I met up with the lawyer today in Manila who wanted to talk to me about the situation of the UK Border Agency. I promised I would report back to The Tap what I heard. Manila is the regional centre for Visa Issuing in South East Asia, and is a place of vital importance for schools and universities in Britain who depend on finding enough students to fill their numbers, for businesses who look globally for skilled staff, not to mention love struck gentlemen who find wives and girlfriends here, people like me!
(See Friday’s blogpost).
People who work in the Visa business in Manila vary, of course, and there are plenty enough of them, but there is an aura of puzzlement as to what is actually going on. Why for example, does the Border Agency never reply to correspondence, asked the lawyer, when local professionals try to find out some aspect of policy to assist in the workings of the application process? The City Centre is pretty much a square mile with some people walking everywhere, and the British Embassy only a short taxi ride from there at MacKinley Hills. It wouldn’t be difficult for the Visa Section at the Embassy to develop some kind of relationship with local Visa professionals to smooth the process, save vast amounts of time and money for all concerned, not to mention defeat the fraudsters. But the UKBA just isn’t interested, the lawyer claims.
The Visa situation back in the UK is currently going through various upheavals. As of April 26th 2011, the government has declared that from now on, only the brightest students need apply to UK colleges and universities. All colleges are to be assessed this year, and only those that fall into the ”highly trusted” category will be able to keep their overseas students licence. Many colleges will of course be pushed towards closure if they lose their licence as overseas students are a vital part of their income.
It seems there is outright confusion at cabinet level, however, as to where government policy is going, as regards the issuing of visas. Nick Clegg denies that government policy is based on the capping of the total numbers being issued, while David Cameron, Theresa May, Home Secretary and Damien Green, Immigration Minister all insist that they are introducing a system of capping the numbers of visas supplied to applicants of all kinds. This is of course good politics, worth at least a good 4% in the polls. Immigration is a running sore to British voters who are aghast at government mismanagement ongoing for a decade and more.
But why, asks the lawyer, is the government stating that a system of capping is being introduced, when a High Court judge ruled as recently as December 2010 that a system of the capping of visas by number was completely illegal. Nearly every single refused applicant would have an open and shut case of abuse of their human rights, and could demand that their case to be considered on its merits. It seems that the government is being a bit tricky with the truth about what they can feasibly and legally get away with. A formal cap would simply not be workable.
But how about what is probably actually happening, an informal cap,whereby the UKBA are given quotas and targets on the QT. Another Visa adviser who recently worked in the British Embassy in Manila advised me recently that this is exactly what is happening. There is no admission of a capping policy as such, as that would give rise to claims under Human Rights laws. So they simply manufacture excuses to deny visas to keep the numbers down.
The lawyer said that if this is what is happening, and they thought it a likely interpretation of what they see, judging by the huge increase in visa application refusals that Manila is seeing this year, the reasons being given by the UKBA to refuse visas are, in his opinion, still unlawful in 90% of cases. In 90% of visa refusals, the applicant has complied with the requirements of UK Immigration Rules, and the UK Immigration Act.
The UKBA gets round this by making an assumption , which is impossible to challenge, such as happened in my case last week. My girlfriend, Shane was told that although she had access to enough money to fund her trip to the UK in her HSBC bank account, as well as an HSBC VISA credit card, permitting thousands of Pounds Sterling of credit, they somehow managed to tell her that they did not believe that the money was really hers to dispose of, and that it would be taken off her by me presumably, later. How does anyone argue with what hasn’t happened?
They added to that another assumption, telling her that, as she doesn’t currently work (I asked her to quit her job and move into my house in Manila in 2009) she is likely to skip her return flight, and her language course, booked and paid for on her return to Manila, and seek employment in the UK instead.
This Shane would be most unlikely to do, as once you break the terms of a visa, you can never get a successful second application, ever. I would suggest that on a balance of probabilities, after a two year happy relationship, Shane is extremely unlikely to do anything quite as stupid as wreck her own situation by absconding. This would be mathematically provable by tracking back to similar cases within the UKBA’s records, to see that in cases such as ours, illegal behaviour is as rare as rocking horse shit. The probability is entirely the other way around.
Another bit of tricky dealing is that the UKBA claims that these assumptions about the future course of events is made in their judgement, ”on a balance of probabilities”. There is nothing stated in either UK Immigration Rules or in The UK Immigration Act about burden of proof. The applicant merely has to tick the boxes of the questions asked in the application form, and supply the true facts of their situation.
There is nothing stated about assumptions to be made about subsequent events, in the application forms, or any requirement to prove anything other than facts the applicant provides, which Shane did.
How can there be a decision taken about burden of proof about a topic not even requested on the form? This the lawyer feels would leave the UKBA running on the back foot, were anyone to challenge them in a court case, which no doubt, someone will soon do.
And here’s the clever part. There is no right of appeal, except on a point of law, and only under certain specific sections of specified Acts, which don’t permit any discussion of whether someone intends to abscond or not.
The UKBA can, for the time being, until the legal wheels fall off, get rid of as many applicants as they like with ease, meet central government targets and pick up their bonuses. They merely issue an endless stream of illogical unprovable assumptions, with no redress made available. There is no need to mention abuse of human rights, or anything else.
