Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I originally tabled this Question for Short Debate more than a year ago when a number of horror stories were drawn to my attention about the then relatively new regional visa application process. Before doing so, however, and in the light of the information that I had been given from a number of sources, I tabled a Question for Written Answer to find out how many complaints have been received about the work of the UK Border Agency in administering the new process, to which I received a breezy reply from the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, saying that no complaints had been received. Given the number of cases that I had heard about, the volume of correspondence in the press at the time—in particular in the Independent—and the reaction of ambassadors and high commissioners posted here who were clearly at the receiving end of a lot of requests for help, I was surprised at the Minister’s reply, to put it mildly.
Perhaps I may illustrate this by quoting a couple of examples that were drawn to my attention. One was the case of a nun and her companion from the Dominican Republic, who wished to attend the celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the foundress of her order. With the guarantee of full hospitality throughout the short visit and payment of air fares also guaranteed, there seemed no reason why these two exemplary Catholic women should not be able to experience this once in a lifetime event. However, the original application was rejected, as was the subsequent appeal, without reasons being given and in spite of a considerable campaign mounted on their behalf.
Another example is that of a most distinguished retired diplomat. Indeed, he was a former deputy Foreign Minister for his country, who is married and currently living in London. He returned home to visit his sick relative and was told that he would require a visa to return to the UK and to his wife. He did eventually get the visa, but the process took months and it was very traumatic for him and for his family.
I can also quote the case of an elderly English woman living in Chile who needed to renew her passport. She discovered that she had to send it off to Washington, which alarmed her greatly and delayed the whole process.
These examples relate to Latin America, but there are many more that I could refer to, relating to other parts of the world as well. The problem common to all these cases was not just that visitors from some countries found they needed visas where perhaps they had not previously been required, but that they could not go to the British embassy in their home country in order to process the application. I discovered that the new regional system set up in, I believe, April 2008, meant that anybody from anywhere in the Americas, from Patagonia, through south and central America, Mexico and the USA, all had to make their applications to the UK borders centre in New York, online and in perfect English. This seems to be carrying centralisation to extraordinary lengths.
I am aware that the business of applying for a visa wherever you are—and whoever you are—can be tedious, time-consuming and irritating, but the UK Border Agency, on the evidence I have seen, appears to be making the process unnecessarily difficult, protracted, bureaucratic and unfriendly. I am also aware that the Parliamentary Ombudsman, in a report out almost a year ago, stated that the UK Border Agency provides “very poor customer service” and has repeatedly failed to read and reply to letters, keep proper records, keep case files together and notify applicants of decisions.
That report related mainly to asylum applications, for which the considerations may well be different. But do we really want other potential visitors to our country, who simply need to make a short visit, to visit relatives, to attend a conference or perform in a music or poetry festival, to have to go through such a bureaucratic and unfriendly system, which must make them feel unwelcome?
It seems perverse, too, that on the one hand, our education establishments are encouraged to recruit overseas fee-paying students and then the full rigours and costs of the visa application system are applied. This has certainly been mentioned to me frequently by people concerned about the subject and the need for our education establishments to be able to finance themselves independently. The same goes for the entry of people who wish to establish businesses and so on.
It seems to me that although it may be undeserved, there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling that the whole system of visa applications is a nightmare and a daunting process. This perception may exist because the new, centralised system was introduced without any explanation or, as far as I am aware, consultation. For most people, the border agency is an anonymous, faceless body. Applying for a visa used to be a personal, face-to-face transaction and that has now become a long-distance paper transaction—or rather a long-distance online transaction. Obviously, for those who are not computer literate, who tend to be older people, this creates particular problems.
The time has come to ask the Government to review the work of the UK Border Agency, to find out whether the regionally-centred system is working according to plan—whatever the original plan may have been—and to make sure that complaints are followed up and that there is a clearly understood system of complaints. It may even be necessary to devise a system whereby short-term applications—because most of the grievances I have heard about have tended to be for short-term visits—are separated from long-term applications and treated more sympathetically and sensitively, and certainly differently.
