It was in Hamlet (Act I, Scene IV) that Shakespeare recanted that there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark”. His statement would appear to retain common currency in today’s society, especially within the echelons of Britain’s immigration service. Or so would be the case if we were to believe the views of Margaret, Countess of Mar: an independent peer in the House of Lords with one of the oldest hereditary titles in the country. After twenty-one years as a non-legal member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal she controversially resigned calling the entire system an utter shambles. So, I asked for her “warts and all” view of the system which she was all too eager to tell.
Countess Mar was born Margaret Alison Lane on the 19th September 1940, the daughter of James Lane, Master of Mar and the Heir Presumptive of Lionel Erskine-Young, 28th Earl of Mar. In light of the families rights to the hereditary title of Mar they formally changed their name in 1959 to “Mar”. It is apparently all about presentation. In 1975 after her father’s death she became the 31st holder of the Earldom of Mar. The Earldom itself being “one of the 7 original Princedoms of Scotland going back into the mists of antiquity”.
Alexander I of Scotland awarded the title in around 1114 when the titles were Normanised. Apparently before then they were the MorMares of Mar. As such the Earldom is one of the oldest titles in the House of Lords. “My family tree goes back to 350 AD”. This in itself causes a considerable degree of responsibility and pressure.
“Well it is quite a lot to have on top of your shoulders.” Something, which the present incumbent seems very capable of handling.
In 1999 the House of Lords Act set about reforming the House and in particular reduced dramatically the number of hereditary peers permitted to sit in the Upper chamber to ninety-two. In a bow to democracy an election was called in the Upper House to determine which ninety-two Peers would be permitted to stay. Countess Mar topped the poll. “I was so surprised that I was struck dumb. I lost my voice. Totally. It just disappeared. In seconds. It was extraordinary. I was so overcome with emotion that I just could not speak, so I got on a train and came home. Because all sorts of people wanted to speak to me and you know I just could not.” She was unable to speak for two days!
But she is speaking now.
“The [immigration] system is crazy. It is nothing to do with merit or upholding a fair immigration policy. It is just an expensive, legalistic game that undermines the integrity of our borders and our judiciary, making a mockery of any concept of public service.”
Strong words indeed. Lady Mar, a cross bench peer is a Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords and Vice President of the association representing tribunal members. She has been married three times “it took me a long time to find the right one, but I have got him now and I have been married to him for nearly twenty-five years”. In the last few years she was paid £242 a day for sitting on the Tribunal and as such I enquired as to what attracted her to the role of immigration in 1985?
“Not having anything to do on Tuesday mornings”
“Well it was Lord Pitt of Plumstead who got me started. He was the first black Peer to sit in the Lords and we became friends. I was talking to him about things to do and he said that he had got a friend who was a member of the Immigration Tribunal and that well they had some vacancies”
Gosh you just can not beat a system of checks and balances.
“So I said right, I will write a letter to the Lord Chancellor. Which I did. I was then invited to an interview with the then President (of the Tribunal) David Neave at Thanet House at the top of the Strand and I was duly appointed.”
Well at least there was an interview.
“It was a very funny interview. It was just a cup of coffee and a chat, really. None of these tests and things.”
Yes I see. I think (and rather hope) it is a little more stretching these days. But at least there was training…
“My training consisted of sitting on a wing for a day. No formal training. You learnt as you went along. You have also got to remember that life was much simpler in those days.”
“We did not have asylum cases as such and our decisions were based on good sense and I think that that is where things have gone wrong. The law has taken over too much and there have been many occasions where I have felt unhappy about decisions that we have had to make because they have had to be made on a point of law and not the basis of good, sound sense, I would not say common-sense, because sense is not common.”
Alright, but what do you mean by saying that law has become too involved? Because obviously lawyers would say that having the “law involved” is good and proper.
“Well of course it is. It gives them bloody employment…sorry. It gives them employment. No. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.”
By all means please do.
