27 March 2013

On the demise of the UKBA

Today's news that the UK Border Agency, the government body responsible for immigration matters in the UK, will be split up and re-housed within the Home Office filled me with cheer and a doubtless uncharitable sense of schadenfraude. Finally, the agency that has caused so much angst to its clients and performed so incompetently over many, many years has been held to account and brutally disestablished. Naturally, just because the UKBA's functions have been absorbed by the Home Office it doesn't mean that everything will magically sort itself out - after all, the Home Office hardly has a stellar reputation either. But it's fitting that the UKBA's performance has been so roundly unsatisfactory that it cannot be allowed to exist.  

Of course, this is all personal as far as I'm concerned. The UKBA played a major role in derailing my own plans to become a British citizen and to continue my life in London. Certainly I contributed to the problem with a clerical error that kicked everything off, and the economic downturn that sucked up all the contract work in London also deprived me of a living and made staying in London financially impossible. But it's fair to say that the upheavals I went through in 2009 were all UKBA-related and caused a huge amount of stress that was completely unnecessary. An agency that placed fairness, compassion and service at the heart of its operations would never have behaved in the way the UKBA has over the years.

At the risk of repeating a story oft-listened-to by friends and family, here's a brief summary of my own run-in with the UKBA:

March 2007: Entered the UK on a Highly Skilled Migrant Visa (Tier 1), which meant I could work anywhere in the UK. The initial visa duration was for two years, and would require a renewal application to get me through to the five year requirement for application for UK citizenship.

January 2009: My initial period was shortly coming to an end, so I posted off the application for visa renewal on the UKBA's massive 72-page paper form. Electronic submission was not permitted - it had to be hard copy. Had checked the form numerous time and compared it with the online version on the UKBA website, but failed to notice one particular detail.

March 2009: After two months of waiting with no news, I received a letter from the UKBA announcing that my extension application had been rejected because it was on an outdated form. No other instructions were included in the letter. I hurriedly checked the online version of the form and was horrified to see that the serial number had changed. Comparing the two forms side-by-side I couldn't see any difference between the actual immigration criteria. My work visa being about to expire, and UKBA's rules preventing applicants whose visas had expired from applying within the UK, I was forced to book flights back to New Zealand, from where I would have to re-submit on the correct form. The only saving grace was that the UKBA unexpectedly refunded my hefty visa fee (about £700, from memory). They were usually known for pocketing the fee regardless of the outcome.

April 2009: Arrive back in New Zealand and start work on my new visa application.

May 2009: Couriered revised visa application to the UK High Commission in Canberra, the closest location to New Zealand at which UKBA deign to process visa applications. Used same criteria as my initial  application along with my UK earnings, which showed that I had plenty of 'points' justifying my visa status.  

June 2009: UKBA in Canberra rejected my second application, on the grounds that there was 'reasonable doubt' about my MA qualifications! This because I couldn't post my actual degree certificate, because the framer glued it to the backing board, so instead I had sent my appropriate university transcript. This transcript had been sufficient to get me a visa in 2007, the criteria hadn't changed, and the UKBA's own guidance stated that if proof of qualifications had already been provided in a previous application it didn't need to be provided again. Disgusted with the whole process, I posted my formal appeal letter two days later.

July 2009: Soon discovered that the UKBA section at the High Commission in Canberra neglects correspondence, and as there is no performance measure for speedy results in dealing with visa appeals, there is no incentive for them to actually do the work. They are also almost impossible to contact, with no direct contact details. The most inconvenient way to reach them - sending a fax - appears to be the only way of getting any sort of response. Realise that if the appeal process drags on, I will jeopardise my citizenship requirements - at least five years living in the UK without an absence of longer than six months.

August 2009: Finally got a brief email reply from Canberra, and although it did deal with my case it was addressed to 'Ms Waller'. Competency alert! No appeal completion date in sight, though.

September 2009: Still no word on appeal, which I had sent four months ago.

October 2009: Finally an email from Canberra - they might get to my appeal in a couple of weeks. Lucky me.

November 2009: UKBA finally emailed to say my appeal had been dealt with and was successful - my visa had been confirmed! Immediately couriered a SASE to Canberra to return my passport in, and hoped it would get back in time for my much-delayed return flight to London. It actually did arrive on time, which was the only time the UKBA did anything quickly in all the occasions I dealt with them. By the time I got back to London I'd been more than six months out of the country so my goal of five years of UK residency leading to a passport and citizenship was over. I would have to start the clock from scratch.

As it happens, my return to the UK coincided with huge public service spending cuts, and I wasn't able to stay in work beyond the autumn of 2010. I stuck it out for as long as possible in the hope that a job would turn up, but in the end I had to throw in the towel and return to New Zealand in June 2011. I landed a good contract at my current workplace within a few weeks of landing back in New Zealand, so I'm not complaining too much! But the fact remains that I would have loved to be a proper Briton with a British passport and dual New Zealand-British citizenship, and the UKBA did everything it could to stop that from happening. It well and truly ruined my year in 2009, and caused huge amounts of stress to me and my family. 

Tellingly, the current criticism of the current UK administration's handling of the UKBA has not revolved around the way in which the organisation has dealt with its applicants, but in the way it has created a huge administrative backlog and failed to turn away 'sufficient' numbers of people at UK borders. If only they knew what a toxic ambassador for Britain the UKBA has been. And that's why I'm raising a glass tonight to celebrate the end of the UKBA. 

Farewell then, UKBA. No-one will miss you! 
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