UK visa outsourcing firm closed by Montenegrin authorities over tax avoidance and being found operating illegally

Exclusive: Teleperformance is being paid £300m by the Government over five years to deliver similar services in 74 countries across the world

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A controversial outsourcing company paid millions by the Home Office to process UK travel visas has had its operations in Montenegro shut down by authorities, who said it has been operating illegally in the country for more than a year.

Teleperformance’s UK visa centre in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, was closed down by officials at the country’s tax administration on 18 May after an investigation found it had not registered itself as a business there and had not paid any taxes.

This is despite the French company acting as the sole handler of UK visa applications in Montenegro since March 2014, when it took over the responsibility from the British embassy under a contract signed by the Home Office. Teleperformance is being paid £300m by the Government over five years to deliver similar services in 74 countries across the world.

The company’s visa services were criticised last month by the family of Anthony Eldridge, a decorated Second World War veteran. The 92-year-old died before his grandson could reach his bedside due to delays with his visa application in Norway.

Former workers at the Podgorica visa centre told The Independent that it had been plagued by problems from the beginning. Delays and confusion with UK visa applications had resulted in staff being physically threatened by angry members of the public, they said.

In one particularly embarrassing case last summer, they said the passport of Nina Vujanovic, the daughter of Montenegro’s President Filip Vujanovic, had been accidentally sent to another visa applicant.

Managers had ignored warnings about the company’s legal status in Montenegro, the staff claimed. “From the very beginning, me and my colleagues were telling them, ‘Is the company registered?’, and ‘Why isn’t it registered?” said one. “We were adamant, but they didn’t want to listen. I think they were just really unprepared.”

In a statement, the tax administration of Montenegro told The Independent it had conducted an audit of Teleperformance’s UK visa centre after receiving a tip-off from an “anonymous citizen”. “During the inspection, it was determined that this entity did not have a business registration at the central registry of commercial entities or general tax registration at the central registry of taxpayers and the insured persons,” the statement said.

“Teleperformance’s UK visa centre was sanctioned by a temporary business operation closure until the irregularities are corrected. Proceedings will be initiated towards responsible persons.”

It is unclear when the centre will be able to reopen. In the interim, Montenegrins wanting to travel to the UK have been told to use the company’s centres in the neighbouring countries of Albania, Bosnia and Serbia.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) are aware that the visa application centre in Podgorica has been temporarily closed by the Montenegrin authorities. Teleperformance, which runs the centre on behalf of UKVI, is discussing the matter with them.

“We have put measures in place so that people can make applications through other centres should they need to.”

Teleperformance is not responsible for making decisions on whether to grant visas, but manages the face-to-face interviews where photographs and fingerprints are collected from applicants. The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Independent.