“We had an example of an Iranian chap, a young man who was doing his National Service in Iran. The practice there was for the Mullahs to have some of these National Servicemen as chauffeurs and general dog bodies. It was described through the papers that he had been put through some horrendous homosexual experiences. He was not a homosexual himself but he had been chained to a bed and assaulted. Now to my knowledge of these people, gained over twenty-one years, is that they are extremely reluctant to talk about things like these unless they are true. They do not want that stamp homosexual on them. This is the Middle East generally. And his description was so vivid that it had to be true.”
Well it sounds terrible.
“Now the Adjudicator said that it was too lurid and that he must have made it up. But I do not think that a young man in his position would have made up those things and the Appeal was made not on that point but on the basis that his father had been a member of the Communist Party and that he was therefore entitled to asylum simply because of his father’s activities in the Communist Party and that he would have an implied membership of the Communist Party. Now that was the only point of law on which the Appeal was made so from a point of law, we could only hear the Appeal on the basis of this Communist business. And not on the basis that Adjudicator got the rest of the story wrong…”
“So his Appeal was dismissed. So if we had been allowed to use our sense, our good sense that Appeal would probably have been allowed on the basis of what had happened to him and the fact he was going back to those same Mullahs”.
So is part of your complaint that fact that the law tightens your hand too much?
“Yes it does not allow us to exercise good, sound sense!”
Well we will come back to the law and lawyers in a moment. I understand that there has been a somewhat dramatic change in the actual system during the past twenty years or so.
“Yes. We dealt mainly with cases of bogus marriages, deportations on grounds of criminal or other undesirable behaviour and children brought here under false pretences, usually by other migrants masquerading as the child’s ‘family’.
So not generally asylum seekers?
“Well I only saw one asylum case between 1985 and 1992. But you see the people who used to come in and claim asylum were generally the intelligentsia of a country. The teachers, the doctors and they would I assume be given asylum at the first stage by the Home Secretary. So they would have no needs to appeal.”
But the system of the Tribunals was presumably efficient?
“Oh, it was run in a sort of happy muddle. I think that this is the trouble. It sort of grew from nothing. The Immigration Tribunal only came into being in 1971 and it just sort of grew, like Topsy. There was not any planned system. Just a happy muddle.”
So pretty much like England full stop.
“I think that that is the way generally. Until somebody tries to encapsulate it into a book of some sort.”
And post 1992?
“We suddenly started getting all these asylum cases and we realised that a lot of them were the other end of the scale from the intelligentsia.”
What do you mean?
“I do not want to be rude, but the bottom of the pile. The labourers and people; let me give you an example. The people from Sri Lanka who said that they were escaping from the civil war in that country. Now normally speaking civil war is not a reason for claiming asylum. Because you are not being picked on in particular.”
“Well it is happening to everybody in your country. But they would come with these extraordinary stories and we sort of cottoned on quite soon that they had all been through Elephant Pass and they had all dug bunkers for the Tamil Tigers and they had all got an Uncle in Colombo who knew an agent. The stories were so similar that it was clear that they were being tutored. And then eventually when you got people to talk a bit, they would admit that they had had to pay between £4,000 and £8,000, which meant selling Mummy’s jewellery and Granny’s jewellery as well, to get there. We had thousands of Sri Lankan cases”
And how did you feel by all of this?
“I found it all very sad. Because they had been conned by these blooming agents into coming over here. They had been through terrible hardships. They had been made to tell these stories, many of which were not entirely true. For example, we went throughphase when it was decided that anyone who had scars would be stopped at Colombo airport, so they produced scars. We had one girl who produced sort of plastic scars for photographing and when you actually looked at it, there was not a scar there. They would pretend because they thought that that would get them through!”
“And the fact that out system was such that we were making them fabricate stories I found dreadful. The agents knew that if they could get these people into this country; they could probably stay here for four, five, six years or forever, as many of them have.”
So do reforms work?