With 2012 and the Olympics drawing ever closer, we really must get this right. I thank all those taking part in this short debate, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance.
My Lords, the noble Baroness’s interest in all matters Latin American is well known. Today, with remarkable timing, she has asked us to consider the work of the UKBA at the very moment when the Home Affairs Committee in another place has published a report on the subject this morning, echoing some of the criticisms the noble Baroness has made.
This is also the first time we have looked at Latin America—I think—since the Foreign Secretary delivered the Canning Lecture outlining a policy of greater engagement with the region, halting the decline of Britain’s diplomatic presence there and giving it much enhanced ministerial attention. He said that at present, we are lagging behind Germany, France and Italy in our exports to Latin America and that was partly due to the transition from authoritarianism to democracy which had deterred investment and close political relations. He went on to say that now that most of the countries in the region were stable democracies, we would support ambitious free-trade agreements with the sub-regions of Latin America. In addition, we would broker a strategic alliance between Latin America and Europe on climate change, and work closely with our partners in the region on tackling drugs and violence, supporting sustainable development and addressing energy security.
These are indeed ambitious goals, and no doubt UKBA and UK Visas have a walk-on part to play in making it as easy as possible to travel between Britain and Latin America. There was a review of the services provided by UKBA, starting three years ago, with the announcement of the visa waiver tests in 2007. It was decided that Bolivia and Venezuela posed a sufficiently high level of risk to justify a requirement that short-term visitors from those countries would be required to obtain visas. In the case of Venezuela, there was an exemption for travellers using the new biometric machine-readable passports, because our main concern related to the ease with which old style Venezuelan passports could be forged or fraudulently obtained. Apparently there was some resentment in Bolivia about the way that it had been singled out by the visa waiver tests. Has our embassy posted an explanation for the requirement on its website, and is there an opportunity to revisit the decision to require visas if the values that go into the visa waiver tests alter as time passes?
As the Foreign Secretary pointed out, we have closed our embassies in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay over the past decade. A citizen of one of those countries wanting to come here for business, marriage, studies or medical treatment has to apply to a visa section of a British embassy in some other specified country, which must be something of a deterrent. A citizen of Paraguay, for example, must fly to Buenos Aires twice: first to have his digital photograph and fingerprints taken, and then to collect the document he has submitted in support of his application including his passport. At least, that was the impression that I got from the website, and I hope the Minister will correct me if that is not right.
Passports, however, are issued by the Identity and Passport Office, an executive arm of the Home Office. I can well believe that when a British traveller’s passport is lost or stolen, it does cause enormous problems. The IPO website deals only with passports lost or stolen in the UK. When I rang the IPO this afternoon to ask what the traveller should do if his passport is stolen, for example, in Asuncion, it was suggested that the traveller should telephone the FCO.
It cannot be said that the issuing of visas and passports would come high up on the agenda in the Foreign Secretary’s programme for enhancing our relations with Latin America. It did not figure in the Canning Lecture and there is no mention of it on the FCO’s website; nor does it come up in discussions with leading politicians in the region.
I had several meetings at the end of last year with people from Peru and Colombia where the main subject was the EU free-trade agreement with those two countries and its possible side effects. NGOs were concerned that the agreement would facilitate even more investment by EU-based companies in mineral extraction and oil and gas development without adequate consultation, particularly where the interests of indigenous people were concerned. There was no complaint about the procedures for issuing visas, which of course theoretically are the same in Latin America as in the rest of the world. There is, I saw, a variation between the visa centres in the time it took them to process applications, but at a quick glance the average processing time is no slower in Latin America than in the rest of the world.
