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The UK is to outsource visa application checks "wherever there is an outsource partner", following trials in its largest visa posts in Mumbai, Delhi and Islamabad. This process, which will be implemented alongside the introduction of biometrics for all visa applications, is intended to cover at least 60 per cent of an annual total of 2.5 million applications by 2008, saving £3.7 million via a reduction of "46 staff years per year".

The cunning outsourcing plan by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which handles overseas visa applications, will be implemented as the UK Passport Office tightens security via the introduction of biometrics and by requiring new (and subsequently all) passport applicants attend a personal interview. Which could, one speculates, result in a country it was a hell of a lot easier to get into than out of, but the outsourcing partners will, we feel sure, be thoroughly vetted.

The process, the FCO tells us, "cost just £35,000 to develop" (did they outsource this too?) and allows UK visa staff to advise the outsourcing partner what information is needed. The partner then collects this from the application, puts it into electronic format and passes it on to the British Mission. As biometrics are rolled out, outsourcing partners are likely to deal with this too. "From our experience of fingerprinting in a variety of posts in East Africa," says the FCO, "we have learned that we can safely scan fingerprints within our outsourced operations."

The decision to fingerprint all visa applicants was taken after "the success of the Colombo fingerprinting trial in 2003", which as we noted at the time was so 'successful that it caught a maximum of xxx fraudsters. In common with other UK Government departments, the FCO claims that the UK "is committed by EU regulations to introducing biometrics into the worldwide visa operation" - as far as the FCO is concerned this is sort of, nearly true, but not quite, and the FCO's current visa plans are rather different from what it will have to do if it ever really is "committed by EU regulations".

The EU's visa plans aren't directly connected to its biometric passports ones, nor do they directly connect to the FCO ones. European ministers intended to have a blueprint for the introduction of biometric visas in place by the end of last year, but the discovery that the plans didn't work put things up in the air. Ministers still intend to go ahead with biometric visas, and a trial of a separate visa card is commencing, but as far as we're aware the European Parliament hasn't yet been blackmailed into rubber-stamping a firmed-up scheme.

That however is neither here nor there as far as what the FCO is doing is concerned. The European system is intended to be part of the Schengen II/Visa Information System database network, with the biometric visa itself available for checking via standard border control equipment on entry to the EU. The FCO system fingerprints visa applicants in order to give the UK the capability to check for duplicate applications. The EU system means the subject of the visa carries their biometric data with them, whereas the UK's doesn't. If the UK is to participate in the EU system then the FCO will have to upgrade (if that's the word) its plans and issue whatever the EU decides on, either a sticker in the passport or a separate card, probably the latter.

The FCO's claim to be committed by regulations therefore appears to be based on its pretending that the UK is a signatory to Schengen when it really isn't. The FCO explains the Schengen position here, so we don't have to, but the UK's attitude to Schengen can probably best be summed up as one of being in for the bits we like, but out for the bits we don't. How 'in' we are on this one might turn out to be less clear than is immediately apparent.

Matters will be further complicated if the UK ID scheme flies. Those resident in the UK for over three months will be required to register for a card, so might this process take place via an overseas office on the granting of visas for over three months? How, if at all, will the current/planned FCO system intersect with the ID scheme, or with Europe's VIS or a European ID card for non-EU residents?

The FCO claims it will cost £77 million to handle 2.5 million biometric visa applications, and our anonymous tipster for this story suggests this might imply a one-off cost of around £1.8 billion for biometric capture of the entire UK, but we're not so sure. It's not clear how much of the FCO cost is capital investment or the annual cost of the system, and what the FCO is planning isn't necessarily comparable to the Home Office's ID plans. Unless the FCO intends to maintain its own system in splendid, stripped-down isolation, however, we'd expect the actual cost to climb as the need for compatibility with the other systems increases.

Foreign Minister Jack Straw did not however like the ID scheme in the first place, so may not be willing to bust a gut to keep step with it now, particularly given heartening news that Ireland (another non-Schengen country) may junk biometric passports, and that the US might be about to conclude that biometric passports aren't nearly as much fun as it initially thought. ®

Related stories:

US postpones biometric passport plan - again
US expected to abandon Biometric passport plan
EU goes on biometric LSD trip

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