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Missing GOV.UK web link potentially cost taxpayers £50m as civil servants are forced to shuffle paper forms
medConfidential spots tiny yet staggering online blunder
Exclusive A single missing web link on GOV.UK has cost the taxpayer £51m over the past five years because civil servants are being forced to handle paper forms posted to the Home Office.
Research by privacy campaign group medConfidential reckons the government has wasted about £10m per year since late 2015 thanks to the omission of a crucial web link from a GOV.UK page about Biometric Residence Permits (BRPs).
Phil Booth of medConfidential told The Register: "While the Home Office generates a profit from fees for migrants, it is required to provide some services for free – such as making a change of registered home address when someone moves house."
GOV.UK has a webpage for this titled "report a change of circumstances if you have a visa or BRP". Importantly, the page only links to hard-copy forms for people wanting to update their BRP addresses, meaning the Home Office has to pay people to handle the physical paperwork.
medConfidential's Booth added: "The official GOV.UK page that signposts the paper form has no link for the majority of people to the online version of the form for the same function."
BRP holders who want to update their details quickly and easily, and save the taxpayer a few quid into the bargain, can use the Visa Address Update Service, which does exactly the same thing as the paper form.
Although this online service has existed since 2015, the BRP pages do not link to it for people with a permit who want to update their address – though the link is, bizarrely enough, offered to those who have applied for and have not yet received a decision letter. People with or applying for a permit who want to update their details in extraordinary circumstances – such as separating from their partner – need to use the printed form, too.
The Taxpayers' Alliance's Harry Fone told The Register: "Taxpayers will be livid at this totally avoidable largesse. With the tax burden at a 50-year high, Brits expect their taxes to be spent on frontline services, not bungling bureaucrats. Ministers and civil servants must be relentless at eradicating wasteful spending like this."
The wasted £50m could have been spent on anything other than paper-shuffling civil servants transcribing handwritten forms received in the post. For example, it could have been spent paying a minimum wage school leaver one hour to complete the 60-second task of adding the missing link to the BRP page on GOV.UK – a task that would still yield a net saving of £51,004,793.55.
With paper forms costing the government £14.49 each to handle, the costs incurred by 704,000 of them being posted in every year quickly add up.
The Home Office has ignored The Register's request for comment.
The Government Digital Service, creators and maintainers of GOV.UK, has not covered itself in glory over the past decade, as we summarised when its previous chief quit in 2019.
Method in the madness
Calculating the total cost to the taxpayer of the missing link is not a straightforward process unless, like medConfidential and El Reg, you know where to look.
The Office for National Statistics said, in its latest Migration Statistics Report that there were 1.36 million non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationals working in the UK between January and March 2020, the latest dates for which statistics are available. Only non-EEA nationals need to have a BRP [PDF, see page 1].
To take spouses, other dependents and the retired into account, we rounded this figure up to 2 million people; the ONS Labour Force Survey doesn't count non-working people with BRPs. In addition, non-EEA students studying in the UK also need BRPs. The Higher Education Statistics Authority said that on (mean) average over the past five years, 318,000 non-EU students per year entered UK higher education.
There are three non-EU EEA countries whose students don't need BRPs; Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Norway. We disregarded their student numbers for our purposes.
Having deduced that there are about 2.3 million BRPs on issue, we then needed to work out how often those BRP holders might tell the Home Office of a change in circumstances. An obvious trigger being a change of address; here using data about home rentals becomes important. Students frequently move house because they live in rented accommodation, while foreign nationals are not likely to make up a significant number of UK homeowners, ultra-rich oligarchs' shell companies aside.
Remembering that students tend to live in short-term lettings and move annually, we separated out the 2 million non-student BRPs from the 318,000 students for this next step.
UK.gov drives ever further into Nocluesville, crowdsources how to solve digital identityREAD MORE
The English Housing Survey's most recent statistics on households that moved within the last year (table FA4623 here) show that 19.3 per cent of UK households in private rents moved during 2018-19. Applying that percentage to our 2 million non-students gives 386,000 address changes per year. Adding the students back on, our total came to 704,000 BRP holders who moved during the last year – that is, 704,000 paper forms posted to the Home Office saying a BRP holder had moved house.
Now, how do we know how much it costs the Home Office to process those forms? For this we turned to GOV.UK itself: specifically, our well-beloved Government Digital Service. Back in the heady days of the early 2010s when the GDS empire was starting to be built, it published estimates of how much its digital doings could save the government.
Figure 19 in this GDS webpage gives a cost to the taxpayer of £12.10 per postal transaction handled by civil servants. Being diligent, we're going to apply inflation to that using the Bank of England's inflation calculator. With the given average of 2.4 per cent compound interest from 2012 until today we arrived at a 2018/19 adjusted-for-inflation cost of £14.49 to handle a single paper form.
£14.49 multiplied by 704,000 BRP holders posting paper forms to UK.gov every year gives us a handling cost of £10,200,960 annually.
How much has this blunder cost the taxpayer in total? The Internet Archive gave us the answers to that question. GDS launched its free online Visa Address Update Service (VAUS) in January 2015, as the first IA snapshot of its homepage shows. Meanwhile, no version of the "report a change of circumstances" webpage has ever once linked to the VAUS.
Over five years that missing GOV.UK link has cost the British taxpayer £51,004,800. For the sake of one single link was a hole punched in the national coffers. ®