I RECENTLY EXPERIENCED something that all British citizens should experience, but very few ever will: I visited a Visa and Immigration Premium Service Centre, although how the words ‘premium’ and ‘service’ ever came to be attached to the name of the institution we visited in Glasgow, I cannot begin to imagine.
We? I was with a Sri Lankan friend, whom we’ll call Dee, on a mission to get the necessary documentation that would allow her to continue to work for the NHS as she has been doing, perfectly legally, for the past five years.
The so-called Visa and Immigration Premium Service Centre is tucked away in a wasteland of unprepossessing industrial/business units, some two miles from Central Station (visitors are advised that a taxi is necessary). A whiff of neglect hangs over the area.
We struggled with the front door of the centre for a minute before the chap on the reception desk ambled over and opened it. It took me a beat to realise the door had been locked.
‘Can I help you?’ asked the unsmiling, uniformed man through a crack in the half-opened door, as if we were either in the wrong place and would soon be on our way or might attempt to force our way past him.
Dee began to explain that she had an appointment. The man indicated wordlessly for her to enter and began to shut the door.
“Er, hang on!” I protested. “We’re with Dee.”
“And who are you?”
“You can’t come in. Only her.”
“It says on the website that Dee is allowed support.”
Reluctantly, he agreed that we could enter, but added: “She’ll have to go in there on her own.’ During what was beginning to feel like an ordeal rather than mildly boring bureaucracy, we wrestled our belts off and emptied our pockets before stepping through the security scanner; just what kind of application process was Dee in for? I wondered.
But I run ahead of myself. Let’s first establish how and why we had arrived at this grim venue.
A few weeks earlier, Dee was told she no longer fulfilled the ‘right to work’ criteria for this country and had to stop working immediately. Dee, by the way is married to a British national, has a 13-year-old child and has lived in the UK for more than 14 years. She was encouraged to apply for a post within the NHS covering a fellow worker’s maternity leave. She invested in driving lessons and passed her test so that she could get to and from the new job if she were successful. The job offer was made and accepted. Then came a bombshell note from NHS Human Resources saying she did not have the right to work in the UK.
So here’s the problem: Dee’s current visa, which grants her ‘permission to settle’ or ‘indefinite leave to remain’, is stamped in an expired passport. When she renewed her passport, she was told she should carry both passports – the visa is good, it just sits in the old passport. However, it turns out that with this current visa and passport arrangement, Dee cannot work in the UK despite already being employed.
But surely, I hear you say, the NHS and Home Office must deal with these situations all the time. There must be a way to resolve such glitches simply and efficiently; a cross-check here, a couple of ticks there and Dee should be able to continue to earn an honest crust, doing a job she enjoys and at which she is clearly good, while the formalities are, erm, formalised. You’d think. Well, you’d be wrong.
An employer is apparently breaking the law by allowing someone to continue to come to work without either a current visa in a current passport or a Biometric Residence Permit (BRP). End of.
A BRP was Dee’s best option. Hopefully she could get one quickly and still be able to take the new job. The Home Office told her she must send them her passports, and that it might take them up to six months to issue a BRP.
Six months? The job was meant to cover a woman on maternity leave. Would it still be available? And if not, how was she supposed to earn a living in the meantime?
Add to this the fact that Dee and her family have booked a summer visit to relatives in Sri Lanka for the first time in years and you begin to realise the stress: it might not take six months for Dee’s papers to get through the system and back to her, but how can she possibly risk not having her passport in time for the journey? Anyway, now she’s no longer earning, the trip doesn’t look quite so manageable.
Imagine how Dee feels as her world slips away from her. The country where she has settled with her English husband, where they are bringing up their British child, is curtailing her ability to contribute to society and to be self-sufficient. No wonder her husband is anxious about what might come next.
So now we have arrived at the ‘Premium Service Centre’. Such centres claim to enable you to speed up the process by taking in your forms and having your biometric data taken there and then. The five-hour round trip to Dee’s nearest centre in Glasgow seemed a small price to pay.
However, it turns out that there was another price: it costs £827 to get your BRP card by visiting a premium service centre. Eight-hundred-and-twenty-seven pounds. Count it: a family could pay its council tax with that. Or travel to, say, Sri Lanka. Instead, Dee has spent it gaining the permission to do a job she’s effectively been doing for the last five years. Then, if successful, Dee will face a seven to 10 day wait for the essential BRP card to arrive by post. This whole situation was beginning to morph into the punitive rather than the protective.
Horrified by regulations that bleed into real life and bruise people’s lives and livelihoods, my husband and I drove Dee to Glasgow. I’m so glad we did. I’ve already related our opening conversation. Perhaps the officer who ‘welcomed’ us had not read the statement on the Home Office website:
‘You can also bring any other people you need at your appointment, for example carers, family members or legal representatives’ (Big deal: why wouldn’t you be able to take someone with you, anyway?).
Dee’s appointment was at 10am and she was called at 10.03am. We smiled at each other. Phew. This was more like it. Five minutes later Dee returned. There was a problem with the biometrics technology. It might take a little longer than the promised 60-90 minutes, but they’d keep us informed.
Three hours later, an institutionalised lethargy mingled with anxiety clouded the waiting room. The information screens had a row of numbers in a grid. A new number was added as each person arrived. That was it. No other information.
The hot news of the day, repeat endlessly across the TV screen, was that anaturalised British citizen, Prince Philip, was stepping back from royal duties. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as ever more colourful pictures of British pomp and pageantry accompanied the subtitles, trying to read the faces of those waiting to gain permission to either start or even to continue to work here.
Three and a half hours in, I nabbed one of the eyes-down men who periodically scuttled into sight and rapidly disappeared. He blustered that ‘the national’ issue had been resolved and that the ‘local one’ was being worked on. He said he had told Dee that he would keep her informed. I pointed out that no one had spoken to us since he had registered Dee all those hours ago.
A waiting parent asked if the TV channel could be changed to CBBC to try to distract the growing number of restless children. Several people put money into the drinks and chocolate bar machines. Another two hours slid by.
New charts appeared on the information screens. Some numbers moved across. A ripple of subdued anticipation passed round the room. A guy who lived in Glasgow told me that the last time he’d done this he’d had to go London. It was just the same. The long wait. The lack of information. He’d been lucky because he had an early appointment and, despite the delays, he had been seen the same day. Others had to come back the following day. We hoped 10am was an early enough appointment.
Nearly six hours after we’d arrived, Dee’s forms were validated and her biometric data taken. As we left, I asked the guy on reception if the technology had broken down before.
“Yeah,” he said. “Happens more often than you’d think.”
Dee acknowledges that some of her predicament is perhaps self-inflicted: when she was told that her visa in her old passport enabled her to travel, she did not think to check her right to work. As a settled foreign national with a family here, and working for the NHS, she assumed she was not only legal, but integrated.
It turns out she was wrong to place trust in a system designed to prevent rather than to permit, and exclude rather than enable.
I feel almost physically sick at the system we have witnessed. And ashamed. But that’s just me and, now, you.
I can’t begin to imagine how Dee feels. . .