UK visa control system - report

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Full-text of the UK response from document no: 6084/02, dated 8 February 2002:


1. The UK welcomes the forthcoming feasibility study to be carried out by the Commission into an EU Visa Data Base. It is important to recall the context in which such a proposal emerged and that the Special JHA Council on 20 September was motivated by the need to improve operational cooperation to combat terrorism and other serious crime in the wake of the attacks of September 11, and not simply to improve administrative visa issuing practices. The UK therefore agrees that the objectives of an EU Visa Data Base should be broad ones - as set out in Part 2 of the Spanish Presidency note 15577/02 VISA 158.

2. Although the UK does not take part in the Schengen visa issuing arrangements, we do play a full and active role in EU action to combat illegal immigration and the prevention of crime. We also take part in Schengen police and judicial cooperation measures, including these aspects of the Schengen Information System. It is clearly in the mutual interests of all 15 EU Member States (plus Norway and Iceland) to work closely together in these areas and to avoid creating unnecessary institutional obstacles to such cooperation.

3. The UK manages a network of 165 visa issuing posts worldwide - these handled 1,75 million visa applications in 2001. A significant number of these applicants are also likely to have applied for Schengen visas if they intended to travel beyond the UK, or may apply for Schengen visas in the future. Similarly, a number of applicants for Schengen visas may also have, or be intending to, apply for UK visas. While informal cooperation and information exchanges already exist at a consular level in many posts to screen particular individuals, the advantages and practicalities of a EU wide database seem worth exploring.

4. The UK has no strong views on whether such a system should be developed as part of SIS II or separately, but would note that developments in technology may make such questions academic. These is clearly an advantage to be had in avoiding the need for consular posts, ports of entry and national immigration / border services requiring a multiplicity of separate and incompatible IT systems. It would also make sense for the system to include information on visas applied for as well as issued and for users to be able to access the FADO system of information on travel documents. Consideration should also be given to how users of other databases - such as EURODAC and Europol - should be able to compare data with that held on the Visa Data Base, and whether
information exchanges with certain third countries should be permitted - on a reciprocal basis and respecting EU data protection principles.

5. The attached note responds to the request in 15577/02 VISA 158 for information on the UK's current and planned visa data systems. The UK is willing to offer the Commission any further assistance or support during its feasibility study.

Modernisation of the UK Entry Clearance (Visa) Operation


1. The UK entry clearance (or visa) operation is managed by the Joint Entry Clearance Unit (JECU), a joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) department. This reflects the interest both departments have in the work of the UK immigration Control at home and abroad, as reflected in their published shared aim "to regulate entry to and settlement in the United Kingdom effectively in the interests of sustainable growth and social inclusion".

2. JECU manages a network of 165 visa issuing posts worldwide involving over 1 200 people: some 300 of these staff come from the FCO and the Home Office; the others engaged locally. Provisional figures for 2001 show a 5% increase on 2000: 1,75 million visa applications in 2001 compared with 1,65 million applications in 2000.

3. A significant modernisation programme is currently under way to improve the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) used to support the entry clearance operation. This modernisation also reflects the need to appreciate that the work of visa officers overseas is just the first step in the chain of the UK immigration control, which subsequently involves immigration officers at ports of arrival and Home Office caseworkers considering applications for extensions of stay.

4. The modernisation can be divided into 2 main work streams, the first of which sees the completion of current projects already underway, the second takes forward the main modernisation programme for which money has been specifically obtained from HM Treasury.

Tranche 1: current projects

5. The current visa issuing software is known as "Proviso Express", and is a visa application data capture tool which stores data, checks local alert lists, provides statistics and ultimately prints visas. A new version of the software ("Proviso 3") has been developed, this allows data to be captured more quickly (including the use of passport readers for the capture of data from Machine Readable Passports or visas), ensures statistics are accurate, can be configured to best suit applications and casework in the local environment and is simpler to use. The software has been successfully tested in Paris and Lagos and is currently being rolled out to British visa issuing posts across the world.

6. The "Warnings Index" is a Home Office owned system which lists people with adverse immigration histories or who are of other interest to the Government. Every visa applicant is checked against this database. Although the system is available on-line to immigration staff in the UK, security considerations have meant that overseas it can only be used on off-line laptops which are regularly refreshed with CD-Rom updates of the main database. Similarly visa officers do not have access to the background information behind the entries, when a "hit" is identified this information must be obtained from the UK by secure means.