The biometric information that has to be submitted with an application—10-digit fingerprints and a digital photograph—has to be generated at a specified visa centre, which may be in another country. If you live in Paraguay, for instance, where the embassy was closed in April 2005, you have to travel to Buenos Aires to apply there in person and collect your passport from the embassy in Buenos Aires when it has finished processing the application. It seems that an applicant from Asuncion would have to make two trips to Buenos Aires on top of the £220 application fee. I wonder whether it would be possible to come to an arrangement with France or Germany, for example, for their embassies to collect biometric information on our behalf.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, whose knowledge of Latin America and ear to the ground on all things Latin American have such benefits for this House. It is useful that she has secured this debate today to allow the Minister to update us on what has happened in the intervening year and to give us a flavour of a change of attitude, perhaps, with the change in government. Before I continue, I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Bolivia and the chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children—the reason for the latter will become apparent shortly.
As we have heard, there were particular problems with the process when it changed over but the problem now—as I have heard it mentioned by people from both South America and central America—is perhaps less with the process than with the attitude. Indeed, that is reflected by the large community that we have living in London, whose members feel strongly that they are still not recognised in the UK as an ethnic group, a point that they have made time and again. They should be recognised as one, but there is no provision on the census form to ask whether people are Hispanic. Considering their numbers, I think that that would be a reasonable thing to do. The fact that they are not really recognised as a group has, I believe, a knock-on effect in their feeling about applying for visas.
My noble friend Lord Avebury mentioned that the Bolivians felt singled out. It was perhaps unfortunate that, even under a Labour Government, the two most left-wing Governments in Latin America—those of Bolivia and Venezuela—failed to get the visa waiver through. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, raised this issue in the House some eight months ago and was told of the various reasons for it. Have those criteria since changed and, indeed, would those people wishing to come and visit their relatives here for a short time, for example, be able to do so and to benefit from the visa waiver? We benefit from the many people who have come here. Perhaps they came here as economic migrants but they now work in some of the most invisible jobs in London, in cleaning in particular. Living as I do in Kennington when I am here, I often catch a bus home towards Elephant and Castle and meet them in the evening. We need to recognise that they, too, need their families to be able to visit without too much difficulty.
We heard today that the UKBA has lost thousands of asylum seekers through the system, which highlights again the question that the Government are at some stage going to have to address: amnesty for long-term residents. These people, who have been here for a long time, are working. Their children are probably in schools and their lives are made extremely difficult because they can have no legal status. We lose out as a country from the fact that they cannot pay taxes because they cannot officially exist. That is a problem—and all the more of a problem in these times of austerity.
Before closing, as we have the Minister from the Home Office replying to this debate, I want to mention the issue of Britons going the other way to Latin America. That is why I declared an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children. It has been brought to our attention by a number of NGOs working in the area that the problem of sex tourism, where people from the EU are going to Latin America, is growing and that it is children whom those people are preying on. That is a big issue, so we should not think just of people coming from South America as the risk to the UK, which is what the reply from the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, suggested. We pose a threat to them as well.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on her splendid introduction. Nobody knows more about Latin America than she does and it is good to hear from her at all times. I want to follow up on one of her horror stories. A couple of years ago, the then Peruvian ambassador had difficulty getting his daughter back into this country because she was over 18. She was still resident at home in this country, because in Latin America people frequently stay on at home past 18 until they get married, so she was coming back. He had considerable difficulty getting her in and some of us had to try to intervene on his behalf to get that sorted out. It seemed fairly ridiculous. That is another example of a horror story of dealing with the UK Border Agency.
I am also happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He is not, unfortunately, my noble friend but he is a very long-time friend. We are the same age and have had all sorts of dealings together for many years. He mentioned Paraguay; I was fortunate to be the leader of the last parliamentary delegation there, so I feel that what he said was relevant and important. The Paraguayans are very welcome here but have considerable difficulty, as the noble Lord pointed out, in getting that sorted out. They have to go down to Buenos Aires as the nearest place, even though there is an extremely efficient honorary consul in Asuncion, who was extremely helpful on the visit that we made, so I am totally sympathetic.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, did, I have to declare a multiplicity of interests. I am not only chairman of the All-Party Group on Central America but vice-chairman of just about every other Latin America-related group, as it happens—including the one shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, the All-Party Group on Latin America. That group encompasses them all, in a way, although there are separate subgroups that are equally important. Latin America is such an important area of the world that we need to concentrate on it.
