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Visa 'fast track' row threatens to engulf Blunkett
The personal collides with the public
David Blunkett's private and public lives collided spectacularly over the weekend, putting his future ministerial career in peril at just about the worst possible moment. Security legislation from Blunkett's Home Office forms the centrepiece of the Government's programme for next year, and will be the central plank of its election campaign; if Blunkett goes on an integrity issue, Tony Blair himself will be dangerously exposed, and will be hard-put to find a replacement with the current Home Secretary's special talents.
Appropriately enough Blunkett's career stands or falls on an immigration matter, an issue that has obsessed him and his legislative programme. He is accused of abusing his position by fast-tracking a residency application for his mistress' nanny, and has responded to the allegation by conceding that he had checked that the application was in good order, and that the application had been processed normally, without his intervention. But there appears to be small small problem with this - the application does not seem to have been in good order.
A report published in today's Daily Mail cites two letters to the nanny, Leoncia "Luz" Casalme from the Home Office. The first (April 2003) said her application had been accepted as valid, but that processing could take up to a year, while the second, 19 days later, granted her application for indefinite leave to stay. The Mail points out that this leave was granted at least ten weeks before she was entitled to stay under the four year rule for foreign workers, but under current Immigration & Nationality Directorate rules it's doubtful that she would even have been entitled to apply.
In piecing together the chronology the Mail says that Casalme downloaded the application form from the Internet in April 2003, and showed it to her employer, Blunkett's then mistress Kimberly Quinn. IND procedures changed in August 2003 when it began charging for visa applications, but the current version of the form, Form SET (O), can be found here. Note that the page specifically states: "You may use this Form SET (O) to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom if you are within one month of completing the 4 year qualifying period".
Casalme arrived in the UK in July or August 1999, and would therefore be eligible for permanent residency in July or August 2003, and able to apply for it in June or July 2003. There is no obvious reason why she would have needed to apply for permanent residency in April, as her annually renewed visa quite clearly would not have expired until four years after she entered the country. The Home Secretary and the two civil servants in his office who according to the Mail looked the form over should therefore have said that the application was not in order, because it was being made too early. It is however possible that IND was accepting forms prior to the eligibility date on the basis that it had a major backlog of applications at the time, and that the date would likely have been passed by the time the form was processed. Speaking to the BBC earlier today, however, immigration lawyer Chris Randle said that while he'd have expected a form submitted at the right time to be dealt with quickly, he would not have expected one submitted early to be dealt with at all. Casalme's form, he speculated, seemed to have moved from the slow (first letter) pile to the fast one (second letter).
The consensus among immigration lawyers is that the granting of leave to stay early is highly unusual, generally only slightly early (not three months), and where discretion is exercised it is only done so by Ministers and senior civil servants. Presumably, for good and defensible reasons. The reason put forward by "friends of Mrs Quinn' is that the Quinn family wished to go on holiday to Ireland in August 2003, and that they wished to take the nanny. This date is possibly relevant, because Casalme's annual visa would have expired by the time of this trip, and she would have been eligible for indefinite leave to stay by then. So the Quinn's holiday plans become an issue. Did Casalme apply before knowing about them, and if so, why (given that she had no need to apply early)? Or, did Casalme apply early in order to fit in with the Quinn's holiday plans, and if so, what was it that Kimberly Quinn said to David Blunkett on passing him the form?
The Mail comes up with an alternative timescale based on the holiday question, which it attributes to the friends of Mrs Quinn. In this scenario, it was the first letter from IND warning of delays up to a year that may have prompted Quinn to ask Blunkett for help. Quinn is said to have kept the letter for 24 hours before handing it back to Casalme. There is no indication that she then did approach Blunkett, but Casalme's residency was granted 19 days later.
