Derek Partridge, CMG, a friend and former diplomatic service colleague, has authorised me to put on this website the text of a letter he has sent to Stephen Timms, the Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform at the Department for Work and Pensions in the British government. Derek wrote on 23 June 2008 that he “had thought of holding off putting the letter on your website at least until I received a reply from Stephen Timms. I have changed my mind on seeing the report in The Independent this morning that Jacqui Smith has said that gay and lesbian asylum-seekers can be safely deported to Iran so long as they live their lives ‘discreetly’. I am now willing for you to put it on your blog with a note saying that I have agreed to your doing so because of my anger at the Home Secretary’s statement.” Derek’s experience and qualifications for writing about immigration policy are described in his letter.
Here it is.
From: Derek W. Partridge Esq., CMG
To: The Rt. Hon Stephen Timms MP,
House of Commons,
London, SW1A OAA.
17 June, 2008
Dear Mr Timms,
Thank you for your letter of 1 June. I am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to justify to you my support for the Bishop of Brentwood’s description of the British immigration system as “unjust and shameful” and to make suggestions for its improvement.
I should like to explain the reasons for my concern about this subject. My career was in H.M. Diplomatic Service. From 1979 to 1983 I was Assistant then Head of Migration and Visa Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from 1983 to 1986 Head of Nationality and Treaty Department. From 1986 to 1991 (when I retired) I was British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone. Throughout this period immigration as it impacted on the concerns of the FCO was a major responsibility for me, although the Home Office was responsible for policy. From 1977 to 1979 I had been Head of the Council of Europe Section in Western Europe Department where my main concern, working under the direction of Frank (now Lord) Judd, was the European Convention on Human Rights. Civil liberties and human rights accordingly influence my approach to all matters including immigration.. In retirement I have come to live in Rotherhithe and from 1994 to 2002 I was a member of Southwark Borough Council. Southwark has a large Sierra Leonean community and I have become involved in their problems, both as a councillor and because of my career background.
I was throughout my career involvement uncomfortable with the immigration policies that I was required to implement. In 1979 the conservative government was elected with a manifesto commitment to introduce stronger immigration control. Revised Immigration Rules were put before Parliament almost immediately. They were rejected because a number of conservative MPs thought they were not strong enough. The Home Office had to toughen them up. I remember Home Office officials telling me how difficult they were finding it to come up with proposals that did not contravene the Race Relations Act and similar legislation guarding human rights and civil liberties. One idea was to change “the Entry Clearance Officer must be satisfied …” to “the applicant must satisfy the Entry Clearance Officer …” thus putting the onus of proof on the applicant. I give this as an example of the measures that were resorted to in order to disadvantage the applicant. Anti-libertarian and discriminatory pressures continued throughout the years of conservative government and have carried on into the Labour government, although in opposition Labour opposed them.. The latest Immigration Rules introduce a discriminatory points system of controlled entry whereby skilled workers, who are mainly white or Asian, are admitted for settlement whereas unskilled workers, who are largely black and from deprived backgrounds, are admitted on a temporary basis that denies to them human rights that are protected for skilled workers. Yet both are equally needed for our economy and the maintenance of our social services. Go into a hospital such as Guy’s and you will find that the cleaners and porters are black, the nurses black or from the Philippines and the doctors are Asian.
As the numbers seeking to be admitted under the Immigration Rules or for asylum increase, the pressure on those implementing the procedures to refuse admission wherever possible mount to a level that is becoming intolerable. Cases are determined on the strictest possible interpretation of the Rules or of asylum procedures in the knowledge that this is what Parliament requires. Staff are given inadequate training. They are expected to manage heavy work-loads at great speed. It used to be the case that applications were dealt with in the Home Office by executive officers working under the supervision of a higher executive officer, to whom all refusals had to be referred. This has been changed. There is a “one pair of eyes” policy whereby staff of limited experience, whose recruitment is out-sourced, take decisions entirely on their own responsibility. Overseas the system is now even more arbitrary. Agents are appointed to administer applications which have to be made “on line” even in countries like Sierra Leone where there are few computers due to the absence of electricity. Locally engaged staff assess applications according to the instructions they are given. There is a high proportion of wrong decisions both in regard to admissions and refusals. It is not possible to meet agents. If in Paris you try to ‘phone with an enquiry, you receive an answer from Budapest!