It is interesting to look at this subject because the number of countries in Latin America from which we require visas is quite small. It includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, plus the three island republics: the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, divided as that is between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Apart from that, people from all the other countries, including the whole of the Cono Sur—Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay—and Brazil, as well as Panama and Mexico in central America, have no visa requirements to come here. It seems rather strange that these particular countries have been singled out for this sort of treatment. One wonders why.
I told the Minister that I was not going to ask her any awkward questions, but this seems to be a matter of some principle that we might like to have enunciated. How are the criteria that bring about these various and rather curious ad hoc distinctions between important countries in Latin America identified? It is an important part of the world, as has been pointed out. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has announced in the other place that the Government are making a new and special drive in relation to it. It is unfortunately correct that during the 12 years of the Labour Government the interest in Latin America heavily depreciated and declined, but one hoped—and it seems to have been the case—that when the coalition came into existence, with William Hague as Foreign Secretary, there would be a new and important drive. This seems to be part of it.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on her effort in bringing this subject to our attention. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. I have always received courteous and helpful responses from the UK Border Agency whenever I have had reason to contact its officials, either in country or in Whitehall. My most recent experience was of a difficult case that peaked over Christmas and New Year. Throughout that most difficult period, with constant telephone calls from me and my staff, we received nothing but helpfulness, for which I thank the agency.
The UK border officials discharge an exceptionally taxing task effectively and well, despite the considerable pressures that the agency and its staff are under constantly. They deal with one of the most basic human needs and desires: the freedom to move. With people in difficulty and trouble, there will always be an enormously emotional, as well as an effectively practical, exchange with the staff. The many people whom I have invited over the years from central and South America, the Middle East, central and eastern Europe and other places have never commented adversely on their treatment, even most recently, from the UK Border Agency. On the other hand, the policy is something that gives rise to considerable, consistent and powerful objections from all quarters.
The hub-and-spoke policy creates a routine that I and my visitors have experienced. It needs profound review and total overhaul. Noble Lords have spoken of many instances, but there are hundreds more available. I give just one. About a year ago, I invited 12 Iraqi high tribunal judges to visit me in Westminster so that they could see our own new supreme constitutional court and meet high-level judges both here and throughout the country. Some of those judges had already spent many months here on many occasions and were familiar with the United Kingdom, because we had been offering them training. The hub-and-spoke policy meant that those judges had to travel from Baghdad to Beirut and to stay there for more than 10 days awaiting visas. This is the most extraordinary process that any of us have ever experienced.
I can give your Lordships many more instances from different parts of the world, impacting not just on high-level judges but on businesses, industry, tourists and visitors. I do not wish to take up noble Lords’ time, but surely implementing this policy must be deeply frustrating for UK Border Agency staff. I believe that the policy gives an insurmountable barrier to visitors on grossly unfair grounds. Who can afford to travel to the hub of the spoke system and stay there for many days awaiting a visa that they may or may not get? It is simply not a possibility. At the spoke end, staff of the British embassies become deeply and greatly frustrated because they face the frustration of those who apply, are told to travel, cannot travel and have to go away. Yet the British embassy staff are those who, at all times and in common with the UK Border Agency, are putting forward the best of Britain—the best face of the Untied Kingdom—and presenting us in our most positive light.
