The Home Office’s re-introduction of interviews for visa applications globally was handled impressively and was adding value to decision-making in high-risk visa posts. However, student visa refusal rates were not increasing as expected and opportunities to improve the quality of interviews were being lost. These were among the Independent Chief Inspector’s findings in his report on Visa Interviewing.
Interviews for certain types of visas were reduced when the Points Based System (PBS) was introduced in 2008. However, subsequent abuse of the system, particularly by students, led to interviews being increased in 2012. There are two formats of interview: a video credibility interview (commonly referred to as a VTC interview) and a substantive interview . The inspection assessed the effectiveness of both video credibility interviews and substantive interviews, conducted either by agency staff in Sheffield or by Entry Clearance Officers at visa posts overseas (India, China, Nigeria).
The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:
• the implementation of video credibility interviews had been managed effectively by the Home Office;
• the installation of video technology in visa application centres in a number of global locations was an impressive feat and the Home Office managed the change programme effectively;
• substantive interviews conducted at visa posts were adding real value to the decision-making process. This was particularly important for refusal cases that would have been issued with a visa under the previous system;
• video credibility interviews were adding value to the decision-making process in high-risk locations such as Abuja and Chennai. However, this was the case in low-risk locations such as Shanghai;
• facilities at the Sheffield interviewing hub were impressive, and efficient workflow processes ensured that applicants at visa application centres overseas were dealt with effectively;
• in a large majority of cases, staff at Sheffield were correctly identifying whether applicants were credible;
• the Home Office continued to meet its customer service standards in the majority of posts.
However, the Chief Inspector also found that:
• there was no increase in the refusal rate for Tier 4 student applications, which was one of the predicted benefits of the interviewing project;
• in low-risk locations where the majority of visa applications resulted in a visa issue, the VTC added limited value. For example, in Shanghai we found only one case in our file sample where we considered the VTC to have added value;
• an absence of formal feedback mechanisms from visa posts meant that staff in Sheffield had no way of knowing whether they were conducting interviews effectively;
• the quality assessment process that was in place placed too much emphasis on presentation rather than focusing on the quality of the interview. As a result, opportunities to improve the VTC interviewing process were being lost;
• the VTC interview did not give staff the opportunity to ask relevant follow-up questions beyond those that were pre-programmed within the interview template. This meant that in certain instances staff could not fully explore key aspects of the case;
• some ECOs at visa posts were not always utilising substantive interviews when they should have;
• staff were not always recording the reasons why applicants were being invited to attend interviews at visa posts. The lack of a proper audit trail meant that managers could not be assured that the right applicants were being selected for interview.
The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM:
“The implementation of video interviews was a challenging programme of work. The Home Secretary target was to complete more than 100,000 interviews during 2013/14. That this target was exceeded demonstrated that the programme had been managed and delivered effectively by the Home Office.
Video interviews were adding value in high-risk locations where there were higher numbers of non-genuine students. Substantive interviews were also adding value to the visa decision-making process.
However, in low-risk locations where the majority of visa applications resulted in a visa issue, the VTC added limited value. The Home Office should consider whether a risk-based approach would deliver increased benefits that would target resources more effectively.”
The Chief Inspector made seven recommendations for improvement. These included that the Home Office re-assesses whether a risk-based approach to video teleconferencing interviews would deliver increased benefits and target resources more effectively; improves interviewing training so that ECOs are equipped with the skills to conduct interviews effectively; and widens the scope of the quality assurance regime in the Sheffield interview to include an assessment of the quality of the interview itself.