To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, with reference to Sopra Steria’s delivery of the UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS), what assessment he has made of the (a) availability of free appointments and length of waiting times for applicants, (b) affordability of paid appointments for applicants and (c) the affordability of the pay-per-minute UKVCAS helpline.
As part of their bid and delivery programme, Sopra Steria Limited (SSL) undertook market research to identify initial service locations and this included the impact on customer travel time, cost and accessibility.
There are currently six core sites across the UK at which application submission services are offered free of charge and beyond that, SSL offer a range of enhanced services in a further 52 locations. 62% of customers will, on average, have to travel less than 25 miles to visit a core service centre, with 78% travelling less than 50 miles.
UKVCAS offers customers the option to arrange an appointment at any of its core service points, located in Croydon, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast. The UKVCAS core service points offer appointments up to 35 days in advance. Free appointments are available Monday to Friday between 10:00 and 16:00, any appointments outside these times, and those at enhanced service points, are subject to a charge. The charges for these services were based on the extensive customer research SSL completed as part of their bid. SSL will continue to review prices in light of customer insight and demand.
We are aware that customers are currently experiencing difficulties in securing free appointments and this is resulting in them having to wait longer for an appointment. New appointments are released by SSL on a daily basis and UKVI continue to work with SSL to increase the number of appointments available to its customers through opening new service points and increasing the number of appointments available at its existing service points experiencing high demand.
In relation to your concern around the cost of the UKVCAS support line, this is an added value service which is optional to customers who wish to find out more information about the application service. Customers who do not wish to avail of this chargeable service, may also contact SSL via their website, where they can choose from two options “make an enquiry” or “make a complaint”. Once a customer has booked an appointment, they will also be provided with a local rate 0330 number on their booking confirmation.