The hub-and-spoke policy, I therefore suggest, gives a shockingly false picture of our traditional welcome to visitors and guests to the United Kingdom. I suggest that this policy has failed lamentably and that the Government should review it as an urgent preoccupation and priority. After all, has the Foreign Secretary not declared that economic movement, investment, trade and business should be at the heart of foreign policy? Yet if businessmen cannot visit the United Kingdom without this extraordinary formulaic lunacy, how on earth is that foreign policy to be achieved? We believe powerfully—do we not?—in democracy and the rule of law, yet we put up these barriers in a policy that all who have discussed it with me at official, political or personal level have declared to be an utter disaster. I beg the minister to change it.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for securing this debate on an issue that, as the noble Baroness said, has previously been the source of concern to Members of your Lordships’ House. Operating in some 135 countries, the UK Border Agency provides a front-line border control before people ever reach the UK. As we know, that is an important role, since over 75 per cent of the world’s population require a visa to come to the UK and all businesspeople, workers and students staying longer than six months need a visa regardless of their nationality.
The UK Border Agency international group visa services directorate handles the overseas visa service and, as I understand it, at the start of 2009 managed over 150 visa application centres in British missions. Of these, 73 were spoke posts, from which some or all of the applications are transferred to a hub post, where the decision is made. In addition, there are large numbers of visa application centres run by the border agency’s commercial partners and by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States.
In 2006, the independent monitor for entry clearance refusals, whose role was to oversee and review the visa clearance system, reported on the inconsistencies and lack of fairness faced by people when applying for visas. The report was made following visits to different parts of the world, including Latin America. Some three years later, in 2009, the independent monitor reported on what she described as an organisation under pressure and identified a number of issues for the UK Border Agency international group to address, including what one would have thought were fairly basic points, such as ensuring that all the evidence is taken into account when reaching a decision and ensuring adequate data capture.
A report by the Home Affairs Committee in the other place in early 2009 indicated that the independent monitor had said that refusals of UK visa applications were taking too long and were unintelligible. She also expressed concerns to the committee that UKBA staff were predisposed to approving entry to the UK because of the increased workload caused by visa refusals. We have heard examples this evening from your Lordships of apparently complex and time-consuming procedures for application that appear to at least some of those having to go through those procedures to be far from user-friendly and lacking in easy contact with a human being who can give information or guidance about the application. This, of course, is not some new or recent development, as the reports from the independent monitor make clear.
From the point of view of the Government of the day, over recent years there has been a desire to tighten up border controls and to have procedures and processes in place that are consistent and fair but achieve that objective. Overseas, all visa applications are checked against security, criminal and immigration watch lists and the e-Borders system allows the agency to vet passengers bound for the UK before they arrive.
While its focus is on protecting the UK by ensuring that harmful and illicit goods and people do not reach this country, the UK Border Agency—this has been said in the debate—also has an important role in facilitating the smooth passage of legitimate travel and trade, which benefit the UK economy. In 2009-10 the agency processed nearly 2.5 million visa applications, of which just over 2 million resulted in a visa being issued. The independent monitor identified in her final published report—her role has now been taken over by the independent chief inspector—that in just under 85 per cent of 906 cases sampled the refusal notices were reasonable and provided correct information.
In his annual report for 2009-10, the independent chief inspector states that he is now also reporting in his capacity as the independent monitor for entry clearance refusals and highlights four major recurring concerns, including the need for the UK Border Agency to make good-quality decisions, the need for agency staff to maintain and have reliable access to accurate case information and the need to treat people fairly and consistently. The independent chief inspector also states in his report that during his inspections he repeatedly found examples of agency staff not following the agency’s own standards and guidance.
The UK Border Agency has as one of its objectives the implementation of fast and fair decisions, but the concerns being raised in the debate this evening, which seem to have been shared at least in part by the independent monitor and now by the independent chief inspector, are whether speed, consistency and fairness have been achieved to the extent that they should and whether the procedures and processes in place are always geared to taking account of the fact that there are very different categories of people making applications who are seeking to spend widely differing periods of time in the UK.
I am sure that when she responds the Minister will want to address the points that have been raised this evening, including the extent to which the recommendations and issues for action identified by the independent monitor, and the independent chief inspector now that he has taken over the role, have or have not been implemented and the progress that has been made. No doubt the Minister will also wish to say where the Government are with their review of the student visa system in the light of the criticisms of the student visa provisions.
