'Nothing has changed at the Home Office' - the SNP’s Alison Thewliss on battling Scotland’s 'biggest immigration caseload'
Alison Thewliss’s constituency office deals with the highest immigration caseload in Scotland. For the Glasgow Central MP, that often means a complex dance with one of Whitehall’s biggest departments. Thewliss tells Matt Foster why she believes there is “no humanity” at the Home Office
Alison Thewliss didn't get into politics to fight the Home Office. But the Glasgow Central MP – who has been told that she deals with the highest immigration caseload of any MP in Scotland or Northern Ireland – could speak for hours about the agonising cases that come through her door from constituents with nowhere else to turn.
“One of the very first cases that I dealt with – before we had the office set up – was a young couple who came to our surgery,” she tells The House. “The woman was pregnant and they told me she wanted to get her mother over to be with her during the last bit of the pregnancy. And it emerged during the course of that conversation that maybe the pregnancy was not going to go well.
“She’d applied for a visitor visa for her mum to come over: that was refused. The baby was born. She applied again for the visitors’ visa. It was knocked back. And then the baby died. She applied again for the visitors’ visa – and was knocked back for a third time. All she wanted was for her mum to be there. That’s all she wanted – it’s not a big ask."
The SNP MP says she has spent a significant chunk of the past four years trying to help constituents navigate Britain's complex immigration system. She's supported by a team of five staff in her Glasgow office, and tells us that "most of them" have had to support people who have been "treated terribly" by the Home Office.
One of the most maddening aspects, she says, is an apparent lack of consistency in the way the department makes immigration decisions – prompting many of those seeking help to ask her staff: “What’s wrong with me?”
The MP recalls: "One couple came in and their Home Office letter had pretty much said because they don’t have any family here, because they don’t have any children here, it’s fine for them to go back to that country and make a life. They said, 'well, would it make a difference if we had kids?
"The next couple that came into see me had kids that were born here. And the Home Office said, 'Ah, because your kids are very young they won’t know the difference and they can go back and live there.' So it doesn’t matter. The Home Office will find excuses to refuse people again and again."
In many of the more emotive cases, Thewliss says, MPs can only “write letters to the Home Office" and make a plea for compassion, a strategy that sometimes works.
For others, a blast of media attention can do the trick – but even then, she says, it’s ad hoc – and the sheer number of cases her office deals with means Thewliss could be “passing them on every day of the week”. And she adds: “Not everybody wants to have their stories all over the media.”
MPs are also, she says, in the difficult position of being unable to give out legal advice to their constituents. Meanwhile the Home Office will not deal with lawyers representing immigration clients, instead opting for direct contact with the people affected.
That means Thewliss’s office can find itself in a complex dance with the department, teaming up with lawyers to try and glean answers from an arm of Whitehall which she believes intentionally makes it “as hard as possible for people to come in here”.
“You’ve got lawyers getting in touch going: ‘we can’t find out what’s happening in this case, can you find out?’ So we’re a kind of clearing house for those kind of things,” she says. “If the Home Office dealt with lawyers directly that would be much more helpful, because that would just take away that small but annoying bit of casework that we have to do all the time – just trying to find out for lawyers what’s happened with their case.”
Home secretaries of all political stripes have long argued that they are on the side of the British public in taking a tough stance on immigration. At the height of the Windrush scandal last year, Theresa May, herself a former occupant of Marsham Street, told MPs: “It isn’t fair that people who work hard day-in-day-out, who contribute to this country, who put into the life of this country, are seeing people who are here illegally accessing services in the same way.” But despite a marked shift in tone from current Home Secretary Sajid Javid since the outcry over the so-called ‘hostile environment’, Thewliss is adamant: “Nothing has changed.”
“For the people that are coming through my door at the surgery, my experience is that, if anything, things are getting worse.” While she acknowledges sentiment on immigration in the country is mixed, the Glasgow Central MPs believes voters have an abiding sense of fairness which is not being reflected in the current set-up, which is all too often slow, bureaucratic and seemingly arbitrary.
"People don't understand why the state is treating them like this"
She is increasingly concerned about the way other the parts of the British state, including the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions, are being pulled into immigration enforcement. It's a trend she warns is “conspiring against people getting on with their daily lives”, and creeping into the private sector with policies like the new Home Office requirement to establish a tenant’s right to rent. “A policy that says, well unless you can prove your immigration status you won’t be able to rent property has in fact meant landlords are just not going to rent to people who don’t look like British people, which is ridiculous,” she warns.
Thewliss adds: “I’ve got people who have found it easier to go to Spain and meet their family in Spain rather than bringing their family to Glasgow. So you’ve got two sets of people who would rather meet somewhere else rather than just have one person travelling to the UK. That’s what people are doing now.”
The SNP MP says her party is currently pushing “very hard” to try and convince the Home Office to allow asylum seekers to work while they await a decision on their status. It’s a move she argues would make hard-headed economic sense as well as demonstrating compassion for people who may be fleeing persecution, war and torture back home.
“These are people that do have skills and who would love to work, instead of just sitting and waiting, trying to pass the days," she argues. "That’s something we’ve called for quite strongly, for Glasgow at the very least to be allowed to be a pilot area for that.”
But Thewliss is clear that a much broader cultural shift is needed to stop the seemingly endless stream of immigration cases that land at her door.
“I just see people that don’t understand why the state is treating them like that," she says. "You see people absolutely broken and despondent and on very heavy medication because they can’t cope. And when you see folk like that, and you see people who are not allowed to be with their family and you see people who just want to have a life and not have to have that stress – that’s when you just feel there’s no humanity in this system.”