“Every time we tighten up things, it is just a sticking plaster job. It is not looked at why are all these people coming here? You know John Reid (the Home Secretary) blithely says ‘Oh, it is ever since the Cold War stopped and there have been these huge changes.’ But it is not! The Eastern European influx is, but the rest is not. Most of it is the sheer grinding poverty that these people have to live in, and if they can get away from it, to somewhere better, then they will. It is natural. And these people are in fact the enterprising ones.”
So John Reid has got it all wrong then?
“I think that the rot began in 1992 when the Conservative government severely restricted the use of temporary work permits for immigrants. So those who wanted to work or settle here had to seek alternative avenues.”
And the consequences of this?
“It created a vast immigration industry, complete with false documentation, bogus claims of asylum and an army of lawyers and advisers depending for their living on processing applications. The Home Office has been struggling to cope ever since. The Home Office is so badly mismanaged and politically misdirected; staff morale is at an all-time low which only feeds the cycle of chaos. The Labour government have made the problems even worse, in part through the removal in 1998 of embarkation controls – so they do not have a clue how many people are leaving the country and how many are here legally - partly though the cutback on immigration control staff and of course the Human Rights Act.”
You mentioned agents a few moments ago?
“The agents know how to get into this country and they are exploiting their own people. They come through to Heathrow and they never go through Immigration Control themselves because they dump their poor “bodies” just before Immigration Control and they themselves go back into the Departure Lounge and get on to the next plane home. So the “bodies” are left with no papers. And then they go through the Appeals process and they try to drag this on as long as possible and many simply disappear into the system. Lost, forgotten, here.”
But how do you know this?
“They tell us! After all many had no reason to lie to us. When we are going to throw them out anyway, they will tell us. For example, the Sudanese would pay the agents something like five thousand dollars to get into the country. The Sri Lankans between four and eight thousand pounds. In the long run for many this is cheap, especially as the sheer, grinding poverty that these people come from. If they can get away from it, to somewhere better, then they will. It is natural. And these people in fact are the enterprising ones.”
And your thoughts on the subject of lawyers?
“They are bleeding the legal aid system by sending bundles of papers in (with regard to Appeal hearings) to us, which are sometimes three, four or five inches thick and each sheet has cost so many pence to photocopy which has gone on to the Legal Aid bill. In every single case you would just have the same bundle of papers, more or less, with a few bits added or taken away.”
Well not wanting to overly defend my colleagues, but presumably the lawyers would respond by saying ‘we have to provide you with all the documents to support our client’s case or we are not doing our job properly.’”
“Yes but there is a limit on the number of documents and they know damned well that there is a limit on the number of documents anyone can read. So if their client has a good case the lawyer will send a small bundle which is very appropriate. If it is a rubbish case then the large bundle. It is somewhat generalised but you can often guarantee that the more paper the less basis for a claim.”
So not a big fan of lawyers then?
“We do get some very good lawyers on behalf of their clients, but we get some who are clearly in it just for the Legal Aid. They are clearly trying to get as much as they can out of the system.”
But her ultimate condemnation lies with the Home Office and with the government.
“I fear it [the Immigration Service] will remain a farce and I no longer want to be a part of it.”
Countess Mar is exceptionally cynical of the immigration process, but perhaps with good reason. She believes that the “British people deserve better” and blames government (both Blue and Red) of being too “addicted to gimmickry and empty slogans”. The past twenty one years working within the system has provided her with a unique opportunity to speak honesty, openly and without fear of condemnation. Not only is she a Peer of the realm but perhaps more importantly she is an ordinary individual with nothing to gain, but an opportunity through rank, nobility and common sense a right to be listened to. She will I imagine be referred to by many as a crank; an unelected peer out of touch with any real constituents. That may well be the case. But for a generation she has been at the heart of Britain’s immigration system. She has been able to inspect it both from the inside and from Parliament. She has found system to be not only on the brink of collapse but in such apparent maladministration that our society could be in jeopardy. It is correct that she lost her voice once. Not again. If there is to be a debate on the future of our borders and our immigration policy then the Countess may well be prepared to speak for the silent majority.