More than 2,600 UK Border Agency staff are directly involved in the overseas visa operation, of whom around 350 work in London. Visa sections around the world employ just under 700 UK-based staff who go overseas on short-term postings and just over 1,600 locally engaged staff. Following the recent comprehensive review, the UK Border Agency is facing cuts of about 20 per cent and is expecting to take that percentage out of the front line as well as making cuts in support services. There were 1,700 job cuts last year and a further 5,000 are anticipated by the UK Border Agency over the period of the spending review. Obviously, the UK Border Agency employs many more staff than those directly involved in the overseas visa operation, which is the principal focus of the debate this evening, but will there be any job cuts among staff involved in the overseas visa operation and, if so, how many? Will the Minister give an assurance that, whatever job cuts are made by the agency, there will be no adverse impact on the quality of service and decision-making in the overseas visa operation, particularly in the light of the concerns already expressed about the current situation—this has been going on for some time—by the independent monitor and the independent chief inspector?
My Lords, I join other Members of the House in congratulating my noble friend on introducing the subject of Latin America in the context of visas. That gives me the opportunity to say something about the Government’s attitude to the relationship between this country and Latin America.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to the Foreign Secretary’s recent speech at Canning House. If noble Lords have not had a chance to read it, I should inform them that it took place on 9 November. He said, in terms, that we will halt the decline in Britain’s diplomatic presence in Latin America; Britain’s retreat from the region is over and it is now time for an advance to begin; we will seek intensified and equal partnerships with countries in Latin America; and we will give much increased ministerial attention to them. I can testify to the fact, as I have been present at such meetings, that there is indeed a plan for a series of visits on different subjects to countries of the region. The Foreign Secretary’s speech spells out in greater detail what that concept of an intensified relationship should mean in practice. I hope that the House welcomes that as a starting point as it signifies a determination on the part of the Government to develop a close relationship with, and make a greater impact on, an increasingly important part of the globe with great prospects ahead of it. I am sure that in the end that redounds to the security and prosperity of this country.
I am sure that noble Lords will say that our ability to travel backwards and forwards should contribute to that and that therefore travel should be made as easy as possible. The answer to my own rhetorical question is, “Of course and indeed; that must be the objective”. The current hub-and-spoke system was introduced by our predecessor. I note the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, on the system. Some cases that have been cited by noble Lords undoubtedly took place on our predecessor’s watch. That apart, we need to try to make this system as friendly and efficient as possible for both parties; that is, for the authorities in this country and those who wish to visit here. The Government are conscious of this and so is the UKBA as an agency of government.
The noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, quite rightly said that there are only nine countries which are visa countries for the purposes of short-stay visits. There is a wider visa regime—this is quite normal—for longer-stay visits. For short-stay visits, only nine of the 20 or so sovereign republics in South America require a visa. The Government were asked what the rationale was for the distinction between those countries that are required to apply for a visa and those that are not. The basic reason is the reliability of their documents. There must be doubt about the authenticity of the application in those countries where the documents being provided to support the application are of doubtful reliability. This is the main reason why in some countries we have to insist on a visa, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, noted in the case of Venezuela, if people are able to supply biometric detail they would be exempt. Over time one hopes that the reliability of the documents can be improved and that the number of countries where we demand a visa for a short stay can be reduced.
The aim must be a fast and fair process. I will spell out what we are trying to do to achieve that. As noble Lords clearly understand, the hub-and-spoke system has been operating since 2007. In Latin America, there are two hub countries: Columbia and Brazil. In Brazil, it is not in the capital; it is in Rio. The reason for this is that those two countries generate a sufficient number of applications to justify having a hub on the ground. Apart from that, it is a spoke system.
