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Volume 714: debated on Monday 9 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of their visa services for Pakistani students and visitors in Abu Dhabi.

My Lords, there have been delays in the visa operation in Pakistan, particularly in issuing visas resulting from successful appeal decisions. Some applicants have been inconvenienced as a result. The United Kingdom has a close and important relationship with Pakistan. During the Home Secretary’s recent visit to Pakistan, he assured the Government there that the visa operation is a priority and committed to reducing processing times to meet the published service standards by November.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, but can he tell the House how many Pakistani students have missed their university deadlines and lost their student fees and scholarships due to the backlog and delays in Abu Dhabi? How many people are waiting for visa endorsements in Islamabad after winning their appeals in British courts in the past six months? Will Her Majesty's Government refund fees of all those victims of our failure who have missed their deadlines for medical check-ups, university courses, family weddings and professional jobs, either due to the backlog or the delay in FedEx? And finally—

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. I do not have at my fingertips the exact numbers of those who have missed courses; I shall get back to him in writing. We have about 10,000 students currently studying in the United Kingdom. In the first nine months of this year, just under 8,000 student visas were issued. On the appeals, the team working in Abu Dhabi, which is fully set up now, cleared more than 4,000 cases in five weeks in September and October and we will continue at that pace. We are rapidly getting up to speed.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the delays in processing are caused by the multi-agency checks being carried out by the security service and others? If security is the consideration, why was the visa centre moved to Abu Dhabi rather than to a safer location, such as Karachi? If security is the motivation, why have only 29 face-to-face interviews been conducted out of 66,000 applications in the nine-month period to June 2009?

My Lords, there are a number of questions in there. We have discovered, interestingly, that interviews are not a reliable indicator necessarily; people make them out to be more effective than they are. The independent monitor and others have pointed out that research into job selection methods shows the interview as the weakest link. We go into great detail with the electronic checks and paper-based decision-making. As for the move to Abu Dhabi, there is no doubt that there have been problems caused by IT failures and linkages, so it has not worked straightaway as well as we would have liked. However, we have resolved most of those problems and things are working much better. On refusal rates, we refuse automatically any bid that includes false documentation or information. In Pakistan, there is a very high volume of false documentation. As soon as we spot it, the whole bid is refused. That is one of the problems.

My Lords, it is very welcome that the Government have taken the sensible decision to return the visa process to Pakistan itself. That is something that we on these Benches have called for. Can the Minister confirm whether the IT system is now fully operational? He referred to what I hope are just teething problems. How many staff are now employed there and of what type? Are they locally engaged or home-based? How many will there be when the office is up and running, if it is not fully operational now?

My Lords, we have not returned the issuing of visas to Pakistan; that is done in Abu Dhabi. It is part of the hub-and-spoke process that we have around the world. I apologise because I did not fully answer the last question. Yes, there is an issue of safety; there is no doubt about that. This happened post the Marriott hotel attack in Pakistan, where we were concerned about the large number of people we had there. We assessed Karachi as a dangerous place as well in that sense and Abu Dhabi was seen as a much better place for this. Abu Dhabi also acts as a spoke for Bahrain and will shortly do the same for Iran. The other reason is to get a certain standard for this type of work around the world, and that is working quite well.

As to the number of people, we currently have 15 UK-based staff in Islamabad, 15 Ralon staff and 120 locally engaged staff, who do the detailed nitty-gritty stuff. In Abu Dhabi, we have 146 staff, of whom 88 are support staff and the others are primarily British. I visited that unit because we were having problems there. It had difficulties initially, but it is rapidly getting up to speed and we are clearing the backlog.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, when the Home Office was consulting on visa fees for overseas students, the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers—I declare an interest as its chairman—said that the level of fee was less important than the quality of service? The quality of service to our would-be students from overseas is of fundamental importance to the economic interest of this country and now that the new points-based system is coming into effect, everything must be done to make sure that students get their visas as expeditiously as is needed for them to take up their courses.

My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. I declare an interest as chancellor of a university. Foreign students are important, not only in economic terms—if they come from outside the EU they are a valuable economic tool—but because we are able to add huge value to their training in terms of what they can do when they go back to their nations, and they add huge value to our students in terms of the interchange of ideas. This is an important matter.

We are aware that there has been a delay. As I have already said, we are working extremely hard to get this right and we are getting there. We have cleared a big backlog; we are getting better and quicker and we will resolve this problem. Working with Pakistan is extremely important to us. The safeguards that we have put in place are crucial. We had to tighten up our borders and over the past two years or so we have done an immense amount in this area.

This is my second chance, my Lords. What is the legal status of those Pakistanis who apply for a visa in Islamabad and it is endorsed on their passports as having been issued in Abu Dhabi, when they have never been to Abu Dhabi?

My Lords, I take notice of my noble friend’s question; I am not sure of the exact answer. As I understand it, once the visa has been issued, it allows freedom of movement in exactly the same way as with an ordinary passport. If I am wrong, I will get back to him in writing.