London: Millions of visas allowing foreigners to enter Britain are being issued by an American company and a High Street travel agent rather than British diplomats.
The system — never officially announced to Parliament means that instead of filling in a form at a British embassy and facing an interview by diplomatic staff, visa applicants are directed to commercially run "official" offices around the world.
And hundreds of thousands of applicants simply fill in a form on a website run by the US company.
The two private firms are responsible for dealing with about 80 per cent of the 2.75 million visa applications every year, two million of which are successful.
A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed that the new system — quietly introduced over the past two years — has been beset by problems, including one company's staff selling visas. Critics fear it is fuelling the numbers of people who come to Britain and overstay after their visas expire, adding to the estimated one million illegal immigrants already in the country.
And on Saturday night Opposition politicians called for a return of face-to-face interviews with British diplomats to help secure the UK's borders against bogus applicants and potential terrorists.
The revelations will add to the discomfort felt by Gordon Brown last week when he faced criticism for making misleading statements about immigration figures.
Mail on Sunday can reveal that business people, foreign government representatives, students and tourists in 109 countries all have to apply for visas through the two firms rather than through the embassies.
The American outsourcing firm, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), also runs an advice hotline charging large fees payable by credit card in dollars to help applicants complete visa forms, but which is described as "completely useless" in a Government report.
Details of its five-year deal, or the cost to the taxpayer, have never been officially announced by the Government. But last week the firm announced a similar 10-year contract with the US State Department, worth £1.8 billion (Dh10.04 billion).
Virginia-based CSC has opened visa application centres in 14 countries and is running websites and call centres covering 87 others. Its so-called World-Bridge Service uses no diplomats or other British Government staff.
A similar service is offered by VFSGlobal, part of the Swiss-based travel firm Kuoni, better known for its luxury package holidays.
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WorldBridge began taking over visa applications from the Foreign Office two years ago, opening its first office in Jamaica in May 2007.
Last year CSC had a turnover of £10.5 billion (Dh58.61 billion) — clients include the US Navy, Nasa and BAe Systems, Britain's biggest defence contractor. Kuoni Travel's VFS-Global also issues visas for Britain and around 30 other countries with offices in Africa, the Middle East, China and Japan. It says it "serves diplomatic missions by managing all the administrative and non-judgmental tasks related to the entire life-cycle of a visa application process, enabling diplomatic missions to focus entirely on the key tasks of assessment and interview".
But last year, a member of the firm's staff issuing visas for Britain in Pakistan was arrested for allegedly taking £22,000 in bribes to obtain visas for eight people. He absconded before he could be sentenced. Two years ago, the company faced a Foreign Office probe into an alleged breach of security in its online application facility.