'Fraught with risks': Senate rejects plan to outsource visa processing

Labor Senator Kim Carr chaired the committee examining the plan to outsource visa processing. Source: Parliament

A Senate committee has warned a billion-dollar tender process on outsourcing visa processing is threatening the integrity of Australia's migration system.

A billion-dollar plan to outsource visa processing has been rejected by a Senate committee over fears it would undermine the integrity of the migration system.

The Senate committee, chaired by Labor's Kim Carr, found the “privatisation” of Australia's visa application and assessment system would reduce service quality and price gouge visa applicants.

But the Federal Government dismissed the criticism saying the proposed "Global Digital Platform" is needed to reduce processing times as visa applications are projected to increase to more than 13 million per year in the next decade.

The committee recommended the $1 billion tender process be scrapped in favour of more funding to support the Department of Home Affairs.

“Outsourcing Australia’s visa processing system is a project fraught with risks and the committee is not satisfied that these risks have been sufficiently addressed,” the committee concluded.

It said international experience, particularly in the United Kingdom, has shown the outsourcing model could have dramatic consequences.

“Profit-making entities are driven to find ways to maximize their profits, and this inevitably leads to reduced service quality and/or higher fees,” the committee reported.

The current visa system currently involves more than 50 different computer systems, two of which are more than 25 years old.

Australia Visa Processing (AVP), a consortium previously run by ex-Liberal Party deputy director Scott Briggs, and a joint Australia Post and Accenture venture are vying for the contract.

A decision on the tender process was due to be made in October last year, but as of February no decision had been made.

In a dissenting report, Liberal senators Amanda Stoker and Claire Chandler defended the model, insisting the new workflow tool to support the processing of digital visa applications did not amount to privatisation.

“This modernisation process is necessary to reduce processing times and to ensure visa decision making continues to support key export industries like tourism and education,” their report said.

“The provider of the workflow tool will have no role whatsoever in visa decision making.”

During the committee hearings, the Migration Institute of Australia (MIA) expressed “grave concerns” about “commercialising” visa processing, citing tension between profit and service delivery.

A number of witnesses pointed to the experience of visa applicants in the UK which outsourced its system to French tech company Sopra Steria in November 2018.

It heard the “privatisation” had led to reduced service quality and increased costs to consumers as providers used long delays for free appointments to drive demand for premium, higher-priced products.

But the Federal Government argues the outsourcing process in Australia would allow the Department of Home Affair’s staff to refocus their efforts on higher-value, more complex decision making and help clear backlogs.

If the government goes ahead with the tender process, the committee recommended complex and vulnerable people's applications should continue being handled by department staff.

The department has already agreed the successful tenderer would only process less challenging visa applications, such as temporary skilled workers, international students and special category visas for New Zealanders. 

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