British High Commission in South Africa

– in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 24th March 2010.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Kerry McCarthy.)

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Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 7:06 pm, 24th March 2010

I am very grateful indeed to have the opportunity this evening to raise the case of my constituent Mr. David Acott, his wife Belinda Acott, and their children Keegan and Kaylee. I am sad to have to say that they have received very short shrift, both from the high commission in Pretoria and from Lunar house.

I am delighted to see the Minister for Borders and Immigration-a Home Office Minister-in his place. I am sure that shortly he will tell me that he will ensure that my comments are duly relayed to his colleagues in the Foreign Office, but I want considerably more than just for those comments to be relayed. I would like a definitive response from the Foreign Office on how aware it is of day-to-day operations in Pretoria at the high commission and on what measures it will put in place to improve the levels of courtesy and helpfulness-and, for that matter, the levels of sheer, plain accessibility to British citizens.

David Acott, who now resides in my constituency, is a British citizen-he has a United Kingdom passport-but his wife, Belinda Acott, and their children are not. They travel on South African passports. Mr. and Mrs. Acott have been married for 11 years, and their children are aged nine and four. Throughout their marriage, both the husband and wife have been employed full time, and they are by no means lazy or without resourcefulness. They had lived their whole lives in Zimbabwe, until 2001, when they were given 24 hours to leave their farm, as the war veterans were taking it over. I wonder how the Minister or I would feel if we were given 24 hours to leave our homes, without the slightest notion of what we were going to do next.

What should have happened at that point is this. Because Mr. Acott is a British citizen, the family should have come back here, and his wife and children should have claimed asylum, which most Zimbabweans who were turned out of their farms have been successful in obtaining. However, they did not do that. They are self-sufficient individuals. They were afraid for the safety of their elder child, who at that stage was not even two. So, they left Zimbabwe and crossed the border into South Africa with just three suitcases. At that stage, they thought that South Africa was a viable option because they have relatives there and because it is much closer to Zimbabwe than the UK.

They could not take any money out of Zimbabwe, because the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe could not exchange it into the South African rand as no foreign currency was available. They left with three suitcases and no money, so it is not very surprising that they should choose the neighbouring South Africa rather than the rather more far-flung UK. They moved in with the brother and sister-in-law of Mrs. Acott and that family supported them until they were able to become South African citizens. Mrs. Acott's mother and father were born in South Africa so, with little ado and very swiftly, they were able to become South African citizens. They started again from scratch in South Africa, opened their own company, which lasted until September 2009- eight years after they were turned out of Zimbabwe-when the recession hit South Africa and they had to close their business as it was running at a massive loss.

They immediately started looking for employment but fell foul of new rules that had been brought in in South Africa, of which the Minister is almost certainly aware. They were sent away from all the interviews and all the job positions for which they applied because they were not black African people, as the law in South Africa stated that under black empowerment to redress the inequalities of apartheid priority had to be given to previously disadvantaged groups. Naturally enough, with no money, no job and no business, they asked what they should do and they were advised to return to England. It was at that point that everything started to go wrong.

Mr. Acott was a British citizen-naturally, he had a British passport. Three of his sisters are already residing in the UK. Mrs. Acott's great-grandfather was British and they decided therefore that the obvious and best option would be to start a new life in the UK. So, they did what I would have expected any British citizen-which Mr. Acott is-in that position to do. They went to the British high commission. They asked what was required of them and how they could start the process of immigrating to the UK. Not only was there unhelpfulness and a failure to get any information at all, but, worse than that, they could not even get past the security guard-I hope that the Minister is listening at this point, and I stress that they could not even get past the security guard-for an interview or a meeting with a consultant.

I might be terribly naive, but I always assumed that when a "Brit cit" was in trouble abroad, they could go to their country's embassy or high commission and that they would at least receive advice and certainly would not be turned away by a security guard. They did not give up-they tried several times, but to no avail. Eventually, they were told that they should go and see a UK visa agent. When they asked the agent what he required, he said that he would require at least 50,000 South African rand, from people who had already been refugees once and now, for the second time, found themselves without any resources. That was what was required just to start the procedure and then, when he had that 50,000 rand, he would try to help them. They did not have that amount of money-they had already been unemployed for four months-and decided to come to the UK, with the three non-Brit cits coming in on visitors' visas, and to try to start the procedure here.