The "friends of Mrs Quinn" provide the specific allegation that Blunkett fast-tracked the application. The report that broke the story, in the Sunday Telegraph, attributes the claim to an email from Quinn to a friend, which said: "I have had Luz on the phone very tearful, saying that she had been contacted about the passport [visa] application that David fast-tracked for her . . . he's so paranoid he'll think it's me and try and nail me." The authenticity of the email has not been denied, but it could only be said to have established that Quinn thought that Blunkett had fast--tracked the application. Other material from "the friends" however claims that Blunkett sent an official car for the application (this has been denied by the Home Office) and that "After a few weeks, Ms Casalme put pressure on Mrs Quinn to find out when she was going to get her passport back." The "friends" say that Quinn rang Blunkett, who is claimed to have responded: "Look, she would never have got it if it hadn't been for me, so she should just shut up."
David Blunkett's response today was to confirm that the Mail letters were genuine, but to say that "they prove absolutely nothing except that we were moving through the process of fast tracking a very large number of documents prior to the process of charging for indefinite leave to remain." This seems implausible because (as the first letter indicated) IND had a very large backlog at the time, and because it would be unlikely to fast track a form for someone who was not yet eligible under those circumstances. If what Blunkett says is true, however, the Home Office should be able to point to a large number of applications (including early ones) that were processed speedily around April-May 2003.
A possible fallback position for Blunkett, the 'turbulent priest' defence, was floated by Tory Home Affairs spokesman David Davis this morning. If King Henry II loudly wonders "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" and then overzealous subordinates go off and murder Thomas à Becket, this is not necessarily entirely King Henry's fault. Similarly, David Blunkett's subordinates could have arranged matters regarding Casalme's residency if he'd simply moaned out loud about the hassle he was getting from Kimberly Quinn.
Which, if it's what the enquiry into the visa matter comes up with, is rather similar to the outcomes of other notable enquiries where Government Ministers have turned out not to be to blame, and where things (such as stupendously implausible, sexed-up WMD dossiers) seem to have just kind of happened. The enquiry set up under Sir Alan Budd (earlier today Tony Blair mispoke, describing Budd as "independable" before correcting himself, but we're cutting that one and keeping it) has the specifically narrow brief of examining only the visa matter, the idea being that if this one can be controlled then the various other allegations can be either fielded or ignored as not serious. For the record, however, these are as follows:
'Pillow talk' sharing security information: Blunkett appears to concede that he discussed a US security alert at Newark airport with Quinn, but claims that the information was already in the public domain at the time. He is also alleged to have given advance notice of police raids in Manchester - this does not appear to have been responded to.
Police protection Blunkett denies stationing a policeman outside Quinn's home during May Day demonstrations.
Free rail ticket Blunkett says he made a mistake in giving Quinn a spouse's rail ticket, and has now repaid the money (£180, to Doncaster). A complaint by a member of the public has set House of Commons enquiry procedures in motion on this.
Arranging US passport There has been no response to allegations that he pressured the US embassy to provide a temporary passport for Quinn's son, William Quinn, so that they could join him on holiday in May 2003.
Security on trip to Spain It is claimed that he took Kimberly Quinn and four security men and a driver to Spain for a wedding. Blunkett responds that the security men were already going to be in Spain.
Chauffeur trips Blunkett claims that trips for Quinn to his Derbyshire home by official car only took place when the car was already going there on official business.
DNA test Actually nobody seems to be alleging much about this one, but it interests us. It's claimed that Blunkett had a "covert" DNA test of Quinn's son, William Quinn, carried out in order to establish whether or not he was the father. A "non-consensual" test will become illegal under the Human Tissues Act 2004, but we think this particular test would have passed muster under it anyway, as it appears that it had the permission of the mother. It would however have been covert in the sense that it was not known to Stephen Quinn, Kimberly Quinn's husband. This would have been against Child Support Agency guidelines for DNA testing, but the CSA is generally pursuing a father who doesn't want to acknowledge responsibility, while with Blunkett it's the other way around.
Civil servants met Quinn Blunkett's principal private secretary Jonathan Sedgwick and head of press John Toker are alleged to have met Quinn on the ending of her relationship with Blunkett, but prior to the exposure of the affair in the tabloids (in August), asking her to sign a statement saying her marriage to Stephen Quinn was over. Blunkett's office denies this, but a spokesman describes the meeting as a "personal favour" to her. ®