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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the evidence is overwhelming that, given the right support and
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context, trade is a hugely powerful driver of economic growth and poverty reduction. Forty-three of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries did not sign economic partnership agreements. Of those, 32 are least developed countries that will now trade under the “Everything but Arms” initiative, benefiting from duty-free, quota-free access to EU markets. For the other 11 countries that did not sign an EPA, we expect minimal, if any, trade disruption.

I shall deal briefly with Kenya and the role of the Commonwealth there. The Commonwealth observer mission played an important role in highlighting deep flaws in the Kenyan elections and denying them legitimacy. The ensuing crisis brought to the surface long-standing grievances about matters including democratic governance.The Commonwealth has fully supported the Kofi Annan mission to broker a deal and it is good that the Annan process has worked and that there is agreement between both sides. It is important that Commonwealth expertise, including on electoral reform, is now fully engaged in supporting the implementation of that power-sharing agreement. As we all know, the important thing was not only getting the agreement, but ensuring that things changed as a result.

I am delighted that Kamalesh Sharma will be the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth. We already have a good relationship with India over Commonwealth issues, and I am sure that having the secretary-general there will be positive for the Commonwealth. I look forward to that relationship deepening even further. The next Commonwealth games are in New Delhi in 2010. The Prime Minister recently visited India for the UK-India summit and had discussions on trade and education, with the Prime Minister highlighting a development assistance package of £825 million. There was also a focus on achieving the millennium development goals, counter-terrorism and climate change.

I am sorry that during my brief break from the Front Bench I missed most of the speech by the hon. Member for Mole Valley, but I will certainly read it in Hansard, because it was praised by many hon. Members. The UK Government value the special relationship with both Australia and New Zealand, and the reciprocal arrangements in place. We recognise that large numbers of Australian and New Zealand nationals regard their ancestry as British, so we take seriously the comments
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made by hon. Members, and as I have said on more than one occasion, the consultation is still open and no decisions have yet been made.

A less positive subject that some hon. Members referred to was Zimbabwe. Obviously, Zimbabwe is no longer a member of the Commonwealth, but the plight of the Zimbabwean people should and does remain a pressing issue for many Commonwealth countries. The elections are only a few days away and there are real concerns that the people of Zimbabwe will not be able freely to exercise their democratic rights. Neither the UK nor the Commonwealth has been invited to observe the elections as we are cast as unfriendly, but we continue to monitor the situation closely.

Rwanda provides a more positive story, and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) paid tribute to the much greater representation there of women than any of our parties have. They top the league. Obviously, the decision on Rwanda’s membership lies with the whole membership of the Commonwealth. The criteria for membership were reviewed at the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, where Heads decided to retain the requirement that applicants should have a constitutional link with an existing member, but they accepted that in exceptional circumstances applications could be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that paved the way for Rwanda to join in 2009 at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at the latest.

As I said in my opening speech—and I was echoed by the hon. Gentleman—the Commonwealth cuts across traditional alliances and regional blocs. It matters greatly to the United Kingdom. It is not a matter of nostalgia and thinking about how things were; it is recognising that the Commonwealth is important on the international scene today. The Commonwealth is respected by others for what we do and the way in which we do it. It is positive about the future and others want to join it. Working together, we can ensure that the Commonwealth remains relevant, working with and for its entire membership in responding to the key challenges of the 21st century. We in the UK will play our full part in this important work.

Question put and agreed to.


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Border and Immigration Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. David.]

5.59 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me to take this slot in the Chamber and I also thank the Minister, who has been working hard to address the issues that I plan to raise; I want to put that on the record.

I requested this debate to bring to the attention of the House the performance of the Border and Immigration Agency, particularly in respect of two of my constituents. Their circumstances are quite different and they are unknown to each other. Unfortunately, both have been caught up in trying to get straightforward answers to simple questions—from what I think is the United Kingdom’s most opaque and unhelpful bureaucracy.

I shall first deal with the case of Mr. Gerard Nkomo Nsenga and then with that of Mrs. Chatellon Matibag. Mr. Nsenga is Rwandan. He, his wife and their two children entered the United Kingdom as refugees in August 2002 and claimed asylum. His wife and children were granted indefinite leave to remain on 4 October 2002, but he was refused. He appealed, and after an interlude of missing paperwork—sorted out for him by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby), in whose constituency he was then resident—he came before a tribunal of the immigration appellate authority on 15 August 2003. There, a Mr. McVeery, appearing for what was then called the immigration and nationality directorate, told the court that the Department’s refusal of Mr. Nsenga’s asylum was an error and that his application was no longer being contested.

