I asked a question to the Prime Minister on Wednesday at PMQs and it appears to have caused a bit of a kerfuffle.
It is about an issue which is incredibly serious.
A number of months ago, a Kenyan lady Eunice came to see me at one of my surgeries, she has a young daughter, Monica.
Eunice married a British war veteran in Kenya and lived happily with her husband and daughter. Her husband, having left the forces lived the life of many British ex pats – in the sunshine.
For years Eunice and her husband ran the Kenyan equivalent of the British corner shop, until one day a gang, supported by the police, came and took it over; it was made clear to Eunice and her husband that they should not return.
The political climate was becoming very difficult, and the family came to England in 2003. As Monica was the daughter of a British man she is automatically a British citizen; although Eunice and her husband had been married for a number of years, she still had to go through all the legal immigration process and as soon as they arrived in the UK, her application was made.
Unfortunately, just six months after arriving in the UK, Eunice’s husband died.
The Home Office has still not granted Eunice the right to reside.
She wants to legally work, but cannot. She has been offered cash in hand work but is afraid to accept it, should she be caught, and, the consequences undermine her application.
She receives no benefits. Child benefit, which Monica is entitled to, can only be paid to an adult who is a British citizen, and therefore she doesn’t receive any.
Eunice is in benefit limbo land.
The school has been feeding Monica from a fund, again, without benefits she is not entitled to free school meals. The fund has almost run out. The local Church has volunteers who take it in turns to run Monica to school, as there is no money for transport, and Monica and Eunice are clothed with donations made by local people.
This is England 2007 and I have a child in my constituency living in poverty.
The way I do business as an MP is as follows: for serious constituency cases I have two choices. The first is to embarrass the government in the Chamber on the floor of the House, gain publicity and hope to solve the problem.
The second is the way I find works best, I telephone the office of the Minister. I tell him or her that I do not want to embarrass the Government, however I have a serious constituency problem which needs to reach a swift conclusion; therefore would the Minister like to meet me behind the Speaker’s Chair for five minutes during a vote to discuss and hopefully resolve.
It has worked well time after time. I keep to my end of the bargain and keep the issue out of the press. Sometimes the results are astoundingly good. Jack Straw was fantastic, I went straight back to his office with him after the vote, spoke to his civil servants – and the problem was sorted within hours.
A 100+ jobs were saved in Mid Beds as a result of a behind the chair meeting with another Minister, who reigned in an over zealous health and safety inspector, who was about to close a business down on the basis of a bureaucratic technicality.
I also used this tactic with the Home Office Minister Liam Byrne MP - I needed to. His department had written to me and told me that Monica, the child, was entitled to stay, but her mother had to return to Kenya, effectively making the child, who had already lost her father, an orphan.
I phoned the department and asked what did they think we should do with the child if the mother was sent back? Was she to go into care? A muted ‘why would we care?’ response came back.
Six letters have been passed between the Minister and myself, in which he states that despite the fact that a child is living on hand-outs from others, he sees no reason on the grounds of compassion to intervene.
Liam Byrne’s office tells me that the Minister is too busy to meet during the vote. Really? I sat and watched him, he spent the vote laughing and chatting away to the rest of his front bench.
So, I had no option. I had to raise the issue on the floor of the House and the Prime Minister has agreed to meet me to discuss the case. I won’t hesitate to tell the PM what I think of the conduct of Liam Byrne MP.
This for me is not a good outcome. We have a film crew coming to film Eunice and Monica at 4pm today. It will be in the local press, the nationals are interested, and Monica’s situation, which is embarrassing enough, will be broadcast everywhere.
It would have been so much better for all concerned if a rather self important puffed up egotistical Minister had behaved in the way that some of his more senior colleagues know how to.