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19 Nov 2002 : Column 621—continued

10.31 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. I understand the reasons why she has done so, because we have had correspondence about the case. Notwithstanding the fact that she has set out some of the background, I think it would be helpful if I could add to that essential background before making some concluding remarks.

As the right hon. Lady said, Ms Effala entered the United Kingdom on 27 May 1997 and at that point was given leave to enter not for a year, but until 27 November that year under the training and work experience scheme. She was then granted further leave to continue her training with Dual Control International Theatre until March 1998. Her employers were advised at that time, however, that the extension under the training and work experience scheme had been granted exceptionally and that no further extension would be approved.

As the right hon. Lady said, before travelling to the UK, Ms Effala had been residing in France with her mother and her siblings. She held a French student visa on arrival in the UK, but that expired in October 1997. Following completion of her work experience, Ms Effala applied to the French embassy for a visa to return to France to attend the college in Aix-en-Provence. Unfortunately, I agree, it seems that once the French authorities realised that she had entered France with a diplomatic passport, she encountered difficulties in obtaining a visa to return there to continue her studies.

Ms Effala was then granted exceptional leave to remain for six months as a visitor, specifically to try and sort out her visa problems with the French embassy. She was unable to resolve her difficulties with the French authorities and applied once again for leave to remain in the United Kingdom while she pursued her application for a French visa. I must say to the right hon. Lady that although I was not Minister at the time, looking back at the case—I have looked at it in some detail—I think that Ms Effala's plight was considered very sympathetically, and again she was granted exceptionally six months further leave to remain, outside the immigration rules, precisely because of the predicament that she was in with the French authorities.

In August 1999 Ms Effala's solicitors applied on her behalf for leave to remain as a working holidaymaker, with a request that the entry clearance requirement exceptionally be waived. Although the Home Office was sympathetic to her plight, 17 months had by then passed since Ms Effala had first approached the Department about her difficulties with the French authorities.

The crucial point is—and while I agree with every other aspect of the right hon. Lady's account, this element was missing from it—that there was no evidence

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to suggest that Ms Effala had made any progress in resolving her difficulties, or indeed had devoted much effort to doing so. She did not qualify for leave to remain as a working holidaymaker, and she seemed unable to establish clearly how she should return to France, where, as has been said, she has strong family and cultural ties. In view of that, her application to remain as a working holidaymaker was refused on 10 December 1999.

Ms Effala's solicitors and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) submitted further representations on her behalf. The then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), wrote on 1 June 2000 that she would be prepared to review the case if Ms Effala submitted evidence from the French authorities explaining the reasons for their reluctance to grant her a visa to return to France, together with an estimate of when they expected to reach a decision. What was required was just some evidence of Ms Effala's efforts to get the French authorities to take the matter seriously. I am afraid that no evidence was received, and in December 2000 Ms Effala's solicitors were advised that in the absence of the evidence requested, there were no grounds for reversing the refusal decision. They were also advised that Ms Effala had no basis for remaining in the United Kingdom, and that she should arrange to leave immediately.

I understand exactly what the right hon. Lady is saying. It seems, on the face of it, that two countries were passing the buck. But when it comes to Ms Effala's right to remain in the UK—while I am sympathetic in regard to her problem with the French authorities—I hope the right hon. Lady agrees that giving her leeway to try and sort out the issues with the French authorities, which is where the problems lie, should not have meant riding roughshod over immigration rules that apply to others and simply saying XAll right, you can stay in the UK". Ms Effala's case has been treated sympathetically in the past, and I do not think it unreasonable for her to have been asked to provide a letter from the French authorities giving the reasons why they were not prepared—or have not been up to now—to issue a visa enabling her to join her family.

Incidentally, I am rather perplexed about the role of Ms Effala's family, all of whom are French citizens. I do not see why they cannot do more to help her secure some recognition and response from the French authorities.

Miss Widdecombe: To be able to get into France at all, and certainly to be able to obtain French citizenship, Ms Effala must have an application accepted. Never mind whether the application is successful; the physical process of getting an application accepted must be carried out by Ms Effala. Members of her family cannot make an application on her behalf.

I have already explained the problem. Ms Effala was tossed about between various countries. She was told XYou do it in this country", then XYou do it in that country", and then XNo, actually, you do in that country"—and then XWe will not accept the form". I do not accept that she has not made efforts. Much of the information that has been sought was, in fact, sent to the Home Office in the letter to which I referred. We have not yet received a response. I am not saying that there is anything unusual about that—the matter has been

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outstanding since 11 October, not for months on end—but the information has been sent. My constituent told me that she had not understood the extent of the information required.

When two countries are involved, can the embassies not talk to each other? Cannot someone talk to someone else?

Beverley Hughes: I will come to that. I understand that Ms Effala must make an application herself, but if the right hon. Lady examines the very thick case file she will see that there were long periods during which information was requested from Ms Effala and she did not contact Home Office officials.

That is one issue. The other issue is that the difficulties have been with the French authorities. Short of the final point that the right hon. Lady made about whether embassies can speak to one another, what has been done by the Home Office is all that could have been done.

I understand that Ms Effala wrote a letter on 11 October in reply to a request for information. She enclosed copies of her family's French naturalisation certificates. She did not provide any documentation at all concerning her own French visa application, which is what she was specifically asked to provide: evidence that she had made attempts in contacting the French authorities to seek permission to enter the country by visa. That did not arrive in the letter of 11 October, which contained simply photocopies of her family's naturalisation status, which as I say is not of itself evidence of her efforts with regard to the French authorities.

I wrote to the right hon. Lady in August setting out how matters could be taken forward. As I say, Ms Effala has now provided confirmation that her family has French citizenship but she has not provided evidence from the French authorities setting out the reasons why they are not prepared to issue her with a visa to join her family. It has been over four and a half years since she first notified the Home Office of her difficulties in returning to France. During that time the only documentation that she has provided regarding evidence of any visa application is the original application form dated 19 January 1998. She has provided no further documentation to demonstrate that she is pursuing with the French authorities the application, despite repeated requests to do so. I do not say that to heap blame on that young woman but there is another perspective. Information about her efforts has been sought over a long period and has not been forthcoming.

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I appreciate that Ms Effala has found herself in a difficult position that is not originally of her making and that by coming to the UK to take up work experience she may have missed an opportunity to gain French citizenship. I am not passing the buck but I hope that the right hon. Lady will accept that in terms of where Ms Effala's future lies, clearly, her difficulties are with the French authorities. That is the key to a resolution of this matter.

Ms Effala says that she accompanied her mother to France in 1986. As has been said, she stayed there for 11 years before she came here. It is to the French authorities that she needs to put the case for compassionate treatment in the light of her strong cultural and family ties.

I accept the point that the right hon. Lady is concerned about: I would not want to contemplate the option of a return to Cameroon, although, theoretically, that is an option. The compassionate aspects have been made clear during the debate. I appreciate that Ms Effala would find it difficult to assimilate the different culture of the Cameroon.

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