The Times reports that student visa applicants from Pakistan are being interviewed over the telephone from outside the country when there are concerns they might be “risky”, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith admitted this week.
British officials based in Abu Dhabi question some applicants over the telephone before issuing them with permission to enter the UK to study at universities and colleges.
The Home Office denied a claim by Keith Vaz, MP and chairman of the Home Affairs select committee, that some decisions on visa applications are taken in the Foreign Office in Whitehall.
The disclosure on telephone interviewing came as Jacqui Smith brushed off criticism from MPs over a series of damaging stories including the arrest of terror suspects who had entered the country on student visas.
It also emerged last night that the Government is piloting a system in which all applications from Pakistanis wishing to come to Britain will be dealt with out of the country in Abu Dhabi.
Applications are processed in Pakistan but the actual decision by a British entry clearance office is taken in Abu Dhabi.
The UK Border Agency has set up a number of ‘regional hubs’ where Entry Clearance Officers (ECO) make decisions of visa applications coming from a number of countries. The rationalisation is part of the new five tier points based system which is currently being phased in.
Tier 4, for student visas, started at the end of March.
Ms Smith said that rather than interviewing every student visa applicant in person, it was better to rely on robust information including biometrics.
She said this made it possible “to be able to focus interviews where necessary, telephone interviews where appropriate, on those people who are most likely to be risky”.
A Home Office spokesperson insisted that telephone interviews were never conducted from London before a visa was issued. The spokesperson said officials in Abu Dhabi and Islamabad did conduct telephone interviews with student applicants.
The Border and Immigration Agency has admitted that moving decision-making to Abu Dhabi has enabled it to reduce staff in the Islamabad office.
The majority of student visa applicants from Pakistan are not interviewed before being issued with permission to enter the UK. More than 42,000 Pakistanis came to Britain as students between 2004-2007.
Ms Smith was accused of presiding over a “chapter of chaos” at the Home Office by Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary but her opponents failed to land a significant blow on her during a 45 minute statement in the House of Commons.
The focus of the statement and questioning was on the anti-terror operations which resulted in the detention of 12 men in the north west, 10 of them who entered the country on student visas.
Mr Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, said :
“This should have been a statement where the House could ask her why her department made wildly exaggerated claims about leaks and national security which led to the utterly unjustified arrest of a leading Opposition MP.”
Ms Smith told MPs that she had ordered an urgent review of the checks foreign students undergo before being licensed to work in the private security industry.
The Security Industry Authority (SIA) will look at how many foreign students have been given licences to work as bouncers and security staff and could order tougher checks on those who apply.
After the terror raids in the north-west, reports said two of the men held by police had been cleared to work by the SIA.
The SIA carries out a criminal record check on anyone who applies for a licence and also checks if they have the right to work. Foreign students are allowed to work up to twenty hours a week.
But the check in Britain only shows if a person has a criminal record in Britain. It is not clear at what level similar checks are conducted in Pakistan.
Although Gordon Brown has expressed his confidence in Ms Smith, there is widespread speculation that she could be moved to a less high profile job in a summer or autumn reshuffle following an investigation into her expenses claims and the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Conservative Shadow Immigration Minister Damien Green.
The Government’s new flagship points based system, designed to both streamline the visa process for overseas workers and students, could now be criticised for making it easier for genuine migrants and student to enter the UK.
Entry Clearance Managers are unhappy that much of the decision making process has been taken away from them, but there should still be enough flexibility built into the system which can be adapted to any situation.
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