It is indeed the case that individuals have to apply online. There is no alternative, but I will come to some of the services that are allied to that in a moment. I understand the reservations that noble Lords have about the obligation to apply online and in English. All I can say is that, in the end, this will turn out to be advantageous to those making applications in a country where the internal distances are very great. I shall spell out why I think that is the case. Not everybody lives in Buenos Aires in Argentina; they may live in Patagonia, and so on. One has to be both realistic about the costs that we are expected to bear as the supplier of visas, but also about the relevant efficiencies for both sides of introducing modern technology into the system. I understand that the elderly are not always able to cope with a computer, but usually there is a young relative who can help them. So I do not think that we will depart from the notion that the application should be made online.
Once the application has been made online, there is then the question of the provision of biometric data. A number of noble Lords have said that this requires a journey. In the case of Asuncion, where unfortunately for some time now we have not had a mission, it would require a visit to Buenos Aires, which is the nearest point. One of the improvements that the Government are introducing to countries where this problem arises is the so-called mobile clinic, where people are available on the ground. This requires a suitcase-full of kit in order to be able to take people’s biometrics. Increasingly we want to introduce mobile facilities, most particularly in those places where otherwise a long journey, possibly even to another country, might be required. I am not saying that that is going to be the case everywhere immediately, but the aim is certainly to make the system itself self-contained and more efficient.
Another complaint, not in fact mentioned this evening but which I understand to be the case, is that while the online system is painless for both parties if all goes smoothly and there are no hitches in the application, if there is something anomalous in an application it might result in a rejection. One of the other things that we are trying to do—and a lot of these services are now supplied by commercial partners of the Government—is to improve this with the use of the telephone, and not to require payment for that; that is to say that I can ring up and discuss this application with those processing it for me. I hope that, over time, this will reduce the number of rejections that take place for reasons that the applicant feels they need to appeal against. Of course, there are rules about the basis on which appeals can take place. Again, I come back to the point that we are trying to make the system efficient but also flexible and friendly.
In trying to improve the system that people are using, we must also have regard to the efficiency of the operation in New York, which is the processing centre for the Americas. I do not have to say that that situation will not change. A number of noble Lords asked whether we would nevertheless review the system. Within its terms, we shall do just that. The independent inspector will shortly review the operations of the New York hub and the relationship between that hub and its spokes. The review is within striking distance. If there are systemic problems with how the system is operating, I hope that this will be the opportunity for change and improvement to take place. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that notice is taken of what the independent inspectors say and do in relation to the operations of the UK Border Agency.
Apart from the regular review, if it becomes obvious that there is a problem with the system—and it is very important that we learn of the various issues that noble Lords become aware of—we would try to see if it was a systemic problem or something that was in need of correction. I assure noble Lords that under this Government the system will try not to be deaf but will respond to complaints about the inadequacies of the system if clearly there is something that we can do about them.
I hope that I have covered most of the points raised by noble Lords. I will give one statistic that I hope demonstrates that the system is both capable of improvement and is improving. In 2009, when some of these examples of slow procedure took place, it took up to 25 days to process applications from Latin America. By July and August last year—12 months later—the average time had fallen to nine days. I hope that noble Lords will accept that that is a significant improvement.
The agency is looking at one further thing that over time will improve the system. I cannot promise that it will happen immediately, but it is being trialled. Instead of the individual having to lodge their passport or travel document with British authorities while the process takes place, which I accept can be inconvenient and may inhibit their travel plans, we aim to move over time towards a situation in which there can be a remote printout of the visa at the spoke, which will mean that the document does not have to travel backwards and forwards. That will be a material change which depends to some extent on the technological capability of the spoke, which is also something that, costs allowing, we intend to try to rectify.
I am not able, I fear, to answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, about staffing, but I shall write to him. I do not believe that in the case of the area we are talking about there will be moves of a kind that will decrease efficiency. I hope that I have answered the material points that have been raised.
My noble friend Lady Nicholson asked about Baghdad, which is outside the scope of this debate. It is fair to say that the circumstances reigning in Baghdad are exceptional. They are not typical of the system and the safety of our staff has to be taken into account. That lies in the background, among other things, for the arrangements that may prevail there, although I am not intimate with them. That is not typical of the hub-and-spoke system, or indeed of the conditions in Latin America.