By Dave Stamp
It’s that time of the year, and once again people are getting ready to traipse the streets of Birmingham to raise money to support projects, like ASIRT, seeking justice for people otherwise denied it, a situation which has become ever worse since cuts lo the legal aid system last April.
A team of us will be walking to raise money to support ASIRT’s work, trying to make sure that the project can carry on into 2015 fighting on behalf of people like ‘Katrina’. She and her young son were referred to the project by colleagues in another voluntary organisation, concerned by the destitution into which the family had been placed.
Katrina had been granted permission to remain in the UK for two and a half years, having claimed asylum from her country of origin. She had then made an application for further leave to remain, around six weeks before the original period granted to her was due to expire.
As we have written before [ Needs Relinking], the Immigration Rules make it plain that no-one in this situation should be regarded as an immigration offender or an ‘overstayer’ purely on the basis of factors beyond their control- such as Home Office delays in processing such applications. The previous period of permission to remain in the UK should, therefore, be considered to continue up until the day on which the Home Office makes a decision on any new application.
Time and again, however, we see these rules disregarded, with people being consigned to destitution with potentially catastrophic effect.
On the day Katrina came to see us, she had £10 to her name, and no way of knowing when she might receive a further payment to ensure that she would be in a position to feed her child. She told us that she had telephoned an advisor at the Department for Work and Pensions on the previous day, to be told that she was no longer eligible for welfare benefits since she was no longer considered to be legally resident in the country.
We then telephoned the DWP on her behalf, to be told the very same thing. Remarkably, as we tried to advocate on Katrina’s behalf and to rectify the error being made, we were told that ‘there is no point quoting the law at me.’ We then asked to speak to the DWP advisor’s manager, who again reiterated the entirely false claim that Katrina would not be eligible to further welfare benefits payments unless and until she received a positive decision on her application for renewal.
Given the urgency of the situation in which Katrina and her child had been placed, ASIRT had little option other than to write to the DWP threatening to take her case to Judicial Review unless action was taken to reinstate the payments to which she was legally entitled within 2 days ( a timescale which, incredibly, the DWP initially challenged on the basis that a mother left with £10 to feed her child for an indefinite period was not considered to be an ‘exceptional circumstance’).
Gratifyingly, within 48 hours Katrina did indeed receive a phonecall advising her that her payments had been reinstated and that a sum of money- including back-pay- was to deposited in her account that day.
Some days later, ASIRT received a written response from the DWP, apologising for any inconvenience caused to our service user, but claiming that her benefit payments had never been terminated, but were instead under ‘review’. According to the letter, DWP staff were aware that Katrina’s period of leave to remain had come to an end, and ‘required evidence’ that she had made an application for further leave- evidence which had been satisfactorily provided along with our original correspondence.
This was a fascinating claim to make, primarily because the DWP had never, at any point, simply asked Katrina if she had made a new application to remain in the country, and on the 2 occasions she had tried to demonstrate that she had, she was told that it was irrelevant. We have asked for a copy of the DWP’s internal policy instruction on this situation. Some 3 weeks later, we are still waiting for this, raising the distinct possibility that no such guidance actually exists.
All of this, of course, takes place not only against a backdrop in which the Home Secretary has declared her intention to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants such as Katrina, but also during a period of austerity, in which the Government repeatedly proclaims the necessity of trimming the welfare budget. Numerous reports have suggested that, as a consequence of this, DWP staff are actively being encouraged to terminate support payments on the flimsiest of pretexts [ http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/stitching-up-claimants-part-job-says-3537051#ixzz31gnbFlVo ].
Whether or not Katrina was the unfortunate victim of such a fundamentally ideological cost-cutting drive, it is of course impossible to say. Nevertheless, we consider it axiomatic that decisions affecting people’s lives and made on behalf of state agencies, should actually be informed by the law, and that the people seeking to defend such decisions should not feel able to act outside of the law, or to claim that ‘there is no point’ referring to what the law says when seeking to challenge such decisions.
Yet without the provision of active, competent and informed advocacy, no such challenges can be made. If Katrina had been unable to turn to ASIRT for quick and effective support, the likelihood is that she would be struggling to avoid destitution, and seeking destitution payments from numerous charitable organisations around the city. Her legal rights would, in other words, be entirely disregarded.
People like Katrina need agencies like ASIRT. Which returns us to where we began, with the Birmingham Legal Walk this evening. Please do support ASIRT’s team if you are able to.