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17 Apr 2002 : Column 674

Alban Gashi

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

10 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of Alban Gashi. I raise it in two contexts: first, the injustice that I believe has been perpetrated on an individual constituent and, secondly, the Government's policy on deportations and removals.

I begin with the constituent's case. Alban Gashi arrived in this country in February 1998. On the same day, he applied for asylum. He was a single Kosovan. I do not complain that the merits of his case were not justly considered, or that his application was eventually rejected. That is not the point of this complaint.

More than two years after Mr. Gashi's application, the Home Office arrived at the conclusion that it should be refused. During those two years, he lived in Maidstone in my constituency. He had a stable address in a local vicarage, the vicarage of St. Michael and All Angels. He had a stable job interpreting for West Kent magistrates court.

The reason why I rehearse those facts is that there is no doubt that, from day one until his removal, Mr. Gashi's whereabouts were known to the authorities, and he pursued lawfully the correct processes of an asylum application.

Mr. Gashi appealed against the refusal. Again, I do not wish to rehearse the merits of his appeal but it is common ground between me and the Home Office that the appeal was received, considered and in February 2001 rejected.

Allegedly, notification was then sent to Mr. Gashi that his appeal had been refused, and giving him the opportunity—it is a crucial point—to appeal beyond that to a tribunal; but in order to appeal to the tribunal, he had to receive notification of the refusal of the appeal and to comply with time requirements. He never received notification.

It is not unfamiliar for Members of Parliament to hear people claim that they have not received this or that inconvenient document that was sent to them through the post by the Government, but this case is different for two reasons. First, Mr. Gashi was resident in the vicarage. The priest, whom I know well, has confirmed that throughout that time he, the priest, got all the post, as he has always done. He was the first to see the post and would have known whether anything had come. However, way beyond that, and more importantly, Mr. Gashi began to wonder, as did the priest, why he had not heard anything.

In July, with the assistance of the priest, Mr. Gashi wrote to the Home Office giving his address as the vicarage, stating again that he was working with West Kent magistrates court. Again, his whereabouts were well known. No reply was received to his letter.

That letter should have alerted the Home Office to the fact that Mr. Gashi had not received notice that his appeal had been turned down. After all, there was no other purpose in his writing that letter with his address on it telling everyone where he was. There was no reply to that. Twice more, Mr. Gashi—and the priest confirms this not from belief but from personal knowledge—telephoned the

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Home Office with the help of the priest to ask what was happening to his appeal. On both occasions, he was told, "Don't worry, it's in the system." Because from the Home Office point of view Mr. Gashi had not appealed against the rejection of the independent adjudicator, the Home Office decided that he was removable.

I should say here and now that, although I take severe exception to the way in which my constituent was dealt with, I have had absolute courtesy from the Minister of State, Home Office, Lord Rooker, who has made himself available to me throughout this case, and who indeed did me the courtesy of sending me a copy of the envelope involved in the case. All that the envelope shows is that a postman ticked a box which said that the addressee had gone away. Mr. Gashi had never gone away. He was notifying the Home Office almost monthly that he was still at his address and waiting for a result. There was never any question of his having gone away.

On the basis that the appeal documents had been correctly served—which clearly they had not—Lord Rooker decided that the removal should go ahead. That is a gross injustice. When it became apparent that Mr. Gashi's repeated requests of the Home Office for a resolution had been ignored, and that if the Home Office had responded to those requests it would have been clear that there had been confusion about the serving of the rejection of the appeal, the clock should have started running again and he should have been able to appeal to a tribunal had he so decided.

Mr. Gashi seems to have been a very sensible man. He arrived in this country when the situation in Kosovo was anything but settled. He arrived at a stable address, he took stable work and decided not to appeal on the grounds of human rights because in his view that was a waste of time.

Mr. Gashi was contacted by the Home Office in January. Home Office representatives said that they would like to come to see him. That was a rather coy expression. He thought that they were coming to see him at long last to respond to his various representations, either to ask him further questions or to give him some result. Instead, when he opened the door, there were two policemen and an immigration officer. He was arrested on the spot and subsequently removed. I believe that to be profoundly wrong. As I say, I shall not argue about the merits of the case or that I have not had due access to Ministers. I argue that that constituent was appallingly treated.

There is a larger dimension to this matter, however. I have often said that this Government are ineffective about the number of removals from this country, and that one of the biggest magnets to those who abuse our asylum system—as opposed to magnets for those who go lawfully through the processes—is the ease with which one can disappear in this country. Because we have no identity cards and, thank God, we do not have an oppressive police force carrying out raids and checks every five minutes, it is very easy to disappear into our black economy.

The Government have responded by saying that they have set themselves an ambitious target for removals. This case shows that they are up to an old trick. I do not even say that it is exclusive to this Government. By going for all the soft targets, they can bump up the numbers and ignore the really serious cases. So, instead of looking for

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those who have disappeared and trying to track down those who have failed to report, this Government are turning up on the doorsteps of people who are known to the authorities; who have a stable address and a stable job; who are complying with every procedure with which they have ever been asked to comply; and who are reporting on every occasion on which they have been asked to report, because it is easy to roll up and arrest them and say, "Lo and behold, a removal."

There was no need for a removal in this case because Mr. Gashi was known, and would have left the country when asked. Indeed, when the time came for him to go, he turned down the opportunity of a judicial review and the opportunity to appeal on human rights grounds, because he is a sensible man.

