Mary Dejevsky: First impressions matter – that goes for visa offices too

Britons should be flattered so many genuine visitors want to come here
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The Independent Online

Last month The Independent published an indignant letter from a university lecturer in Glasgow relating how the British embassy in Moscow had treated a visa application submitted by his daughter's partner, a Russian citizen.

He described the service, such as it was, as being at once inefficient and arrogant. And although he had offered, in writing, to fund the week's trip in full, the application was eventually turned down for the looking-glass reason that the applicant had not proved he could finance it.

This experience, as anyone who has encountered frustrated visa-applicants or their sponsors will know, is not unique. Nor, as the subsequent stream of complaints from other correspondents has shown, is it restricted to Russia – although Russia seems a particular black spot. Welcome to the world of honest people trying to enter the UK legitimately and the fine upstanding friends and family who try to help them.

Of course, at a time when immigration is rising up the political agenda and the chorus of "British jobs for British workers" is clearly audible only just beneath the surface, it is entirely reasonable that the Government should be on alert for people who might be planning a tourist trip as a springboard for something rather more permanent. This is one reason why we, in common with most countries, have a visa regime for the holders of certain passports.

It is also why abolishing the requirement for a visa, at least for tourist trips, is so high up almost every country's diplomatic wish-list. Visa-free travel is seen as a mark of acceptance into a more civilised world.

Applying for a visa to any country can be an expensive hassle, as I well know, and fraught with uncertainty to boot. But the experience of applying for a UK visa – an experience British citizens will have only vicariously, if at all – seems to leave many applicants and their sponsors with a particularly bitter taste. They feel resentful about how they have been treated. And the same charges come up again and again: complaints about bureaucracy, cost and inconvenience, but also, and most particularly, about tone. It is that deadly combination of arrogance combined with inefficiency which was noted by our first correspondent.

If you doubt it, read the letter we print on the opposite page today. The applicant (from India) is being invited for her third visit in six years. Since February, she has been to the British visa office three times. Telephone inquiries lead no where. Meanwhile her sponsor has had to provide even more personal documents than would be needed to set up a bank account in the UK – and that is saying something. How confident can he be that all this information will remain confidential?

Some of the most unpopular procedures are not going to change. The requirement to attend a visa office in person, once, is probably non-negotiable. So, for the time being, is the taking of fingerprints – something many find demeaning. But British visa offices could surely do more to improve efficiency, and it would cost nothing at all to transform the tone. Patronising, condescending, dismissive would describe some of the treatment I have personally seen meted out to applicants.

To her credit, the British ambassador in Moscow, Anne Pringle, who only recently took up her post, wrote a letter addressing some of the complaints. She noted that the UK Border Agency (tellingly, not her embassy) dealt with 140,000 visa applications in 2008, more than 94 per cent of which were granted. But she also implied that there was a necessary trade-off – a "balance", as she put it, between "first-rate customer service" and "maintaining the integrity of the UK's immigration control".

For the life of me, I cannot see why. All our correspondents make clear that they have tried their utmost to play by the rules. Yet what do they get in return? They feel that they are pre-judged as liars and insulted by off-hand staff who, all too often, scorn their dignity and their time. I would add that the more honest and educated the applicant, the more deeply the discrepancy is resented.

Britons should be flattered that so many genuine visitors want to come here. The visa office is likely to be the would-be visitor's first encounter with this country. It should be as much a showcase for Britain as the architecture and ceremonial reception areas of our embassies.

The procedures should be patently efficient and fair. Front-desk staff should be well turned-out and courteous. Crucially, they should be British nationals, as should anyone who answers the phone – in countries where corruption is rife or the memory of police informers is still alive, applicants often distrust their fellow citizens, especially if they are in the pay of a foreign government.

As a country, we pay too little attention to first impressions. It does not matter whether the visa office is an agency or a consulate – to the visiting applicant, it is the face of Britain.

It is our good fortune that most first-time visitors have positive expectations. Their textbooks still teach them that, along with its faults – such as fog – Britain exemplifies politeness and fair play. Why do are visa procedures dash so many expectations even before our would-be guests leave home?

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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