14 August 2012
of two people caught
in a bureaucracy
The UK Border Agency is currently rarely out of the news headlines. It is failing to keep out terrorists; it is making visitors wait too long at passport control; it is under-staffed because to cut the budget deficit it has fired too many people (including its own boss); its treatment of those refused access to the country, held for deportment, or physically forced on to planes to wherever, has repeatedly been exposed as falling far short of what is expected of a civilised society.
Given such a constant stream of bad publicity, one would expect the agency to be all the more anxious to carry out its routine, everyday duties in an efficient, expeditious and user-friendly manner. As the sequence of events I'm about to describe reveals, the reality is rather different.
Here is the story. N recently celebrated a civil partnership with A. A is an American citizen working in the UK for Amazon. However a few weeks ago, after an endless series of interviews and meetings both here and in the US, he landed his dream job with Apple. Until now, his work status in the UK had depended on his employment by Amazon – he was on a tier 2 visa. That changed of course after his civil partnership with N, who is a British citizen. A can now live permanently in the UK. Apple wanted A to come out immediately to its HQ in Cupertino, California, to meet some of the people he will be working with from its London base. To leave the UK A needed to get a new FLR (M) or spousal visa. This is where the fun began.
Such visas are only issued at four offices in the UK: Croydon, Sheffield, Glasgow and Belfast. A call to the Croydon office revealed that the first available appointment was two months away. So Sheffield, however inconvenient, it had to be. A fast-track option for visa-seekers is available – at a price. Of precisely £867. A consulted an immigration advisor just to be sure he was doing everything that was required in presenting the necessary forms and supporting documentation. All seemed to be in order. A and N left London on a Monday morning for a 3 o'clock appointment in Sheffield.
Arriving in the Sheffield office, A and N discovered a state of utter confusion. Dozens of people waiting to be interviewed. 3 o'clock came and went. N finally insisted on speaking to someone. He was told that the biometric apparatus was not working – but they could go to a post office and get the necessary procedure carried out there.
Back in the office the caseworker assigned to them finally appeared. Both A and N quickly began to feel that his demeanour was not exactly friendly. He soon picked on the fact that N was described in the documentation as self-employed. N carefully explained exactly why this was so. He had been working for the same firm for the last six and a half years. He was still working for this organisation (a £60m, 350-employee international firm). Very recently, however, he had been promoted to partner level which meant that in the company's established structure he was now described as self-employed.
The caseworker seemed to find this situation difficult to understand. There seemed to be a discrepancy between N's employed and self-employed earnings. Yes N responded, but that was because he had only been 'self-employed' for a few months. The papers (P60) showed that his earnings over the current year were in fact very substantial. (The issue here is that we are terrified of allowing anyone to stay in our country who might become a burden on our welfare system. The visa applicant has to provide 'evidence that you can maintain yourselves and any dependants adequately without needing public funds'. So a spouse has to be earning at least £18,600 a year.) N's remuneration is very substantially more than £18,600.
The caseworker still seemed unable to see that there was absolutely no issue over the financial status of N and A. The paperwork was not completely in order. N said well, look, a quick phone call to the finances section of my company will clear this matter up immediately. I can't do that said the caseworker. The regulations were changed last week. We are not allowed to act except on the basis of the submitted documentation. I cannot make a phone call. And I cannot issue you a visa.
I don't need to describe to the reader the state of shock that now was overtaking N and A. Doing his best to be calm and rational, N tried to explain the damage this decision might be causing. Apple was the kind of international company that the UK desperately needed for economic reasons. Here it was offering a job to someone who would remain in the UK paying his share of taxes to our treasury. That job could easily go to someone in another part of Europe. We would be the losers. But such arguments were to no avail. The case-worker felt he could not tick the right boxes. N and A found themselves on the train back to London without a visa.
Wednesday's flight to San Francisco had to be cancelled.
I spoke to A that evening on the phone and was dismayed and upset by the state he was in. Normally full of life and energy, he was drained, depressed, virtually monosyllabic. Clearly he was feeling his prized new job could be lost. Still, N had been active. A colleague at work was a member of the House of Lords and an ex-government minister. She was appalled by the Sheffield story and immediately dashed off a letter of unqualified support for the visa application. N's MP happens to be Chuka Umunna, Labour's shadow business secretary. His office could not have been swifter or more efficient in offering further support.
A seat was booked on a Friday morning flight to San Francisco, and a new appointment made in Sheffield for Thursday. On arrival N and A discovered that a second £867 fast track fee had to be paid, though Monday's one could be reclaimed. Asked whether they wanted to see the same caseworker, they made it clear that that was just what they didn't want. This proved not to be a problem and the new official they met (a woman) appeared friendly and helpful.
After a quick glance at all the paperwork she said she could see no problem. Go off for some lunch – when you come back the visa will be ready. (A was so paranoid by this time he suspected that even this degree of delay was ominous.) But he was wrong. There was indeed no problem. The visa was issued. Apple was understanding. And A flew out on the Friday morning.
So a happy end to the story. But at what – totally unnecessary – cost, both literally and personally? (What would have happened had A and N been earning around the minimum wage?) N's own highly-demanding job had been more or less on hold for an entire week. A had every reason to believe that his professional career was on the line. Both N and A had been subjected to a week of wearing and unremitting stress. For absolutely no good reason they had found themselves in a situation of nightmarish confusion and uncertainty.
They ask themselves should they have done things differently? Hired an immigration lawyer perhaps? But why? There was nothing problematic about their position. Perhaps no more was involved here than just another example of a man 'drest in a little brief authority' making angels weep. But surely the Home Office and its struggling Border Agency could have the nous to balance their box-ticking mentality with a little common sense – and at least employ individuals with sufficient competence to handle the job?
Andrew Hook is a former professor of English literature at