I think it is an appalling business that a British citizen in distress, who obviously had taken every possible step to help himself, should be turned away by a security guard from the high commission in Pretoria.

However, the scene shifts: they leave South Africa and manage to come over here. When they came here, they believed that they would face a fairly simple procedure to get accepted. They arrived here on 19 January 2010, and stayed with one of Mr. Acott's sisters. They have made no claim whatever on the state.

The day after they arrived, the husband immediately obtained a national insurance number. The family registered with a GP, opened a bank account, and took steps to change a Zimbabwean driver's licence to a British one. Mr. Acott also received from the Home Office Identity and Passport Service the forms to apply for his identity card.

Within a matter of weeks, Mr. Acott was working for Everest Ltd. as a sales consultant. He obtained a distinction in his certificate of achievement at the sales academy on 18 February, following a week's training course. He had interviews with British Gas, and waited for the required training programme.

In other words, these people have been self-motivated self-starters throughout. They joined the local libraries, and enrolled their children in local schools. Then, Mrs. Acott went to the Home Office in Croydon to ask for the required forms to produce necessary documentation. She was told by the officer at the inquiries counter that he could not help, and that she should have applied for her spouse visa in South Africa. She said that she had tried to apply in South Africa, to which the official at Lunar house replied, "Well, you should have forced your way."

Now I say to the Minister that, if that is how his officials respond to people in distress-as these constituents of mine are-they need further training. Indeed, I hope that that official will be tracked down and disciplined.

Mrs. Acott then asked what she and her husband could do. The official told them rudely to get back on an aeroplane and fly to South Africa. She says that they told him that they had sold their motor vehicles, furniture and worldly belongings and still only just managed to purchase their air tickets, with a bit of cash left over to move to the UK. The family had nothing left, nor anybody in South Africa to return to, but the official said, "That's the only thing you can do. We cannot help you." She asked, "Who can we see and who can we talk to?" He said, "Please leave. There's nothing we can do, or anyone for you to see."

In tears, they have now tried several UK visa agents and been told the same thing. Interestingly, however, when they contacted the Visa Bureau, they were given advice that they had not been given by any official. Mrs. Acott was told, "If your husband David is the biological father of your children"-which he is-"and you were married at the time your children were born"-which they were-"you should already be British citizens." That meant that they should be able to make an application here in the UK for British passports.

Mrs. Acott was also told, "If David is the biological father of your children, and you were not married at the time of their birth, your children would still be able to make applications to register as British citizens here in the UK and thereafter apply for British passports." I do not know whether that information is correct, and nor does Mrs. Acott. However, if it is correct and stands as good advice, why did she have to get it from an outside organisation and not from either Lunar house or Pretoria?

We have a situation in which two young children-one is nine, the other four-and their mother are being told that they must go back to South Africa to apply for a spouse visa to enter this country when their visitors' visas expire. As a matter of detail, the visas expire during the school term time and when the World cup is on. I imagine that travelling to South Africa at such a time would be a trifle expensive, and certainly very disruptive to the older child's education.

But that is a matter of detail. Those three people are being told that they have to go back to South Africa-where they have already tried to obtain the necessary documents. What guarantee is there that they will not be turned away by another security guard if they go back to South Africa, or that they will be able to make the applications that they wanted in the first place to make?

This is a very sorry tale. It is a sorry tale of how the British look after their citizens abroad and of how our officials respond to people in distress in this country. It is a grossly sorry tale if there is one iota of truth in the advice that was given to Mr. and Mrs. Acott, because that advice was not given by any official British body. If they are to go back to South Africa, what reassurance can the Minister give me that they will be dealt with properly and officially? If they are not to go back, will he advise them on what they are to do, because their visitors' visas will expire in June?

