact, have taken interest lately in overturning overseas visa refusals and will be even launching a separate website for that).  But still, for majority of the immigration advice industry, money is in application representation. Without it, it will collapse. One can have mixed feelings about OISC — I certainly do – but this will be a serious industry shakeup.

At any rate, as I say good bye to any application work that involved Sopra Steria from now on, I will let you guys know who I recommend instead, for those of you who were hoping for me to handle their applications next year.

PS Please note – If you are reading this and are confused, because I assured you I will deal with your application in 2019, this is probably because you are   RK, AI or AL, the three people who are connected to me in some other various ways that just being clients. We will get through this together!

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