Greg Hands MP: How in New Labour’s world, football takes priority over national security
Greg Hands, MP for Hammersmith and Fulham, recounts how the Government kept dragging its feet on the immigration status of a constituent of his with a background in terrorism, but wasted no time in sorting out the status of Watford Player Al Bangura.
As we know, the Conservative Party has at present precious few inner city MPs, yet I believe that our numbers are set to expand dramatically when the next election comes.
One of the more trying aspects of the role that will face these new MPs is immigration casework. They will quickly be introduced to the chaos of the UK’s immigration system, which, regardless of one’s own views on the merits or demerits of immigration, does nobody any favours, due to its astonishing inefficiencies and institutional incompetence. The Home Office is pretty much incapable of counting anything, it seems, not least the number of people coming in and out of the country, absconded foreign prisoners and so on. It does, however, produce a “League Table” of which MPs come to it with the most immigration casework. As MP for Hammersmith & Fulham, I am in the top ten, and ranked highest among Conservative MPs. Incredibly, I have at present between 700 and 800 unresolved immigration cases – that’s out of a total constituency of just over 80,000 electors. This is around 35% of my casework.
Meanwhile, one of the pieces of evidence often cited to show that the Conservatives have so few inner city MPs is the fact that until recently, no Conservative MP represented a Premiership football club. This changed at the last election, as I actually represent two of them, both Fulham and Chelsea. Another thing one quickly learns in the Commons is that Labour MPs need to show a commitment to the beautiful game – for some it is genuine, but for others it is false, even an affectation. I will come back to Labour’s obsession with football in due course.
Returning to our immigration casework, these are typically people from countries like Somalia and Iraq who are either current or former asylum seekers, whose main purpose in contacting their MP is to try to speed up the determination of their case. Obviously – and thankfully – the individual MP does not determine their case, but can and will get answers more quickly than the applicant. Nevertheless, most of these people are left hanging on for literally years. Even when the case is determined, that is not the end of the matter, as seemingly endless appeals result, and even those whose appeals fail, the individuals are very rarely removed. Equally, the Home Office all too frequently gets it wrong with the people it does choose to clamp down on, like asylum seekers from Zimbabwe, or needlessly harassing Bulgarian nationals only a few months before that country was set to join the EU. We have in this country literally hundreds of thousands of people in limbo, many unable to work or otherwise contribute, but living off the state in one way or another, partly or fully. For inner city, especially inner London MPs, immigration casework is such a large part of the job that some MPs even have a specific full-time immigration caseworker, paid for out of their taxpayer-funded staffing allowances.
Immigration casework generally revolves around standard pro forma letters from the MP, with standard, pro forma responses from the Home Office officials. It is normally the most “routine” aspect of an MP’s casework load, except in my case the sheer volumes of case are anything but routine.
Occasionally, however, there arrives a letter that is out of the ordinary. In June 2006, I received a letter about an Egyptian constituent’s application for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK (ILR). It apologised for the delay in assessing his application, but that his case was taking longer than usual (actually more than three years to date, not in itself very unusual). The reason it was taking longer than usual, said the Home Office, was that the man “appears on the United Nations listing for individuals belonging to or associated with the Al-Qaida organisation”. Nevertheless, the Home Office saw fit to “apologise for any delay or anxiety this has caused” the man, and were “sorry it has taken so long to process the ILR application.”
I checked, and the man does indeed appear on the United Nations listing. He is also subject to financial sanctions from a large number of financial jurisdictions, including countries as diverse as the Isle of Man and Hong Kong. It turned out that Tony Blair had tried to have him extradited to Egypt as long ago as 1999, but was one of the first cases to fall foul of the newly passed Human Rights Act, as it was deemed he would be likely to face torture in his home country. According to a Guardian report in 1999, MI5 said he had been involved in terrorism “at the highest level,” I presume in his home country.
This was not, in my view, someone the UK should be considering for indefinite leave to remain. At Prime Minister’s Questions on 14th November 2007, I asked Gordon Brown about it. The Prime Minister, not completely unreasonably, said he wasn’t aware of the case (even though Blair had been), but would look into and write to me. This took some time, and on the 26th November came a non-response – I should meet with Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, to discuss the matter, due to “further enquiries of a confidential nature” still being made.
Meanwhile, many of my 80,000 other constituents were becoming apprehensive about having someone on the UN Al-Qaeda list as their neighbour. Hammersmith & Fulham has previously been home to Abu Hamza and other prominent terror suspects, and has also been the site of one of the failed 21/7 bombings, so there are local concerns too.
I take national security extremely seriously, and nothing I have outlined above is any way not in the public domain already. Liam Byrne proved a very difficult man to tie down for a meeting, but he eventually agreed to meet me in his office on 19th December. I was expecting to be given a confidential briefing about this individual and I was expecting to leave his office reassured that my constituents were safe and that the UK was making every effort to ensure that this man posed no threat and that his case would be determined one way or another.
Remarkably, and despite having had five weeks to prepare for the meeting, Mr Byrne wasn’t able to tell me anything until he had had further conversations with his legal team. He said he would need to look personally at the file, and that he would be writing to me in the New Year. So, on a busy day in the parliamentary recess, I had made a trip in to town to be told absolutely nothing.
The impression I had was that he had an comprehensive brief in front of him (with even a section of bullet points entitled “if pressed…”), but he hadn’t actually found the time to read it before the meeting. To compound this impression, Mr Byrne appeared to be in something of a rush. After less than 10 minutes, I was shown the door.
On the way out, I noticed two things I hadn’t seen on the way in. Claire Ward, the Labour MP for Watford was in the reception. Leaving the building, there were two or three TV crews outside the Home Office. Nothing unusual these days, I thought. In fact, with the current rate of Home Office scandals, these may even be crews on permanent standby.
It was only when I arrived in my office in Parliament that I found out the truth. The TV crews were there to film Liam Byrne and Claire Ward, together with the Chairman of Watford Football Club, making a statement about how the Home Office will be allowing Watford player Al Bangura to remain in the UK while he applies for a work permit after the Home Office heard his appeal against deportation. Watching the coverage later, it was clear that the whole thing was just a stunt to try to boost Claire Ward’s standing amongst Watford fans, who have taken Al Bangura’s case to heart, and are alarmed at the possible loss of the player, if he is deported.
Doubtless, Watford fans are happy. Doubtless, Liam Byrne was pleased to have been part of what he would have seen as a “good news story”. Certainly, Claire Ward will be pleased to have been seen to have done something for Watford. Watford is a crucial three-way marginal at the next election. She told the BBC after the photocall: "We have moved a step further and it's a matter now for the panel to judge the sort of things that Watford fans have been seeing over the last few seasons, which is just how good Al is."
So, there we can see the priorities for Liam Byrne and Gordon Brown’s Home Office. On the one hand, the previously unknown footballer from Watford gets the full-on attention from Mr Byrne. On the other, our Al-Qaeda suspect’s case isn’t too much of a priority to determine, and can easily wait another few weeks until Liam Byrne can bring himself to study the file.
For me at least, my twenty minutes in the Home Office this week summed up New Labour in power – the prioritisation of short-term media opportunities over important issues of national security. Just a small incident, but sadly illustrative of a far wider phenomenon.
Daniel Kawczynski MP has added his thoughts on the matter below