Failure to vet immigrants from Pakistan 'a threat to security'

Officials interviewed only 29 applicants in nine months
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The Independent Online

Ministers were last night accused of a major security lapse after it emerged that British immigration officers based in Pakistan had interviewed just 29 of the 66,000 people applying for British visas in nine months.

The shockingly small number of checks carried out between October and June this year led to claims last night that visas may have been issued to terror suspects and illegal immigrants trying to cheat the system.

In April, 12 Pakistani men were arrested during police raids in Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere in Lancashire acting on intelligence concerning a possible terror plot. Nearly all the men had obtained student visas in Pakistan.

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: "This is a quite extraordinary situation. There are very real concerns that the system is being abused by people who have no right to come to the UK. And more importantly there are clear security issues, too. Yet it's clear that the checks in our immigration system are wholly inadequate."

In a written answer to a parliamentary question by the Conservatives, the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, also admitted that no telephone interviews had been conducted with visa applicants by staff in Pakistan or Abu Dhabi, where final checks are made, between 27 October 2008, when a new visa system came into force, and the end of May.

There was outrage after the anti-terror raids in the North-west when the Government suggested that in cases where concerns had been raised over applications, interviews by staff based in Abu Dhabi and the post in Islamabad were being carried out over the telephone rather than via face-to-face meetings.

The Government introduced the new "hub-and-spoke" system in October last year. Under the system, visa applications from Pakistan and Afghanistan are lodged at local offices that applicants must attend to have their fingerprints taken. Some files are are sent on to the visa "hub" based in Abu Dhabi for a final decision. At this point some applicants may be called for an interview. Ministers have said that all applications are security checked for fraud or forgery by entry clearance officers within Pakistan before being sent for a decision.

According to the new figures, 66,415 visa applications have been lodged in Pakistan between the "hub" coming into force on 27 October 2008 and 31 May this year. It is not known how many of these people came to the UK.

But Mr Grayling said it was clear there were too few staff to undertake vital fraud and forgery checks on passports, bank statements, university degrees and letters from employers.

He said since the hub-and-spoke came into force, entry-clearance officers only checked supporting documents for fraud and forgery in 80 per cent of cases. That meant that more than 13,000 visa applicants from those "high-risk posts" have not had the documents supporting their application verified.

But the Government disputed the Conservatives allegations of a lax security system.

Phil Woolas, Minister for Borders and Immigration, said: "Every application for a visa to the UK from Pakistan is scrutinised by highly trained staff, who are experts in detecting fraud and forgery. Every applicant is required to attend in person so fingerprints can be taken and their details are subsequently checked against a range of watch lists. If there is still any doubt, we can conduct face-to-face interviews."

He added: "There are around 200 staff who deal with applications from Pakistan and trained officers check 100 per cent of passports submitted with applications in Pakistan. No visa would be issued without the application being checked for fraud and forgery."

Mr Woolas said that ministers worked with the Pakistani authorities to conduct risk assessments of immigrants to Britain.

"These tough visa controls have lead to an increase in refusal rates for Pakistani nationals. This is proof that all applications pass through a vigorous assessment process."

The investigation into alleged al-Q'aida activity in the North-west involved police raids on 14 properties in Manchester, Liverpool and Clitheroe, Lancashire.

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