On that basis, Mr. Nsenga withdrew his appeal without a hearing and he was subsequently granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom. For reasons that are certainly obscure to him, that was not the indefinite leave to remain that his wife and children had been granted, but a three-year discretionary visa. That visa gave him the right to take up employment. Mr. Nsenga is a qualified mechanical engineer with a master’s degree; he also holds a private pilot’s licence. He is a mature and senior professional and obtained a post almost immediately as a plant manager with P. Hughes Construction Ltd, which is based in Nottingham. As part of his work, he was required regularly to visit locations in Portugal and Ireland, although he was primarily based in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Border and Immigration Agency recalled that he submitted an application for further leave to remain on 3 August 2006, and there is no dispute that his application for renewal was in good time. However, from that moment on, Mr. Nsenga has been plunged into a bureaucratic nightmare, which Mr. Kafka would have recognised only too well. To make his application, Mr. Nsenga had to submit his passport and other supporting documents to the Border and Immigration Agency. That meant that until it had reached a decision, he could not travel abroad. In turn, that meant that he could no longer fulfil his duties at work, so he lost his job.

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An industrious person, he started to apply for jobs that did not require overseas travel, but by then his three-year visa had expired, so prospective employers wanted evidence that he was qualified to work in the United Kingdom. The Border and Immigration Agency remained in possession of his passport—in fact, it still has it. The only proof that the agency is willing to provide of Mr. Nsenga’s right to work in the United Kingdom is a letter with no official stamp, no photograph and no recognisable official signature. The letter says:

That would be laughable if it were not so scandalous. The agency itself spends much of its time rejecting such letters, allegedly written by the Pope or Prime Minister, or—on this occasion—by Emily Miles of the case resolution directorate. Not surprisingly, prospective employers have been dubious about accepting that letter, especially as the Home Office now makes them liable for employing anyone who turns out to have dodgy paperwork. My constituent is left stranded with a dodgy-seeming letter that anybody could have run up on a decent photocopier, and with no passport or papers.

Mr. Nsenga went to Jobcentre Plus with his magic letter, where he was told that Jobcentre Plus could not offer him any post because it did not accept the validity of the letter and did not recognise his right to work. The all-powerful letter of authority to work not only does not work in the private sector, it does not even work with another Government agency. Mr. Nsenga bought a house and has a mortgage to pay. He and his wife now have a third child, born here, six years old, and of course a British citizen. Sadly, she is very unwell and needs expensive medical attention. Mr. Nsenga’s savings are depleting rapidly and he has had to suspend payment for some of the treatment for his daughter.

Repeated requests to the Border and Immigration Agency to accelerate Mr. Nsenga’s application on grounds of exceptional circumstances have been refused, despite his situation. In January, I asked the Minister a parliamentary question that related to this. He will know that his reply said that there were no specific guidelines to case workers to take account of the economic and social consequences of decisions such as this, and went on to say that 90 per cent. of applications are decided within 70 days. Mr. Nsenga has been waiting for more than 70 weeks—one year and seven months. But there is no rush—the BIA aims to sort it all out by July 2011, just another three years and four months.

I believe that the Minister may be able to help me, and my constituent, on this occasion, and I thank him very much for that, but I want him to consider carefully two particular points. First, given that there are, according to the last published figures, some 20,000 people in Mr. Nsenga’s position, will he arrange for the agency to issue a proper validity document to those who are left in limbo, potentially for another three years, so that they can be productive members of society and not reduced to destitution, as Mr. Nsenga and his family have been? If he will not do that, is he not honour-bound to introduce guidelines relating to the social and economic impact of the delays on applicants, along the lines of
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my parliamentary questions, so that cases can be prioritised in the meantime to take proper account of the damage that delays are doing?

Secondly, will he give an absolute assurance that any constituent who approaches a Member of Parliament will not thereby put themselves at a disadvantage? Many of those who present themselves to me—Mr. Nsenga is one of them—tell me that staff at the BIA routinely say, “Of course, if you complain to your MP your case will be taken out of the queue and put back towards the rear, delaying your approval further.” Bearing it in mind that there is not a queue but what seems to be a series of heaps, that has a ring of truth to it. Indeed, the letter sent to MPs, though skilfully worded, says almost exactly the same thing. Can the Minister assure us that there is not, and will not be, any hidden penalty for having the temerity to talk to an MP about one’s case?

The case of Mrs. Chatellon Matibag is entirely different, except that she and her family are also trapped in one of the agency’s many Catch-22s. She came to the United Kingdom from the Philippines, as part of the highly-skilled migrant programme, to work as a senior care worker. She began working as a senior care officer at a home run by Southern Cross Healthcare in October 2003. Her family is here with her and her daughter is in the reception class at one of my local schools. Her visa was due to expire on 24 September 2007, and she was told that she would not be able to extend or renew it because of the new Home Office rules introduced in August 2007, which stipulated, among other things, that senior care workers must be paid a minimum of £7.02 per hour. I first became aware of her situation when I received testimonials on her behalf from the family and friends of some of those she had been caring for in the home where she worked. There is absolutely no doubt about the added value that Chatellon has brought to this country and to those in her care.