7. The current "Warnings Index" hardware is now ageing and is to be replaced in the Spring. The new laptops will be more reliable and will be loaded with enhanced software to manage the increasing size of the database which is currently reaching the capacity of the old software. The new version will provide greater security and usability.

Tranche 2: modernisation projects

8. In the Spring of 2000, JECU obtained central government funding to modernise the ICT used in the entry clearance operation. Although the business case described how the modernisation would improve both public service and the operational integrity of the entry clearance operation, these benefits were hard to measure. The business case therefore was made on the basis of costed operation efficiencies, to the tune of around £8 million, which would derive from the modernisation by year 4.

9. The business case also described how the modernisation would take advantage of ICT investments already in place or underway within both the Home Office and the FCO. Specifically new systems will be based on "Firecrest" (a global FCO standard suite of desktop applications, including internet browsing, running on Compaq hardware) and will be enabled by the new Confidential level FCO Telecommunications network (FTN) running over lines and satellite. This new infrastructure has opened up opportunities which the new investment will exploit.

10. The cornerstone of the modernisation will be the replacement of, or addition to, the localised visa databases at each post overseas with one central entry clearance reference system containing data from all visa issuing posts. This system will run on the FTN. It will enable entry clearance officers in one post to see not just their own visa application records but also those from all other posts world wide. The system will also give JECU in London access to global management information statistics and to individual visa application records as necessary.

11. A further advantage of the centralised entry clearance reference system will be the ability to install onward connections to immigration records currently held in a Home Office data warehouse in the UK. The UK immigration control, as previously explained, is really one process from visa application overseas through to arriving in the UK and then making any subsequent application to extend stay. Providing a link between the centralised entry clearance reference system and Home Office records will allow entry clearance officers to see Home Office immigration records and immigration officers and Home Office caseworkers in the UK to see their applicants original entry clearance application. This will allow for quicker and better informed decision making by all involved in the process, it will also lead to more efficiencies and less bureaucracy through reduced need for sight of paper records

12. It is also intended to take advantage of the new confidential FTN to allow the "Warnings Index" to be provided at posts overseas on-line. There would no longer be a need for off-line updates and the database at all posts would be up to date. It may also be possible to provide the background information behind Warnings Index entries to posts on-line. This again would lead to efficiencies and faster, better informed decision making.

13. The British Prime Minister has set the target that all government services which could be delivered electronically should be available on-line by 2005. Visa information is currently available via the internet, as are visa application forms. However it is not yet possible to complete and submit forms on-line. The entry clearance modernisation programme will increase levels of e-service delivery and prototype software for web based visa applications is scheduled to be trailed at the British Consulate General in New York during the Spring.

14. Finally, the programme will also improve efficiency in handling telephone enquiries. Research indicates that in many posts several telephone calls are received for every application made. It is thought that many other calls may be missed or may not get through. The FTN will allow call automation to handle routine enquiries such as payments, opening hours and directions to the office; this will then free up telephone assistants to respond to more complicated enquiries which require personal attention. The FTN and the centralised entry clearance reference system together would permit calls to be diverted to regional call centres if that was considered desirable.
Further into the future 15. Although the entry clearance modernisation programme will deliver the above business
change, it is also seen as an enabling programme upon which the business will be able to build further change in the future.

16. The European Union appears to be moving in the direction of placing a photographic image of the holder on to the Uniform Format Visa. The United Kingdom will continue to take an active role in these discussions.

17. There is also movement towards introducing some other biometric information on to the UFV. The UK Immigration Service is embarking on a trial whereby for a limited period frequent flyers from North America with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways will be able to register an iris scan and thereafter enter the United Kingdom at Heathrow Airport via automatic gates rather than by seeing an immigration officer. JECU, in cooperation with the Immigration Service, is considering whether there is potential to use this technology within the entry clearance operation. A visa applicant would be interviewed and, if issued a visa, would be offered the
opportunity to have their iris scanned. If they accepted they too would be able to use automatic barriers at Heathrow, thereby saving considerable resources at ports and airports of arrival in the UK and ensuring that the person arriving was the same person to whom the visa had been issued.

18. As well as looking at biometrics, it is likely that future modernisation may include the issue of electronic visas, similar to the Australian Electronic Travel Authority. However, unlike that system, visa applicants would still need to apply to the British mission and not to travel agents or at airline check-in. An electronic visa in conjunction with a biometric could do away with the need for a visa sticker or even with the need for a passport.

19. These are just ideas and possibilities at this stage, but it is certain that entry clearance modernisation will not finish with the end of the described programme in April 2004, rather that modernisation will be an on-going process, particularly as regards biometrics and e-service delivery." 

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