Thursday, 16 October 2008

UK Bureaucracy Ponders Allowing Me and My Wife to Live Together

A few years ago, when I, a Canadian, married a wonderful Scottish lady I obtained permission to stay in the UK on a two-year leave to remain permit. Applying for permanent residency becomes necessary two years after entering the UK on the temporary residency permit. In order to continue to be allowed to live with her here in the UK, I have thus recently applied for permanent residency, or indefinite leave to remain, using the SET (M) form. What follows is thus based on my personal experience.

The UK's process to obtain permanent residency (described on the UK Home Office Border Agency website) seems designed to trip up applicants, to presume guilt and suspicion of wrong-doing, to impose considerable cost, inconvenience and stress and to punish those who fail to tick all boxes correctly or abide by the tricky rules. Whether it is deliberate or merely inadvertent the process is highly unpleasant.

Problem #1 - Complicated and Changing Process and Forms
First, you must figure out which of the many forms to use. In my case, as a spouse it is SET (M). The form is 17 pages long, the instructions another 7 pages. There is lots of information and documents required -photographs, bank statements, passports, bills with addresses. Almost all of the information requested is exactly the same as was asked for in the original application to enter the UK.

The forms and the requirements have changed several times during 2008. The authorities added a new requirement since I arrived in 2006. Since the beginning of the year, applicants have to pass a test of English language and UK knowledge, called Life in the UK.

The application form itself includes some bizarre questions. Check out this snippet of Form SET(M):

That's right, perpetrators of mass murder, genocide and terrorism are kindly requested to identify themselves and to provide details of their acts in a box on the next page. Terrorists are apparently likely to be found amongst spouses seeking to live happily with their loved one. What prevents the Border Agency from utilising police and security sources of the government to check whatever it wants about individuals by itself? What leads the Border Agency to believe that such nasty individuals will volunteer such information? When I applied for an account, a foreign exchange dealer was able to verify my name and address instantaneously. Why can the government not use its far greater sources to do employment, financial and criminal checks?

Problem #2 - Too-short Time Window in which to Apply and Severe Penalties for Missing It
One may not apply earlier than 28 days before the expiry of the initial residence permit, nor after the expiry. If you are too soon, they refuse the application with no refund of the fee. If you are late, you are in the country illegally. There are harsh sanctions. First, being late means you have no right of appeal if you are refused, e.g. fail to tick a box on that form and you could be on a plane back to where you used to live. Second, you are then not allowed to apply in person, only by post, which takes a lot longer. Third, the time to process becomes indefinite and longer than the announced objectives below. At least the Border Agency won't put you in jail and deport you, while awaiting a decision on a late application - at least that's what they said when I phoned to ask.

Meeting the narrow window is made more difficult by the necessity to take and pass the Life in the UK test. Despite being easy enough, if you already read and write English fluently, some study is required so you must get hold of the book, spend a week or two studying it. The testing is only done in government test centres and time slots for taking the test are only available, in Glasgow at least where I took it, three or more weeks ahead. Fail it and you must start over. The pass certificate must accompany the application. If you do not know English very well, things get even more onerous since you must learn first. Of course, you can apply for other temporary extension visas if you are having trouble passing the test but all this schmozzle increases the chances of people missing the deadline.

Problem #3 - Ridiculously Long Decision Delay
Here is what the Border Agency website says on waiting times:
"Our service standards set out how quickly we aim to decide applications ... we will:
  • decide 70% of postal applications within 20 working days;
  • decide 90% of postal applications within 70 working days;
  • decide 90% of applications made in person at a public enquiry office within 24 hours."
Note that 70 working days is about 3 and a half months. Yikes! We are told that applications that are not "straightforward" take longer. Years perhaps? How is that postal applications take so long while in-person takes 24 hours? Do all the cheats mail them in? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an in-person application costs £200 more, at £950, compared to the postal route at £750, i.e. the Border Agency is forcing applicants to the costlier route? Shades of sleazy marketing indeed!

Also note the masterful bureaucratic language which promises nothing - the Border Agency only "aims to" but does not guarantee, it only will "decide" not necessarily approve, not even with a caveat such as "if you meet all the criteria", and there is the last 10% for which there is not even a target. You could be waiting indefinitely and have no cause for complaint.

Problem #4 - Passports Held Ransom and Travel is Not Permitted
Passports of the applicant and the spouse must be sent in with the application. That means no travel is allowed, potentially for months. Prisoners of the UK you are! Since you have no idea when the application will be decided, let alone approved, you cannot make holiday plans, travel back to see family or friends or whatever.Suppose you are in the 10% taking more than 70 working days, how can you plan ahead at all? I've already been waiting five weeks and had to cancel a trip back to Canada, losing money on that, and now I'm worried about Christmas.

Should we need our passports back to travel for an emergency, the Border Agency will happily do that, though it means the application is considered cancelled and the £750 fee is lost and one must re-apply from scratch. On top of that, if you leave the UK after expiry of the initial permit, you must apply anew from the foreign country, possibly having to stay for months while it is processed. That's not very family friendly, to say the least.

Why exactly does the Border Agency need to hang onto those passports, especially that of the UK citizen?

Problem #5 - Absence of Transparency and Progress Status Information
The only information the Border Agency will supply about your application is a letter of acknowledgement that it has been received. Your application then disappears into a bureaucratic black hole. You will only be allowed to request status information after the 70 working days have past. This final element creates a sword of Damocles over the innocent applicant, with all the attendant stress and anxiety.