They have a subsisting marriage-it has lasted 11 years-and they have done their level best at every twist and turn of their fate to look after themselves, sometimes with the help of family. They are not lazy, they do not want to be charity cases, and they are not scroungers, yet they are utterly abandoned.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (the North West), Home Office, Minister of State (the North West), HM Treasury, Minister of State (the North West), Regional Affairs 7:21 pm, 24th March 2010

May I first offer the traditional congratulations to Miss Widdecombe on securing this adjournment debate? May I also use this occasion to record my admiration for her? I do not know whether this is her last such debate-that probably has more to do with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker, than with me-but she presents her case with characteristic forthrightness, giving the Minister at the Dispatch Box the usual bout of nerves and fear.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (the North West), Home Office, Minister of State (the North West), HM Treasury, Minister of State (the North West), Regional Affairs

The right hon. Lady should not underestimate herself.

I do not want to go into the specifics of the case in too much detail, and I hope the right hon. Lady also appreciates that that would be difficult for me to do. I have read the correspondence that she kindly sent to me, including the letter from the family to her constituency office and her subsequent representations. Some of the points in that letter do not square with the Home Office's understanding of what could have happened and what did happen-and, of course, the events took place within the general context of the rules. However, I will come back to her with the detail after this debate, so that she can pass that on to her constituent. That is the duty of the Minister, and I hope she accepts that I take my duties in this Chamber very seriously indeed, even if I sometimes disagree with her on policy points, although not as many as I sometimes think I should.

The British high commission in South Africa is one of our most important postings. Following the changes that have taken place and the improvement of the managed migration policy, the visa operation now falls under the UK Border Agency, not the Foreign Office. There are arguments for and against that-I obviously think that it is beneficial-but people following the debate might have wondered why a Home Office Minister is responding to a debate on a high commission function. The reason is that the Government thought that in that way the right hon. Lady was more likely to get the answers she was seeking, because the case involves visas, not the general operation.

Suffice it to say that relationships with South Africa are very important to us. The high commission in Pretoria has 216 staff to provide political, consular and visa services. The visa section employs 82 of those staff-some UK people, and some locally employed. There is also a consulate general in Cape Town. We did the global visa waiver test in 2008, and in March 2009 we introduced the visa requirement for travel from South Africa. The problem that we previously faced was the Zimbabwean problem that the right hon. Lady has highlighted. There was significant evidence of abuse, with Zimbabweans presenting South African documents in the UK. That was a major challenge and required the implementation of a visa regime in relation to South Africa. That was not peculiar to South Africa, as we did the same thing with a number of countries.

For the past few years, all visa applicants have been required to enrol their biometrics, and the way in which that is done may be at the root of this issue. We have agents-organisations and companies to which we franchise-to take the initial visa applications, but that is not done initially at the high commission. So although anyone who has a British passport has an absolute entitlement to service at the high commission, the initial stages of visa applications are done through agents. We have invested £4 million in extending the facilities in Pretoria to provide that service. The commercial partner that provides that front-of-house service-I hate that phrase, but I think the right hon. Lady knows what I mean-in South Africa is a company called VFS Global.

We have implemented what we call a hub-and-spoke arrangement, whereby visa applications can be made in one city or posting and then decided and processed in the continental hub. Pretoria is the African hub, so its operation is particularly important to us. I shall not list the benefits of that arrangement now, because I suspect that the right hon. Lady would fall asleep. She can read them elsewhere, and I am quite prepared to discuss those issues if necessary.

Let me give the House an idea of scale. In 2009 the British high commission in Pretoria processed 122,609 visa applications, of which 101,200 were from South African nationals. Since the introduction of the new visa requirement for South African visitors, the British high commission has offered exceptional levels of customer service. In 2009 more than 95 per cent. of all visit visa applications were resolved within five days, two thirds of all settlement applications were resolved within 10 days, and 97 per cent. of all South African visa applications were issued. Of the 101,200 visa applications from South African nationals, 88,098 were in the visitor category. In the settlement category, 86 per cent. of the applications from South African nationals were issued. In other words, there is an exceptionally high volume of applications and, I would argue, a very good service within the commitments that we make.

