I have not blogged for several months because my last blog, about the joys of being newly married, were interrupted by the UK Border Agency which insisted my wife had to return to Ghana to apply for a settlement visa from there rather than from the Agency’s offices in Croydon.
This should have been a simple enough task, especially as the initial application was done online before my wife left for Ghana, and we had compiled an impressive list of original documents for her to present to the High Commission in Accra.
We had systematically found documentary evidence to support every assertion made in the application, managing to include my birth certificate, a reference to my flat purchase in 1998 to prove I owned a property, a copy of my last tax return to show how much I earned (with supporting bank statements), my wife’s degree certificate and journalism certificate plus a statement from NARIC, a recognised agency in the UK, that guaranteed that a degree from the University of Ghana was equivalent to a Batchelor’s degree here.
The most important piece of evidence was a job offer letter that my wife had received from an employer where she had volunteered for 5 weeks before returning to Ghana. The job offer was conditional, of course, on her obtaining a settlement visa.
The tone of the application form for such visas is one of hostility, with references throughout which imply “we hope you are not coming here to claim benefits”. Well no, I was earning enough to keep her anyway, and we had the proof that my wife wanted to work and had a job offer in an institution where her background and knowledge of community languages in Ghana could prove useful.
So we thought it should be plain sailing. But no.
The processing of settlement visa applications is done in a strict chronological order, and my request for my wife’s application to be fast-tracked because of the job offer was deemed to be “not a compelling reason for fast tracking”.
My wife had been told in Ghana it would be 12 working weeks from the time of submission to get an answer, which put the likely date for her visa to be processed into early January. The answer I got three times from a civil servant in Accra was that it would be resolved by 31st December.
Extracts from an email exchange with this official in the High Commission in Accra are rather telling. I wrote - “You still have not responded to my email messages. Is it the official policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to fail to respond to email messages from UK citizens?
The reply I got (eventually) was this - “For your information, the UK Border Agency’s publically (sic) available guidelines state that correspondence should be replied to within 20 working days of receipt.
I appreciate that this may not be the response you were hoping for.”
It was bad enough getting the same stonewall answer again, but to hide behind a pathetic response deadline of 20 working days at a time of electronic communication suggests that our old colonial outposts need to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the culture of the 1960’s into the 21st century. In local government we have made great strides to improve response times to enquiries. Ten working days is often the target and the actual response times, such as in Camden, are often shorter.
However, not to be brushed off like this I tried to use the good offices of a number of local and national politicians to see if they could intervene on my behalf. Being used to intervening on behalf of constituents as a councillor I found it a frustrating experience asking for help in this way and finding a poor response from most. Glenda Jackson my local MP has very polite staff who tried to help, but when Glenda phoned me directly after a few email exchanges she appeared to me to be both unhelpful, and rather dismissive.
Various Members of the House of Lords who were listed as part of the parliamentary committee for Ghana were tried. David Steel, Navnit Dholakia and Paul Boateng were all either dismissive or too easily accepting of the status quo.
A letter to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister went unanswered for weeks until I get a composite reply, which referred to the other enquiries made on my behalf by others. The only politician who appeared to take the issue seriously was Sarah Ludford the Liberal Democrat MEP for London, who rightfully challenged the first response she received.
Why was I so angry? Besides missing my wife which was torment enough, applying for a settlement visa as a spouse of a UK citizen involves not only filling in an application form with supporting evidence, but a fee of around £850 payable in cash in the local currency. It occurred to me that if any Commission had a backlog of applications they also had a lot of fees collected which could be used to appoint more temporary workers to clear the backlog or to offer overtime to existing staff. But that it seems is too logical, too modern, too concerned about improving systems. That would be about an agency accepting that it is providing a public service rather than simply administering a legal procedure.
The UK Border Agency has been under attack a great deal in recent months, with one senior official resigning after a spat with the Home Secretary about apparently relaxing border controls in the summer.
In my experience it requires a serious root and branch review of all its systems.
To complete the story, my wife was asked to collect her documents, including the visa, on 28th December. When she received her passport back it was clear the visa had been approved on 23rd December, too close to the Christmas break to allow her to enjoy Christmas in the UK with her new British family.
My wife arrived at Heathrow on the morning of 2nd January and I am now a much happier man, but my criticisms of the inefficient UK Border Agency are still legitimate and should be pursued by politicians in Government, or by those aspiring to represent us.