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19 Mar 2003 : Column 1060—continued

7.41 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): It is a very great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) in this debate, and I endorse everything that she has said about the case history of the Panxhi family. She was right to say that I had the pleasure of meeting them for the first time slightly more than 14 months ago, at The Scotsman young achiever of the year award in November 2001, when Brikena was one of the finalists. I therefore took an interest in their case. The hon. Lady has spelled out extremely well the circumstances that the family face.

I want to try to underline in some very brief remarks the compassionate grounds for ministerial intervention. Although I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that Valentina Panxhi has shown exemplary courage and fortitude, given the circumstances in which she has found herself, I want to speak about the three children in the case, because therein lies the strongest argument for intervening on compassionate grounds.

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First, Grace will be two years old this June. She was born, obviously posthumously, in Scotland. I know full well that being born in a country does not confer a legal right of citizenship, but I make the case that that young lady has no other circumstances or home but Springburn in Glasgow and, morally, she is as much a Glaswegian as you are, Mr. Speaker, and as much a Scot as I am. That is a consideration, because the world has moved on and that young child has been born in Glasgow, where she is being nourished and is growing up.

Secondly, Enea, who is nine years old, was mentioned by the hon. Lady, and I want to draw attention to the point that she made because it is fundamental. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest—it cannot be proven—that Mr. Panxhi was murdered for political reasons. Even if he was murdered for another reason, the Home Office case has rested on the argument at various times that, because Mr. Panxhi is dead, the rest of the family are no longer in danger. That is fundamentally mistaken, and I shall repeat the quote that the hon. Lady read out. No less a person than the Scottish Justice Minister, Mr. Jim Wallace, said that there is

That culture of the blood feud is a very important consideration in this case, and I shall illustrate that by quoting a brief extract from an Albanian news service. It is dated 2 April 2002 and reads:

That illustration of the culture of blood feud must surely be a consideration in intervening on compassionate grounds. It is not the case, just because the father is dead, that the rest of the family are not in danger if they return to Albania.

Thirdly and finally, Brikena has been awarded a Wolfson scholarship to attend the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Such scholarships are not easily won or awarded. Obviously, I was hugely impressed not only by Brikena's talent, but by her having overcome considerable difficulties to gain that scholarship and reach the final of the young achiever of the year award. I cannot believe that Scotland is so overflowing with young talent that we can afford lightly to send back to Albania a young woman of such potential.

The underlying point that arises in respect of all three children and shines out in the family's story is the amount of support and succour that they have been given by the local community in Sighthill and Springburn. The hon. Lady mentioned the church connections. I have had the pleasure of visiting St. Rollox church and meeting the various people who have surrounded the family and given them such support.

It is not that long since we all thought—I know that you, Mr. Speaker, were deeply concerned about this matter—that we faced in Sighthill a particular problem that has been seen in many areas with regard to the influx of asylum seekers. That situation has largely been turned around in the past year by the strength, support

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and infrastructure of the local community. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, BBC Scotland broadcast a programme called "Rabbie's Bairns" that focused on the Springburn area of Glasgow. One of the children who achieved a high accolade in that programme was a young asylum seeker. The programme was so inspirational in showing the integration into local schools and the local community of asylum seeker children that it managed to win an award in celebration of the works of Scotland's greatest poet.

That is an illustration of how the community is supporting this and other families. I ask the Minister to consider whether the achievements of Springburn, which have been supported by so many good-minded and good-willed people, would be put at risk if we were to return this family to Albania, when there are so many arguments to suggest that an intervention on compassionate grounds would be not only appropriate, but undoubtedly the right thing to do.

7.47 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for the opportunity to debate this case, which is a very difficult one. Sadly, it is not by any means the only difficult case to have come across my desk. I know that it has gathered considerable support from the local community in Glasgow.

I shall begin by providing a brief background to the family's case. As my hon. Friend said, Mrs. Panxhi and her children arrived in the United Kingdom clandestinely on 9 November and made an asylum application the following day. As has been said, that claim was based on her husband's political activities. Mrs. Panxhi claimed that her husband was a candidate for the vice-presidency of his political party. She was interviewed a month later and a decision was taken to refuse her application on 15 December 2000. She appealed against that decision and gave oral evidence at her appeal in April 2001.

An independent adjudicator carefully considered Mrs. Panxhi's asylum claim, but did not feel that there was any merit in it. The adjudicator rejected her claim that her husband was a candidate for the vice-presidency of the party, further noted that she and her children had never been harmed in Albania, and also considered the family's rights under the European convention on human rights. He concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the Panxhi family could not lead a normal life on return to Albania, so he dismissed the appeal in May 2001. Mrs. Panxhi appealed to the immigration appeal tribunal, which upheld the adjudicator's decision in October 2001. She then applied for leave to appeal to the Court of Session, but that request was dismissed in January last year.

Mrs. Panxhi has had several opportunities to state her case to be allowed to remain in the United Kingdom. She applied for asylum in November 2000 and completed the appeals process in January 2002. During that 15-month period, she has been interviewed and has had two substantive appeals, which were both conducted by independent judicial adjudicators. She gave oral evidence and was given the opportunity to

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raise additional reasons why she should be allowed to remain in the UK. In fact, Mrs. Panxhi's case was dealt with under the one-stop appeals process, which required her to outline all the reasons why she should be allowed to remain. Furthermore, during the course of that process, and following representations by the Speaker and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, Mrs. Panxhi was invited to provide evidence that her husband was, as she claims, dead, but no evidence has been forthcoming.

I do not believe that Mrs. Panxhi or her children would suffer any ill-treatment should they be returned to Albania and I want to outline why I have come to that conclusion. The immigration appeal tribunal concluded that there appears to be

Hon. Members know that the Government believe that Albania is safe. The objective country assessments indicate that the Albanian Government respect the rights of their citizens, and our statistics on asylum claims confirm that. In the past two years, 139 families have been returned to Tirana, and Albania has taken the first steps towards EU accession.

In terms of quality of life, I understand that the Albanian authorities provide at least eight years' free education. The main focus of support within Glasgow has been on Brikena's considerable talents as a violinist. I am aware that she has been awarded a music scholarship. However, I am told that opportunities exist within Albania for Brikena to develop her musical talents and that she gave up a place at a specialist music school before coming to the UK.

In summary, it is clear that the Panxhi's case has been carefully considered and that the decisions are right.

Mr. Salmond: Will the Minister concede that it might be difficult for Mrs. Panxhi to establish that her husband has been murdered? The murderers would be unlikely to advertise themselves to people who make inquiries. Does she accept the concerns outlined by the Scottish Justice Minister that if Mr. Panxhi has been murdered, his son might be at risk in Albania? Does she accept that there is a culture of blood feud in that country?

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