The rule change, which had its biggest impact on Filipino workers, was hugely disruptive and controversial. The Minister is only too well aware of the criticisms and representations made on many levels, and I shall not rehearse them this evening. Following a meeting arranged by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) between the Minister and MPs on 11 December last year, new guidance was issued on 18 January regarding transitional arrangements for senior care workers, which was designed to get the Government out of the public relations hole into which they had tumbled.

The new rules allowed a 12-month extension of a current work permit for workers whose previous permit was still valid or had expired within the previous 28 days and even at the same rate of pay as the previous permit. The importance of the 12-month extension was that, at the end of it, workers such as my constituent would have accumulated sufficient service in the United Kingdom to be qualified to apply for indefinite leave to remain. The rules say that if the permit had expired more than 28 days previously, new applications would be treated under the revised guidelines. In this case, Mrs. Matibag, who lost her job in September 2007 as a result of the guidance introduced in August 2007, had
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lost that job more than 28 days before the rules were published. When prospective employers contact the agency to see whether they can employ Mrs. Matibag, they are told that too much time has elapsed and that they cannot do so.

I contacted the Border and Immigration Agency for clarification on that point on 26 February and was informed that an internal e-mail mentioned additional guidance introduced on 15 February that superseded the 18 January guidance. Perhaps inadvertently, that new guidance was sent to me on 27 February. Headed “Out-of-time applications for Senior Care Workers”, it states:

in other words, as completely new applications—

I think that OSN means overseas national. Later the same day Mr. Jackson, of the operational policy unit at the BIA in Sheffield, e-mailed my office to add:

I wrote to the Minister on the same day, 27 February, pointing out that the guidance that I have quoted was internal, informal, discretionary and unpublished. As such, it is impossible for any applicant to take advantage of it. An employer who checks with the agency before recruiting someone or submitting an application is simply told of the 28-day rule, not the six-month rule that is actually in operation. Of course, at a job interview, an employer will not have the same interest in pursuing the case as the person on whose behalf they are applying.

Mrs. Matibag’s six-month grace period expires on the 23rd of this month—Easter Sunday, which is three days from now. I still have not had a reply from the Minister to my letter of 27 February, but I am looking forward to hearing what he will say. My questions on behalf of Mrs. Chatellon Matibag are simple ones. Does the Minister believe that it is good enough for discretionary guidelines to be concealed from applicants and their potential employers to the extent that they are, for all practical purposes, nugatory? If he accepts that that is not good enough, will he undertake to instruct the agency to take into account the lack of transparency of these guidelines when assessing applications from people such as Mrs. Matibag, who could easily have complied with them? She has been offered jobs that she has not been able to take up because of her status. She could easily have complied, but found herself out of time solely because the guidelines were never made public.

Thirdly, bearing it in mind that we have come to the end of the last working day before my constituent’s time is up, will the Minister accept from me here tonight a verbal application on her behalf, which will be reported and recorded in Hansard? If he were minded to take account of the points that I have raised, the case could be followed up with the relevant paperwork.

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I believe that both Mr. Nsenga and Mrs. Matibag have been very ill served by the Border and Immigration Agency and its processes and procedures. The Minister has an opportunity to put that right. I very much look forward to hearing him give a proper account of the workings of the agency, particularly as it has impacted on my two constituents, and to his giving them both an Easter present that he can be proud of.

6.15 pm

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): First, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) in tonight’s Adjournment debate. I am also grateful to him for taking the time and trouble earlier today to brief me personally on the cases. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I always try to make myself available to discuss individual cases with hon. Members and to resolve issues wherever I can. I represent a constituency with quite a large number of immigration cases, so I look at this system very much from two different ends. I am especially grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these two particular cases. They are not only constituency cases, which are always important in and of themselves, but they raise wider issues that are worthy of debate in this place. I shall try to deal with both the personal and the wider issues to the best of my ability.

I do not usually discuss details of personal cases on the Floor of the House, but given the hon. Gentleman’s entrée, he will not mind if I depart from that convention today for the benefit of the record. The hon. Gentleman reprised almost all the chronology of the first case—that of Mr. Nsenga—rather eloquently and it very much accords with my chronology, which is a good start. Indeed, I understand that the individual’s wife and children claimed asylum slightly before he did—on 2 August 2002. They were from a different country and they were recognised as refugees and granted indefinite leave to remain in October 2002. The individual’s circumstances were different from those of his wife and children; the fact that he was married and was the father of the children does not automatically bring with it the right to humanitarian protection. However, in the course of hearings that concluded on 15 August 2003, the status of discretionary leave was awarded on the basis of article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The agency considered that on grounds of the right to family life, it was right to grant three years of discretionary leave. Even though it was not considered that asylum was appropriate in his case, a different right to discretionary leave in the UK was relevant.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a further application for leave was filed in time on 3 August 2006. Here, I think that some delays did indeed creep into the system. The House will know that something like 450,000 files—files, not people—exist, as was announced to the House a while ago by the former Home Secretary, and I have made it my business to ensure that we resolve those problems from the past as quickly as possible.

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