I have another case—of which I cannot give details because it is not the job of Members of Parliament to make representations against their constituents—on which I made muted representations to Ministers. I shall not give the name of the person involved, but he came to the notice of the authorities when he was detained for a criminal offence, of which he was subsequently convicted. He failed to report, abandoned his appeal and was then detained. When I made muted representations about that—remarking to my staff, "The Minister will look at that and laugh"—I was appalled to learn that my constituent had been released. However, Mr. Gashi, who has done nothing wrong and who stuck to all the procedures, was arrested and deported. Whatever sort of lunatic sense of priorities is that?

I say to the Minister, first that Mr. Gashi was badly treated; and, secondly, that it is easy to bump up removal figures if one goes for soft targets. Members of Parliament should be alerted by this case to the way in which those removal figures are being calculated. Thirdly, I advocate a situation in which all new applicants are routinely held in secure reception centres and all treated equally. However, the Government seem to have some odd criteria by which to pick and choose who to release and who to deport. I am grateful for the way in which the Minister's colleagues have dealt with the matter and I look forward to hearing her reply.

10.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I note the issues that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has raised about the case of Mr. Alban Gashi. I would like to set out the essential background to the case.

Mr. Gashi entered the United Kingdom illegally on 3 February 1998. He was detected by immigration officers at Dover, along with 20 other illegal entrants, in the back of a lorry that had just disembarked from a ferry from Calais. When Mr. Gashi was interviewed he claimed that he had come to the United Kingdom because he was fleeing persecution in his own country. He was given temporary release by the immigration service while his asylum claim was processed.

On 3 April 1998, Mr. Gashi's legal representatives submitted a five-page signed statement setting out the basis of his claim to asylum in the United Kingdom. That included claims about his treatment between 1995 and 1998 at the hands of the authorities in his home country. Inquiries carried out by the Home Office, under the

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provisions of the Dublin convention, revealed that Mr. Gashi in fact had applied for asylum in Belgium on 7 November 1994, his application being refused on 23 October 1997—he had been free to remain in Belgium during that period. Mr. Gashi made no mention of claiming asylum in Belgium in his five-page, signed, written statement to the Home Office of 3 April 1998.

Mr. Gashi was asked to attend for interview in Croydon with regard to his asylum claim on 10 May 2000. The letter inviting him was also sent to his legal representative. Mr. Gashi failed to attend the interview or to provide subsequently a reason for his failure to attend. His asylum claim was considered on the basis of all the available information before the Home Office, and refused in a letter dated 19 May 2000. In the letter refusing his claim for asylum, it was noted that

Mr. Gashi's legal representatives lodged an in-time appeal against the decision to refuse him asylum.

Mr. Gashi was notified by the Immigration Appellate Authority that his appeal had been listed for substantive hearing on 7 November 2000. He appeared on the day, but informed the special adjudicator that his representative had informed him that morning that she could not attend due to a family bereavement. The adjudicator adjourned the appeal hearing until 19 December 2000, when there would be a pre-hearing to ascertain whether Mr. Gashi and his representative were ready to proceed. The special adjudicator asked Mr. Gashi to arrange for his legal representatives to fax the IAA to explain why they had not attended the appeal hearing.

Mr. Gashi faxed the IAA on 12 December 2000, seven days before the re-arranged hearing, to say that he had been unable to get in touch with his legal representative and that three other legal representatives that he had approached had declined to take on his case. He said that he had approached two other reputable organisations with the same result, though he then went on to note that one of these organisations would be able to deal with his case after January 2001. He asked that the pre-hearing scheduled for 9 December be put back to February 2001.

The IAA then received a fax from Mr. Gashi's legal representatives on 18 December 2000 to the effect that he had informed them that he wished to represent himself at the appeal hearing on 19 December, and that they were no longer representing him. At the pre-hearing on 19 December, the appeal was set for substantive hearing on 5 February 2001.

The appeal went ahead on 5 February 2001, with Mr. Gashi representing himself. He gave evidence and made a submission to the special adjudicator, relying upon his earlier statement but admitting that he had claimed asylum in Belgium.

In his written determination dismissing Mr. Gashi's appeal, the special adjudicator made the finding that

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Mr. Gashi had therefore failed to make his case for being granted refugee status in the United Kingdom. Consideration was also given by the Home Office as to whether he should have been granted leave to remain in the UK exceptionally. The right hon. Lady will know that that ground is exceptional and that rarely do single men qualify.

The written determination was promulgated by the IAA by first-class post on 8 February 2001. A copy of the determination was sent to the address given by Mr. Gashi at his appeal hearing. The right hon. Lady has said that he lived at that address in a stable way for two years. The determination was returned to the IAA by the Royal Mail with the words "Not at this address" written on the envelope in biro, and with a Royal Mail sticker marked "Addressee has gone away."

The Royal Mail has confirmed that a first-class letter would be delivered to the address shown unless a person at the address told the postman when he tried to deliver it that the person did not live there. The postman would then write on the envelope that the person was not at that address and return the envelope to the sorting office and attach the Royal Mail sticker, thereby returning the envelope to the sender.

Alternatively the postman would have delivered the letter and someone at the address marked the envelope to show that the person did not live there, and then returned it to the Royal Mail, which would again attach its sticker and return the envelope to the sender. Either way, it seems extremely odd that Mr. Gashi resided at the address before the determination was posted to him and was picked up subsequently by the immigration service, as the right hon. Lady has said, at the same address after non-receipt of the letter, the Royal Mail having been informed that he did not live there.

On 10 January 2002, Mr. Gashi was picked up by members of the immigration service and detained at the Port of Dover detention centre.

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