For some time now, many practitioners and businesses have yearned for the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) at the Home Office to modernise some of its processes and become more in line with businesses in the 21st century. Over the years, there have been some progress with the removal of most paper application forms – payment of applications being completed electronically – and, most recently, with the supporting documents being uploaded to an online portal.
However, many applications still require physical submissions and wet signatures, or subsequent visa applications in the UK still require individuals to submit their biometrics and take their original supporting documents to their appointments. Even with the technology implemented, some of the websites are still not user-friendly and do not include the information necessary for most sponsors. The main issue is around the Sponsor Management System, which does not provide data previously submitted as part of a sponsor licence application such as the company organisation chart. This data can be fundamental to the compliance of the organisation.
The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in many businesses having to work remotely and for the majority of communications to be virtual through emails, phone and video calls. This has pressurised the government to introduce various temporary measures to help adjust with the "new normal". Some of the main changes have included sending supporting documents online for Sponsor Licence applications without signed submission sheets, processing visas without appointments (appointments appear to still be required following the lockdown), allowing companies to rely on copies of documents for Right To Work checks and verifying these remotely through video calls. Modernisation and digitalisation are crucial and allow companies to continue as normal as possible despite the current pandemic.
If some of these measures are implemented permanently together with additional steps to modernise the system, it can reduce the administrative steps leading to reduced processing times. This is not only useful for migrants and companies but also the Home Office as it allows them to process more applications efficiently which is essential due to the number of applications they are likely to receive after the Brexit transition period.
In terms of applications in the UK, the government can use data it holds from individuals within different departments – such as HM Revenue and Customs, the Department of Work and Pensions, and the Disclosure and Barring Service – to verify the majority of the information it requires by simply communicating with different internal departments. There may be options for the government to rely on previous biometric data submitted by individual's initial UK visa application to avoid multiple biometric appointments once in the UK.
The introduction of the EU Settlement Scheme application demonstrated that instead of the 85-paged paper form and the various documents required which used to take four to six months to be processed, a simple online application on a smartphone app which can take 10-15 minutes to complete with a "selfie" photo rather than an original photograph could reduce processing times to as little as a couple of hours.
The historical problem with the modernisation has sometimes been that the Home Office makes various changes without speaking to businesses or organisations that will be impacted. This has resulted in processes or different aspects of the visa being missed or various technical issues within the first few months of a new system being introduced. Even with the EU Settlement Scheme, there are still areas to improve as the surge of number of applications has resulted in significant delays and EU family members still needing to register their biometrics.
Following the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that life is unlikely to go back to the way it was on many levels as businesses and the government have seen the power of technology. With any UKVI modernisation, there is likely to be an increase in compliance checks and auditing to ensure companies and individuals are complying with the rules and are providing accurate documentation and information to the Home Office. As we have advised on various unprecedented compliance issues during the current situation, a strong paper trail is vital during an audit by the UKVI as compliance visits are inevitable and more anticipated going forward.
We will now need to wait and see how many of these measures will remain and whether the Covid-19 pandemic will be a turning point for further modernisation and digitisation of the Home Office.