Problem #6 - High Cost
The cheaper but deadly slow and opaque postal application route costs the rather pricey £750, on top of which is the £34 for the Life in the UK test and the associated study material £10. Two years ago, the initial temporary permit (you may not apply right away for the permanent permit) cost £395 (postal application) or £595 (in-person). That's in addition to the £515 paid to obtain the visa to get into country initially.

The fast-track in-person application costs a princely £950. Only the well-off can apply it seems.

Suggestions for a Kinder, Gentler (and probably More Effective for the Government) Process:
  • get rid of those stupid paper residence permits glued into the passport - all those agents at airport kiosks have computers don't they? So let them have access to the database that shows if I have a permit; that obviates any need to hang onto people's passports for months and months
  • put the application form online so that you can fill it in and submit it electronically with scanned copies of the required documents; if such methods are sufficient to control money laundering, why not residency permits?
  • with all the information then being electronic in the government's hands, automate the assessment and screening process, just like the tax and customs people do to detect suspicious patterns; it will be much faster to everyone's benefit
  • pro-actively send out notifications when requirements, deadlines or anything else changes and especially in advance of a looming expiry date; whether it is by snail mail or email, follow the example of every other business and many government departments; it sure would have helped me
  • further automate cross-checks with other databases; if in doubt how, check with the credit card companies how to do this
  • set up an online web application tracking and status information tool so people can check themselves; consult the zillion online companies who do this routinely as part of customer service to find out how; no doubt all those telephone agents who now have to spend their hours answering phone calls on the existing "info" line from desperate people would be freed up to do real work assessing marginal or suspicious cases.
  • shorten the decision turn-around goals to 90% within 24 hours of receipt (the same as the in-person route) with 100% substantive answer within two weeks i.e. if the Border Agency cannot approve within that time, they should state a reason and the need for further investigation
Right now,my wife and I are living on tenterhooks while the UK Border Agency decides whether we will be allowed to continue to live together in the UK. Since we are about as mainstream, ordinary and conforming to the criteria as it is possible to get, I figured my application would be speedily rubber-stamped. Wrong! Five weeks later, here I am still waiting unable to obtain the slightest information about what is or is not happening. And we are unable to travel anywhere or even make travel plans.

Update Nov.28 - Good news at last! The passports have arrived back with residence permit included. The secret to success? We asked for and received the support of our local politicians - councillor Robert Barr, MSP Jackson Carlaw and Member of Parliament Katy Clark who wrote to the Home Office on our behalf. Off went the letter and presto, a week later the permit arrived. Kudos to them as, unlike the bureaucracy, they were very accessible and sympathetic and responded immediately. Total time elapsed from application to receipt in mail - 67 days, more than two months.


Anonymous said...

Well not QUITE as terrible, the process to apply for permanent residency in Canada isn't much each easier. Especially if you aren't married to a Canadian. They've changed the criteria for skilled labour at least twice in the last 3-4 years, and there are multiple routes and agencies that need to approve aspects of your application. Here, it's worth paying a lawyer their fees just for the peace of mind that you're not missing anything and getting solid advice.

CanadianInvestor said...

Anon, you make me think that I should do a comparison of what it would take to get my wife into Canada. I got the impression, based on a quick look that it wouldn't be much easier, perhaps even more difficult. Would the bureaucrats respond that if the UK and and Canada's processes and controls are equally "easy" or better than those of other countries, that means they are OK and we should be happy?

Rob in Madrid said...

I think alot of it comes from the tabloid headlines about asylum seekers flooding the country and leaching off the system, which has forced the government to tighten things up. Of course Blair being the incompetent cousin of Bush didn't help. Of course the reality is of course different, it's the natives not the immigrants that prefer the good life on benefits.

Besides that are you newly married? When we moved to Germany 10 years ago it was a matter of filling up some simple paper work and in a few weeks I had my residency permit. Of course it helped that I had been married 15 years by then, and they stated such. When we moved to Spain it took about 18 months to get my tax card mostly because I applied the day after the EU expanded and the office was flooded (literately) with 1000's of new immigrants all hoping to start a new life in Spain. Even then the process was fairly simple, mainly just providing a translated copy of our marriage certificate.

CanadianInvestor said...

Rob, re the good life on benefits, I hear that some women here live their lives as professional benefits mothers. They have a child every three years or so, which avoids having to go look for work (i.e. one child is not yet in school) and ups their benefits. That way they don't ever have to work and can live comfortably off benefits. Everything is paid for - housing, appliances, car etc. They apparently view this as their right and look at people who work as strange.

And yes, we did get married only two years ago when I first came here. Getting the visa to do that was quite a hassle. Amongst other things, we had to provide evidence of having known each other for some time and to do this I printed out a list of the hundreds of emails we had exchanged. Luckily I had not deleted them and the titles were not too revealing(!). Wasn't it Pierre Trudeau who said that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation? That philosophy doesn't apply at the UK Border Agency.

Unfortunately it does seem to be somewhat a seige mentality where everyone is a bad guy until proven innocent. They should have a better way of streaming people into risk categories e.g. how many Canadian citizens entering the UK on a marriage visa are coming as terrorists or are unable to support themselves? Of course, that raises issues of equal treatment aka political correctness, so we end up with everyone treated on the lowest common denominator.

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