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Exclusive: UK ignored warnings over contractor behind Ukraine visa ‘chaos’

TLSContact had ‘sole focus’ of making money while ‘human aspect’ was ‘not at all valued’, Home Office watchdog was told last year

Adam Bychawski
9 March 2022, 6.11pm
Ukrainians arrive in Poland after crossing the border
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REUTERS/Kuba Stezycki

Priti Patel ignored warnings that the Home Office contractor which told desperate Ukrainian refugees to wait weeks for visa appointments had the “sole focus” of making a profit and a history of squeezing cash out of applicants, openDemocracy can reveal.

It was claimed yesterday in Parliament that TLSContact’s visa centre in Rzeszow, Poland, had turned away applicants who had queued in freezing temperatures for hours, saying it had no slots available until the end of April. Reports on social media claimed the firm had been pressuring Ukrainians to pay for extra services beyond its basic free appointments.

The Labour MP Clive Efford slammed the situation as “complete chaos”.

Now it has emerged that the home secretary was told by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in November 2021 that TLSContact was so hell-bent on making profit that its use posed a risk of “reputational damage” to the UK. The firm has been handed government contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds since 2014.

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“[Its] sole focus is income generation. The human aspect is not at all valued,” one British Embassy whistleblower told the chief inspector.

The whistleblower added: “There are applicants being persuaded to buy unnecessary additional services at the [visa application centres]... The most recent contract with external commercial partners has meant that it is through ‘upselling’ these additional services that partners make their money.”

A British man who fled Kyiv with his Ukrainian family told openDemocracy he had been given a waiting time of 13 days for a visa appointment at TLSContact’s Budapest centre.

Wes Gleeson, 43, moved to Ukraine in 2010. He said it was “embarrassing” just how difficult it was to secure a UK visa, adding he had experienced similar problems with the company for years.

“The application tracker doesn’t work. The booking system doesn’t work,” he said of his dealings with the company in the past. “The only thing that seems to work is the parts where they’re trying to upsell stuff to you.”

Gleeson, originally from Oxford, said his wife Inna, 38, no longer wanted to come to the UK at all because of how difficult the government had made it for Ukrainian refugees to enter the country.

The couple escaped to Moldova last week with Gleeson’s sister-in-law and her seven-year-old child, before taking a 26-hour bus journey to Hungary.

The software entrepreneur’s comments were echoed by others on social media, who said the process for obtaining visas for Ukrainian family members was “cruel and bureaucratic” and that they were forced to pay TLSContact for additional services to make any progress.

Its parent company, Teleperformance Ltd, was awarded a £167m contract by the Home Office in 2014 to run the UK’s visa centres across Europe under the TLSContact brand. Gleeson said it was “horrific” and “pitiful” that the government had given so much money to the company.

The company, which is the UK subsidiary of the French multinational, was also paid nearly £259m by the Department of Health to run call centres for its much-maligned Test and Trace programme during the pandemic, which a parliamentary committee found had “no impact” on slowing the spread of the virus.

More than 14,000 complaints were made about TLSContact between March and September 2020, according to the same report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

TLSContact’s Kyiv visa centre, which is currently shut, lists a £90 service to scan documents and offers customers a 'flexible appointment' for £60

The chief inspector said a lack of free appointments and support for filling out applications meant many customers were left with no choice but to pay for additional services. TLSContact’s Kyiv visa centre, which is currently shut, lists a £90 service to scan documents and offers customers a “flexible appointment” for £60.

The Home Office’s own customer satisfaction survey similarly found that, between January 2019 and August 2020, 72% of people applying for visas overseas through its private contractors felt forced to pay for extras to get a good service.

Staff based at overseas visa centres admitted that customers regularly experienced difficulties with filling out online applications and that more “support and language help is needed”. The report found that customers had to rely on relatives in the UK to help them or were advised to pay for assistance as no free support was provided.

One immigration lawyer told the chief inspector that TLSContact’s website was “broken” and that it had crashed on many occasions when trying to submit a request, while another site user reported being unable to upload documents.

The chief inspector recommended that the Home Office publish statistics on the number of free appointments being made available by overseas visa centres, but the department in its response to the report said that there was “limited value in publishing this data”.

Teleperformance has previously faced criticism from MPs and unions over its treatment of call centre workers.

Last year, an operator answering calls to the NHS’s 111 advice line told a parliamentary inquiry that the company refused to allow staff to work from home.

“Your beloved Covid-19 response line... is made up of hundreds of temporary employees, without proper contracts, no benefits, no holiday entitlement and worst of all we are crammed into a call centre,” the worker, who was not named, told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s inquiry into the impact of the pandemic on businesses and workers.

They said they had witnessed operators come to work despite being ill because the company only provided statutory sick leave, which many said they could not afford to live on.

Teleperformance’s CEO Daniel Julien boasted of setting “new growth records” in the company’s 2021 annual report, which showed a 25% increase in revenue to €7.1bn.

The report said TLSContact, which has long-term contracts with 46 governments, had a “robust and unique business model” based on offering a “range of high value-added products and services” to people applying for visas.

Last year, openDemocracy revealed that Teleperformance Ltd, which operates in the UK but is owned by the French company, had received furlough payments from the government despite also being awarded a multi-million COVID contract.

The Home Office and Teleperformance had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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