There is a right of appeal against refusals, although this has been taken away in the case of applicants for visit visas. I have twice sought to give evidence at an appeal hearing. The first occasion was some ten years ago when the war in Sierra Leone was at its height. A Sierra Leonean had had his application to remain refused and was appealing to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. A representative from an aid agency was presenting his case but I offered to go with him to give evidence in regard to the situation in Sierra Leone. The adjudicator refused to hear me. She said that the situation in Sierra Leone was in the public domain. The Home Office had not sent a representative to present its case but the appeal was nevertheless peremptorily dismissed. No-one was surprised. We were told on arrival that we had drawn the short straw in the allocation of adjudicator. The applicant did not in the event have to return to Sierra Leone. Shortly afterwards the government allowed all Sierra Leoneans to remain because of the situation in the country that the adjudicator had refused to allow me to describe to her. This to me demonstrated that justice had not been done. It was certainly not seen to be done.
In 2006 a Sierra Leonean student known to me had his application for the renewal of his visa refused because he had exceeded the twenty hours per week that he was allowed to work. He was immediately approached by an unscrupulous lawyer who wanted a large fee to conduct his appeal. I arranged instead for him to be represented free of charge by the Immigration Advisory Service. I gave a supporting statement to the effect that I knew him to be a diligent student, referred to the desirability of our giving training in this country to students from countries such as Sierra Leone and pleaded in mitigation that he needed the money to pay his fees. The Rules provide that students may not work to obtain money for their fees, but I hoped that the adjudicator might recommend discretion. The adjudicator said that she did not see how my evidence could help and refused to allow me to speak. The applicant was in such a nervous state that he could hardly speak. The adjudicator sought to calm him, advising him to take sips of water and then answer her questions. She reproved the Home Office representative for shouting at him. There was an interruption in the proceedings when the adjudicator was told that she would have to hear another case that day and she said despairingly that she was already over-burdened. The appeal was dismissed. In speaking to me afterwards the adjudicator said that she could not allow anything that would extend the hearing. I commented that time should not be a constraint on justice. She said that she agreed, but there was nothing that she could do about it.
In retirement I receive copies of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff magazine. About two years ago there was a photograph of a Foreign Office team from my old department being given an award by the Home Office in gratitude for their having negotiated an agreement with the government of Zimbabwe that would allow immigrants and asylum seekers from that country to be deported back there. I said earlier in my letter that I was uncomfortable about some of the policies that I was required to implement. I think that I would have found this one unbearable.
I have explained in this letter why, based on many years experience working within the system and then more years during which I have tried to help those in difficulties because of it, I consider that there are many inherent injustices in it. These arise, in my view, from the desire of politicians to satisfy racist fears among the electorate. This came notably to the fore when Patrick Gordon-Walker lost his seat at Smethwick over forty years ago. It has continued at virtually every general election since, including the last one. In 2005 we had those conservative posters proclaiming “It is not racist to talk about immigration”, then beneath “Are you thinking what I am thinking?” The conjunction “but” was omitted, yet the racist intent was clear. The intended response was “No, but there are too many immigrants coming into this country taking our housing and jobs and receiving benefits”. Neither of the other two main parties challenged this campaign. I have explained why I think that the latest immigration laws are discriminatory and racist. They bring shame on a country that has so often in its history been a haven for the persecuted and oppressed.
You have invited me to suggest possible, practical ways in which our immigration system might nevertheless be improved. The situation could be improved if those working at the sharp end in the system could be given more training, more time and readier access to advice from an experienced superior. An outstanding example of the need for this is the case, referred to by Simon Hughes as it fell within his casework, of the gay Iranian threatened with deportation back to Iran where his partner had already been executed. The ramifications of this case should have been recognised by the official who first dealt with the application. A senior officer should have been consulted and, in view of the political sensitivity, refusal should not have been considered without reference to a minister. This would have avoided the situation of ministerial involvement when the case had already received great publicity. The situation when applications are made overseas is in some respects worse. Very high, non-returnable fees are charged for applications, including family reunion. It is said that they are justified by the work involved. Applicants paying these fees are therefore entitled to fair and just consideration of their applications. Applications should be considered by properly trained staff who are available to explain to applicants the requirements that they have to meet.
With regard to appeals, in refusing to allow applicants to call knowledgeable witnesses in their defence, in proceeding to judgement when the prosecuting authority fails to turn up and in accepting time constraints on their proceedings, Immigration Tribunals do not behave in a fit manner for a quasi-judicial authority. Their procedures should be reformed.
Throughout my time working with members of the Immigration Service, I have found them to be highly professional. Some remain close friends. The Immigration Service however no longer exists as a separate entity. It has been merged with H.M. Customs.
I thank you again for your courtesy in allowing me to address this letter to you. I am copying our correspondence to Simon Hughes, to Canon James Cronin at St George’s Catholic Cathedral, Southwark with the request that he should pass it on to the Bishop of Brentwood, and to the organisers of the Pentecost CARE event.
(Derek W. Partridge)