Caroline Nokes – 2019 Speech on Visa Processing

Below is the text of the speech made by Caroline Nokes, the Minister for Immigration, in the House of Commons on 19 June 2019.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this debate. I welcome her passionate contribution and recognise the importance of this issue and the sensitivities around it. She described herself as a tech evangelist and she has brought a great deal of knowledge and experience to the House in this debate and with some of the wider issues that she has consistently raised in the House since she arrived in 2010. I hope that the House will forgive me if I spend a bit of time focusing on the wider visa and immigration system before moving on to the specific points that the hon. Lady made, because she raised some wider concerns about the Home Office and the borders and immigration system.

We welcome people from all over the world to visit, study, work and settle here. We welcome their contribution and the fact that Britain is one of the best countries in the world to come and live in. That is why we operate a fair system, under which people can come here, are welcomed and can contribute to this country. However, we need a controlled system: because this is one of the best countries in the world to live in, many people wish to come here. A controlled system, where the rules that make that possible are followed, is what the Government are building and that is certainly what the public expect.

At the end of 2018, we published a White Paper on the future borders and immigration system, which will focus on high skills, welcoming talented and hard-working individuals who will support the UK’s dynamic economy, enabling employers to compete on the world stage. Following its publication, we have initiated an extensive programme of engagement across the UK, and with the EU and international partners, to capture views and ensure that we design a future system that works for the whole United Kingdom.

Just last week, as part of that engagement and as part of London Tech Week, I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a roundtable with members of Tech Nation, where I was joined by the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James). That occasion is always a great opportunity for Ministers to engage in cross-Government work, to understand the challenges that our future visa system may provoke, and to understand how those who are actually using the system have been finding it and what aspirations they may have for the future.

When discussing the scale of our visa system, I always think it important to remind the House of just how large it is. Thousands of decisions are made every single day, the overwhelming majority of which are completed within published service standards and enable people to visit the UK, to study here, to work here, or to rebuild their lives here. In 2018, UK Visas and Immigration received more than 3.2 million visa applications, of which just under 2.9 million were granted. The service standard for processing a visit visa is 15 working days, and last year UKVI processed 97% within that target. As I have said, the UK welcomes genuine visitors, and more than 2.3 million visitor visas were granted for leisure, study or business visits—an increase of 8% in the past year.

The scale of the work that UK Visas and Immigration undertakes means that it has always used processes that enable it to allocate cases in as streamlined, efficient, ​and rapid a manner as possible to deliver a world-class visa service. It allocates applications to caseworkers using a streaming tool that is regularly updated with a range of data. The tool is used only to allocate applications, not to decide them. Decision makers do not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, religion or race. The tool uses global and local historical data to indicate whether an application might require more or less scrutiny.

As the hon. Lady explained so comprehensively, an algorithm is a series of instructions or a set of rules that are followed to complete a task. The streaming tool which is operated by UKVI decision-making centres is an algorithm, but I should make it clear that it is not coding, it is not programming, it is not anything that involves machine learning, and, crucially, it is not automated decision making. It is, effectively, an automated flowchart where an application is subject to a number of basic yes/no questions to determine whether it is considered likely to be straightforward or possibly more complex. As I said earlier, the streaming tool is used only to allocate applications, not to decide them.

Chi Onwurah

I thank the Minister for the remarks that she is making, and also for the way in which she is responding to my own remarks. She has said that the algorithm is used for allocation purposes. I understood that it was also used to assess risk. That is the “red, amber, green” traffic-light approach, which is about something slightly more than allocation.

Caroline Nokes

I am glad that the hon. Lady has made that point, because I was just about to deal with it.

As I have said, a decision maker assesses every application against the immigration rules, on its individual merits, and taking into consideration the evidence provided by the applicant. The effective streaming of applications ensures that those requiring more detailed and closer scrutiny are routed to appropriately trained assessing staff. It is essential in delivering enhanced decision quality by developing robust decision-making structures, and—as the hon. Lady just mentioned—directing a risk-led approach to decision manager reviews. Streaming does not determine the decision; it determines only the process that is undertaken before a decision officer assesses the application and the requirements for decision manager assurance.

Since 2015, UKVI has developed a streaming tool that assesses the required level of scrutiny attached to an application. It is regularly updated with data relating to known immigration abuses, and with locally relevant data. It is also used to prioritise work—for example, when the applicant has paid a priority fee for faster processing.

Streaming indicators can be positive as well as negative, and might include a previous history of travel to the UK and other Five Eyes or EU countries, or previous compliance with immigration rules. The streaming might indicate potential safeguarding concerns. It could also be used to indicate criminal records and of course a sponsor with a very good record of associated compliance. Use of the streaming tool creates a globally consistent approach and supports an objective data-driven approach to the consideration of an application. For every application regardless of its stream, an entry clearance officer must carry out a range of decision-making functions before ​arriving at a decision, most notably an assessment of whether an application meets the requirements of the relevant immigration rules.

The hon. Lady referred to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. In 2017 his report on the entry clearance processing operations in Croydon and Istanbul raised no concerns that applications would be refused because of streaming and contained figures that indicated that over 51% of applications streamed as requiring further scrutiny were issued.

The hon. Lady referred to her significant and important work with the all-party group on Africa, and as she said I was very pleased to meet the group earlier this year. She will know that over 47,000 more visas were issued to African nationals in 2018 than in 2016, an increase of 14%. The percentage of African nationals who saw their application granted is up by 4% on 10 years ago and is only slightly below the average rate of the past 10 years of all nationalities. Visa applications from African nationals are at their highest level since 2013. The average issue rate for non-settlement visa applications submitted in the Africa region is consistent with the average issue rate for the past three years, which has been 75%.

The UKVI Africa region is responsible for the delivery of visa services across sub-Saharan Africa. The region currently processes in excess of 350,000 visa applications per year. On average—and in line with other regions—97% of non-settlement visa applications submitted in the Africa region are processed within the 15-day service standard.

There are 31 modern visa application centres in the Africa region, 28 of which offer a range of added-value services and premium products to enhance the customer experience and/or speed of processing. I had the privilege of visiting one of our visa application centres in Africa last year when I visited Nigeria and met a wide range of students who were coming to the UK to study.

The hon. Lady mentioned visas for performers at festivals. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) in her place, because I recently had a meeting with her and the Edinburgh festivals organisers. We had what I thought was a very constructive dialogue about problems that international artists may have previously experienced and how to ensure that there are improvements going forward. We are also working closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to understand the requirements of the creative sector and, as part of the introduction of the future borders and immigration system, which will be phased in from January 2021, we are engaging widely across many sectors and all parts of the UK to work out how we can improve our system.

The hon. Lady asked a wide range of questions, some of which—such as those on the regulation of algorithms and the tech sector—are perhaps not best addressed by the Home Office. I was somewhat sad to have seen the Cabinet Office Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) leave his place. I spent a happy six months at the Cabinet Office as Minister with responsibility for a wide range of matters, including the Government Digital Service. In that role I did not perhaps come to the Chamber to discuss things very much, but the hon. Lady has made an important point about the design of algorithms and the painfully high prevalence of young white men in the sector. We all understand, particularly in terms of artificial intelligence ​and machine-led learning, that bias can certainly exist—I was going to say creep in, but I fear that is in no way explicit enough. Bias can exist when a narrow demographic is designing algorithms and machine-led learning. We must all be vigilant on that.

I am not going to stand at the Dispatch Box and promise regulation from the Home Office, because that would be inappropriate, but the hon. Lady has made some important points which must be taken up by the Cabinet Office and DDCMS to make sure that we have regulation that is effective and in the right place.