Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 06/07/2003)

Blunkett revives transportation to Australia
Car seizure flouts EU law
Reprieve for Scilly flights
Bitter pill to swallow

Blunkett revives transportation to Australia

The strange case of the Australian wife of an Englishman who has been served with a deportation order by the Home Office highlights the increasingly bizarre world of Britain's immigration rules as they come under the dictates of the European Union.

Britain has acccepted that next May any of the 73 million citizens of the 10 entrant countries to the EU will be free to live and work in the UK, enjoying full rights to social security, health care and education. Yet Kim Lee, who has worked in Britain for several years and now runs a pub in Beckenham, Kent, with her English husband, Craig, whom she married in 2001, has been told she is to be deported to Australia because she is living here "unlawfully". Further, the Secretary of State, David Blunkett, sees no reason why her husband should not be exiled to live in Australia with her.

Kim Lee came to Britain from Brisbane six years ago on a working visa and made a successful career as a manager in a hotel chain. In 2001 she became engaged to Craig, a computer expert working in Surrey. They flew out to Australia to introduce him to her parents before the wedding, due to take place in Kent just before Christmas. Kim's mistake was to return to Britain via Dublin and to resume work when her permit, which can only be issued once, had expired.

In March 2002, when she applied for permission to remain in Britain as the wife of a UK citizen, the Home Office's Nationality and Immigration Service in Lunar House, Croydon (motto: "Building a just, safe and tolerant society") asked for the couple's passports. In October, when Craig needed his passport for business purposes, he was subjected to a Kafka-esque series of delays and excuses until it was finally returned.

There was no answer to Kim's application until Friday, June 27, when she received a recorded delivery letter from Lunar House, dated June 20, which said that her application had been refused on the grounds that she was living in Britain unlawfully and would be forcibly deported at public expense. She was given 10 days from the date of the letter to appeal against the order, but in effect she had only three days, including a Saturday and Sunday, in which to appeal.

The letter does not explain why she is thought to be living in Britain unlawfully (this is merely conveyed by a tick box, and the Home Office will not discuss individual cases). It says the Secretary of State would normally grant leave for her to remain if he was "satisfied that the marriage is genuine and subsisting" (no reason is given why he seems to doubt this).

The letter continues "although your spouse is a British citizen, the Secretary of State believes that Mr Lee could be reasonably expected to live in Australia", and offers to fly him there at public expense - because "it is the view of the Secretary of State that any interference with your family and/ or private life is necessary . . . to the wider interest of the maintenance of an effective immigration policy".

It is hard to believe that, if he was personally confronted with the details of this case, Mr Blunkett would be able to explain why two hard-working people should be forced to live in Australia in this way, when he has just agreed to allow 73 million more EU citizens to live here if they wish.

Mr and Mrs Lee's neighbour and MEP Nigel Farage last week wrote the Secretary of State a letter to that effect. He adds: "I look forward to Mr Blunkett's prompt response that he wishes humanity and common sense to prevail."

Car seizure flouts EU law

Fritz Bolkestein, the European Commissioner for taxation in the internal market, should investigate the curious experience of Raymond Taylor, a warehouseman from Pontefract, Yorkshire, who on May 28 drove to Calais with a friend, Paul Baxter, "for a treat", to buy some cheap tobacco, beer and wine for their own use.

They arrived at customs at midnight with 200 cigarettes, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of whisky, 15 cartons of beer, five cases of wine, a few months' supply of loose tobacco and 150 cigarillos, a free gift from a hypermarket. After being waved through by French customs, they were kept waiting for two hours by British officials, then subjected separately to an hour-and-a-half interrogation. Each was asked 15 "yes or no" questions on a checklist, allowing no explanation or qualification. If three or more answers did not tally, they would be deemed guilty of smuggling for profit.

When their answers failed the test, all the goods and their Rover car were confiscated. They were escorted to England on the 5.22am shuttle, dropped at Folkestone bus station without any money and - thanks only to Mr Taylor's credit card - got home seven hours later. Since then Mr Taylor and his wife, who must leave home for work at 5am, have borrowed a friend's car to make the journey, but last Friday they had to return it.

The relevance of Mr Bolkestein to all this is that a recent letter from his office records how the Commission last year took legal proceedings against the UK government for its "disproportionate" seizures of private cars, flouting the EU law that people are entitled to make such purchases of alcohol and tobacco for their own use. "UK guidelines which entered force on December 1, 2002," the letter continued, show that the UK has "alleviated" its policy, and "the flow of complaints" from travellers "has almost dried up".

As Mr Taylor's experience confirms, Mr Bolkestein has clearly been misled. He should act accordingly.

Reprieve for Scilly flights

On May 25 I reported how Britain's only scheduled helicopter service, on which the Scilly Isles depend for survival, seemed doomed by a proposed EU regulation compelling airlines to pay up to #415 in "delayed boarding" compensation to any traveller who cannot be given a seat booked at the scheduled time. Because British International's Scilly Isles shuttle service is reliant on two helicopters, which may sometimes be delayed for mechanical repairs or safety checks, the regulation as interpreted by Britain's Civil Aviation Authority would force it out of business.

When the directive was last week approved by the European Parliament, no one pointed out that an inevitable consequence will be to raise air fares for everyone. But at least - thanks to a sudden alliance between the UK Independence Party and Labour MEPs, which the Conservatives failed to join - a solution to the Scilly Isles problem was suggested to the Brussels transport commissioner, Loyola de Palacio.

Despite the CAA's interpretation of the regulation, she promised MEPs Mark Watts and Graham Booth that she would consider an amendment exempting the Scillonian service, as a "social carrier". Not for the first time the Commission was embarrassed to discover over-zealous UK officials wanting to use its laws to destroy British businesses in a way it never intended.

Bitter pill to swallow

Lord Warner, the Government's spokesman on pharmaceutical issues, was forced to defend the EU's Food Supplements Directive last week. New "safety tests" are required, costing billions of pounds, which will force thousands of food and vitamin supplements, used by 40 per cent of the population, off the shelves. Peers had voted 132 to 79 against Britain having to accept legislation which the Government told them was wholly unnecessary (since the safety of these products is already upheld by British law).

Now that the UK has been overruled by Brussels, the Government must obey, and ministers such as Lord Warner must argue the precise opposite of their previous case. The best the poor man could offer was that Britain will not have to put this nonsensical law into effect until 2010.

When people talk about "losing our sovereignty" it can sound remote and abstract. What it means in practice is that our politicians agree to obey laws which they themselves oppose as being against our interests. The Food Supplements Directive is the latest chilling example.