As many of you know, Kay and I have been together for seven years - in fact yesterday (Tuesday September 9th) we celebrated the seventh anniversary of the day we met. You may also know that Kay first arrived here from New Zealand in 2006 on an ancestry visa so as to enjoy two summers every year and use the money she earned as a live-in carer to finance European travel. She intended to spend six months a year in the UK and six in New Zealand. Some of you also know how we first met on the towpath of the Oxford Canal and after that events moved quite quickly. We have lived together since November 2007. Kay is an artist, formerly much exhibited throughout New Zealand and now locally in the Oxford area. You may also remember that last year we were married. We eloped to Gretna Green without telling anybody and did the deed there. There's a blog, an Augustan Ode by Nicholas Fowler, posted on AE in July 2013, to prove it. It's still in Older Posts.
Why did we elope? We had often talked about marriage but felt that it would be difficult for our families. If in New Zealand, mine could not be present; if in England, Kay's couldn't. Elopement also had the advantage that we would be married under a legal jurisdiction different from both England's and New Zealand's, so nobody need feel aggrieved. Our families were uniformly delighted when they knew and so were all our friends. We did not, by the way, change our surnames.
In 2011, five years after she first arrived, Kay applied to what was then called the United Kingdom Border Agency for Indefinite Leave to Remain. She was refused. The main reason was that she had overstayed her first allowed period of six months out of the UK by a few days so technically she had not lived here for five full years. However, she was given Discretionary Leave to Remain for three years. This would be extended for three more in 2014 as long as her personal circumstances hadn't changed.
Well, 2014 has arrived and in July Kay sent in her application. We left nothing to chance. I wrote a supporting letter and the package was full of proofs that we were solvent, not overcrowded, claiming no benefits and fully committed to each other. We took the precaution of having an immigration lawyer check it to make sure everything was completely in order. What could possibly go wrong?
The first month passed. Then an acknowledgement came from the Home Office. Our lawyer said it was a standard reply to applications like ours. That may be true. The fact remains that it is the most strangely worded acknowledgement I have ever read.
'Your application raises issues concerning the European Convention on Human Rights which are complex in nature. As such, it falls outside our normal service standards for deciding leave to remain applications.'
The first point about this is that the second sentence neatly gives the Home Office the power to take as long as they like to come to a decision. We might be sentenced to an extended limbo, an imposed indefinite half-life.
That's bad enough. But it's the first sentence we struggle to understand. Are we being oversensitive in thinking it's very ominous? I cannot see how these issues can be called complex. In fact, I find it hard to understand why they are called issues. This sentence needed a thorough deconstruction.
The only articles in the European Convention on Human Rights which can possibly have any relevance to Kay's application are articles 8 and 12. The first refers to the individual's right to a private and family life. The second asserts the individual's right to marry whomsoever she or he chooses. I remember David Cameron on television during the 2010 election campaign saying he had no wish to dictate to British citizens who they may or may not marry. Will he repeat the sentiment next time round?
Why involve the European Convention at all? Surely these are inalienable rights for anyone living in a democracy. The Convention is only binding on signatories because member countries have agreed that it represents values to which they all aspire. The only reason that I can see for mentioning it lies in the fact that several criminals and terrorists have cited these articles in their appeals to the European Court of Human Rights against their proposed deportation and won. We thought this was appalling and thoroughly supported Theresa May's efforts to have the decisions reversed.
I have to presume that this is the precedent which the Home Office has used to invoke the European Convention. Are they trying to cut off ways in which we, if Kay's application is refused, might appeal to the European Court? Theresa May has advised Mr Cameron that the UK should leave the European Convention completely. Is this statement related to that? If it is, there are two conclusions to be drawn. The first is that Articles 8 and 12 no longer obtain in Britain. The second is that we are classed with potential terrorists and criminals who threaten the nation's security and economic well-being.
Oh, that makes us feel really great.
Is what I've said far-fetched? If it is, then the Home Office response is meaningless. If it isn't, then it's very, very sinister.
I incline to the sinister interpretation. 'By their fruits shall ye know them' - the Bible has nearly as many good quotations as Shakespeare. The Home Office actions in the recent MacIsaacs case are disturbing. In 2013 they accused Mr MacIsaacs, the American headteacher of a primary school in Dumfries, and his Scottish wife of going through a sham marriage. Mr MacIsaacs came to Scotland on a visitor visa over ten years ago to trace his Scottish ancestry. He enjoyed himself so much that he applied for a work permit to teach in Scotland. When it expired he applied for its renewal. This was refused but he was told that he could apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. So he did and it too was refused. He was told he would be deported. Earlier, his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. The Home Office said she could go to the USA with him (begging the question of whether they would let her in). The Home Office had the brass nerve to suggest that she would settle well in the USA because she would find no language difficulties there. The decision was only overturned after a vociferous public campaign.
However, the Home Office was clearly unconcerned about further damage to its reputation. Earlier this year came the case of Mrs Katherine Tate. She is Australian and is married to an Englishman. They live in England, where he runs an electrical business. They have two children. Mrs Tate is now pregnant. She too applied for renewal of her visa. It was refused purely because the Home Office decided she should have completed the forms in Australia instead of here in the UK. They told her she would be deported, even though five months pregnant. If she was not gone by a specified date she would be forcibly removed. The Home Office even instructed the NHS not to give her free treatment if the baby was born before her deportation.The Tates appealed to a tribunal, which overturned the Home Office's appalling and vindictive decision. The Home Office, zeal undiminished, said they would appeal. Fortunately another well-organised public campaign forced them to back down.
So, how likely are we to suffer the same result? We have ugly suspicions. Surely even the Home Office wouldn't be so brazen as to say that marrying after living together constitutes a change in personal circumstances? And if they can accuse Mr and Mrs MacIsaacs of a sham wedding when the guests comprised a fair proportion of the population of southern Scotland, what are they going to say about ours when nobody was there except two lovely people we'd never met before who acted as witnesses?
I said at the beginning that today might be significant. Two months have passed since the application was sent. We have an added complication. Kay's son is to be married in Australia on October 4th. We have flights and hotels booked for a fortnight there, leaving on September 30th. We booked them back in March. We knew this was the year of visa renewal but we assumed that ours was an open and shut case and would be sorted long before we leave. We told the Home Office about the wedding in the application. Kay rang the Home Office this morning (Wednesday 10th) and asked what, if anything, could be done to ensure her application is processed in time. She was told first, that a decision on her application had not yet been completed (and may not even have been considered yet) and second, that she should fill in an online 8-page request form, which she did at once. The return of her passport at this stage would ordinarily mean that she was withdrawing her application. Even if she does get the passport back in time they may refuse her visa and then there's a fair chance that I will be coming back to the UK on my own and the whole weary and needless process will have to start all over again. Meanwhile there are upwards of 200,000 people who shouldn't be in the country. The Home Office has lost track of all of them.
Final thoughts? We fiercely resent the implication in all this that we are classed with illegal immigrants and potential terrorists. It seems that the Home Office now has a policy of zero tolerance. This has grave implications for our society. It is not good if ruining the lives of innocent and decent people is regarded as acceptable collateral damage in the Government's attempt to demonstrate how efficient they are at reducing immigration.
So I give you fair warning. If things go badly for us we will be trying to mount a public campaign as effective as those for Mr and Mrs MacIsaacs and Mr and Mrs Tate. And we would love to think that we could have your support.