The entry clearance officer or the in-country official will consider the application carefully to ensure that the correct decision is made. However, the onus rests on the applicant to demonstrate that they meet the requirements of the immigration rules.

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Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I am sure that this lady would have been hugely grateful to have got anywhere near an entry clearance officer. The family was habitually turned away, and only on the production of 50,000 rand would they have made any progress at all.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (the North West), Home Office, Minister of State (the North West), HM Treasury, Minister of State (the North West), Regional Affairs

As the right hon. Lady has intervened, let me turn to the specifics of the case. We do not recognise the 50,000 rand figure. We assume that it has come from an agent independent of either the high commission or the agent that we employ. There is no correlation between that figure and the visa fee, given the number of people in the family involved. I must also make the point that a visitor visa was issued, and the application process for such a visa involves producing evidence of return arrangements, so I assume that they were in place, although I will have to get back to the right hon. Lady about that. That must have been done through the agent, with the application processed through the hub arrangement in the high commission, so the situation is puzzling. While I do not recognise the 50,000 rand figure for a visa fee, which I understand translates to about £4,500, the visitor visa will have been issued on the assumption that the relevant family members would return to South Africa, but given the evidence that she has provided, I assume that that was not the intention, which raises difficulties for my officers in this case.

Although I have no doubt whatsoever about the family's intention or integrity, the rules-and indeed the law-state that one cannot apply in country. Indeed, I cannot envisage any Government allowing such an in-country application for settlement or citizenship, and the advice that the right hon. Lady reports that the family was given is consistent with that position.

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Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I absolutely agree that there is a clear rule that if someone wants to enter the country on the basis of marriage, they must apply from outwith the country. The Minister will know that I have upheld that rule consistently, and that I have advised constituents to go back. However, the point that I keep making is that the family tried that, and Mrs. Acott simply says, "What happens if I go back? I will be exactly where I was when I was trying to leave."

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (the North West), Home Office, Minister of State (the North West), HM Treasury, Minister of State (the North West), Regional Affairs

I understand the point that the right hon. Lady makes, which was also made in the letter to her office and the written representations that I received. That is the point about which we are puzzled, because a visitor visa was processed, and it is odd that the option of applying for a spousal visa was not available, yet an application for a visitor visa was processed. I think that we will have to come back to that point.

I know that the right hon. Lady appreciates that I have to uphold the rules. I have no intention of hindering the family-I understand that the father is a British citizen-and obviously they have made a choice about their future lives, but I have to apply the rules.

On the subject of courtesy, the right hon. Lady referred to several stages involving the high commission, and perhaps the visa application office and a private agent, and she also mentioned Lunar house. Information with which I will provide her after the debate will feed into our understanding of the situation. Although I am not saying that I do not believe the account that has been given, some of it is puzzling. Individual circumstances vary, however, and misunderstandings occasionally arise while processing visa applications. The basic rules on applications are, as she acknowledges, that an application for a spousal visa must be made outside the country and that an in-country transfer is not usually allowed, although there are exceptional circumstances in which that may happen. A visitor visa was issued in this family's case and, as I said, it is logical that that must have involved an appointment, an application and the processing of documents. I am therefore puzzled as to why the application for spousal and family visas was not made at that stage.

The assumption throughout this debate is that the lady in question-the wife-is the primary applicant. There are children involved as well, who would be entitled to apply for British citizenship by virtue of their father's British citizenship. [ Interruption. ] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, "From here?" The issue that we would have been dealing with is the wife's application. The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the children this evening. Of course I will come back to her. Some aspects are puzzling, and I hope the illumination that I will be able to shed on the case will satisfy her.

The right hon. Lady refers to the good intent of the family. My experience is that all applicants claim, or have, good intent. Unfortunately, the rules are the rules, and I must apply them. She does not need me to tell her that; I think she did this job at one stage in her rather formidable career, as I knew already-but learned even more about from my research. If I may, I shall write to her with the details that I can give her, to reassure her and her constituents that I take this matter seriously.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

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