But is it sorted?
There are many well known abuses to the system going on, as my lawyer friend can testify. For example, students hoping to go and study in the UK are required to have a bank deposit of Philippine Pesos (Php) 800,000 (about GBP 10,000) in their application. There is a well established scam, whereby an applicant opens a bank account in a cooperative-minded bank putting in only about Php 5,000. The next day someone else arrives and deposits the balance of the Php 800,000. On this they charge interest of between 2 and 4% a month, so it is a lucrative trade for the lenders concerned, usurous by European standards.
The compliant banks then issue certification that the funds are present and the students go on to get their student visas, along with the right to work 20 hours a week in the UK, and to bring their partner with them, who has a right to work full-time (although as from April 26th 2011 this right is being lost).
Being the Philippines, where no government agency is entitled to get information about anyone’s private bank account, it is not difficult to find bankers and banks willing to provide this service to student visa applicants. Once the visa is issued on the basis that the money has been certified as belonging to the student, the loan is of course secretly paid back.
You would imagine the UKBA would be red hot cracking down on such abuses. If the applicant is starting off by deceiving the UKBA as to the source of their funds, there must be an enhanced level of risk that they will subsequently break the terms of their visa and either work longer hours than the twenty permitted, or even stay on beyond their departure date. Apparently and curiously this is not happening.
It is well known that some banks are more reputable than others, and that some bankers have established a reputation for being willing to sign off that the money deposited was all paid in by the student applicant themselves when it wasn’t. The more suspect visa agencies are also well-known. This is where the operations of the UKBA become entirely questionable. Are they really serious about stopping fraudulent applications, asks the lawyer?
The thing is, that it is well known in places like the Philippines, is that some people will sign all kinds of things for a fee. Yet if, on the other hand, they are made to swear an affidavit that the facts they support are indeed true, then the bankers certifying the students have their own money, would be a lot more careful about what they state to be true, as they could be subsequently prosecuted for perjury.
Why does the UKBA of Manila, the Home Office’s flagship visa issuing office of South East Asia not demand affidavits from the bankers who are signing the bank deposit certificates? That would be the normal practice with internal transactions within the Philippines.
You have to say, it’s curious.
It also seems odd indeed when there are known malpractices taking place every day of the week that the UKBA staff won’t even talk to local professionals who could do much, and are willing to help, weed out fraudulent applications through closer cooperation.
If this is the standard of David Cameron’s flagship immigration policy for his key regional hub for Visa applications in South east Asia, I think he’s in trouble. While he’s dashing around TV studios, or his sidekick Nick Clegg seeks interviews about immigration, stirring up headlines about efforts being made to reduce and cap or not to cap the numbers, they plainly don’t have one clue about what is actually happening on the ground. The danger is that, left undealt with, the problems of fraud will get worse, and the higher quality immigrants that the country needs, get blocked by the unofficial numbers cap.
Let’s see what response comes back from the UKBA or from David Cameron, if any. If there are no more easy headlines, he’ll no doubt move on.
But what about Theresa May, The Home Scretary? Can she get to grips with the UK Border Agency and sort the situation out, or are her hands tied by EU bureaucratic rules, and is she just too far away from the problems that originate in the countries where the visa applicants come from, problems which are not easily understandable in Whitehall?
One possible solution is for the right to grant visas be taken away from The Home Office and given back to the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office has a different tradition to The Home Office. They are in the business of making connections within the communities abroad, seeking out solutions to complex problems, and would very likely make a better job of bringing the Visa crisis under some kind of control.
Right now even within The Embassy, the UKBA is regarded as a law unto themselves, and the two halves, Home Office and Foreign Office, operate entirely separately. The attempt to make the Home Office into a second Foreign Office is simply not working, and in my view, never will.
If you really want the mess sorted out, other than removing the Home Office from The British Embassy worldwide, the other way to be sure of the situation is to receive the deposits not into banks, but into UK Government control. If all visa applicants had to make substantial deposits that were only reclaimable when the visa’s terms were fully complied with, the numbers applying would shrink to the point at which they could be coped with, and the numbers of applicants breaking the visa’s terms would be greatly diminished.
That would be very easy to administrate. The only thing missing from the government’s program is the willingness to move away from the current fraudster’s paradise, and move over to an entirely open and honest system along these lines. You have to ask the question, ”why is it missing?”.
MY OWN SITUATION – A commenter on Guido, called Do The Right Thing, said why don’t I marry my girlfriend? The result of that is also more complicated than it should be. If we apply for a settlement visa, we would have to live ten months a year in the UK for two years or subsequently lose our rights to get a visa at all. At the moment we are living in the Philippines. We just want a first trip to the UK.
Reader emailed – Many other countries issue their visas through their Foreign Offices, and not from the equivalent of the British Home Office, often called The Department Of The Interior. Britain should do the same, as The Foreign Office understands the countries where the Visas are issued, and can get the situation working better. The split between the Foreign Office and The Home Office only occurred about three years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since.
Reader emailed – Sometime ago my partner did have a problem in an interview with a visa officer (VO) – it seemed that he bullied her in the interview and managed to get the facts relating to the refusal incorrect.