Thursday, August 6, 2015
The Ai Weiwei visa mess - how it might have happened, from a Foreign Office insider
With the kind permission of the author, I'd like to share Kerry Brown's take on how this whole mess might have happened:
I worked as the Head of Policy at UK Visas for six months in 2005. It was my last Foreign Office job, though the department was one shared between the Foreign Office and the UK Home Office. Since then I have been fully rehabilitated back into society! I have to say though, from knowledge from that period, that the Ai Weiwei visa case has all the hallmarks of a cock up. In some ways, it would be preferable had there been high level fiat about this, because at least it would have shown that someone, somewhere was making decisions.
The truth is that Entry Clearance Offices, at least in the British system have God like powers, and the only person who can overturn their decisions, in the end (as this case proves) is the Home Secretary. That means that often very junior and inexperienced visa staff, who are more often than not utterly clueless to the changing rules and regulations governing visa issuance, can make the most extraordinarily perverse judgments. The case I remember best from my brief, inglorious stint in this position (it was hard to do a job where the words in the job title were so completely at odds with the reality of what I was doing - there was, and I suspect still isn't, a visa `policy' - just mildly contained bedlam, so I spent my days reading Guy Debord and the situationists and gazing at the MI6 building gardens next door) was that of issuing work visas to people needed to come and be employed in UK abattoirs. Unsurprisingly, these positions were hard to fill with local staff, so at that time, for some reason, they were recruited from (I think) Ukraine. Staff before going out to post to be visa offices were told that unmarried, largely uneducated, young men from underdeveloped countries were the highest risk and the ones they needed to be most careful about issuing work visas too! (Needless to say, UK Visas resisted all attempts to include its work in relevant racial and gender equality legislation). However, it was precisely this demographic that tended to apply to come to the UK for six months to work in abattoirs.
All worked well, and the annual quota of abattoir workers were happily delivered, until a more pure minded, zealous visa official was sent to work in Kiev, and promptly turned down the whole batch of new applicants, causing chaos in the farming community in the UK reliant on this source of labour, who of course used their considerable clout to protest. It was to no avail though, The person who did the refusing was acting within the law, and there was no way that year any were let through. I think it was only resolved with them being offered some other tasty post to exercise their budding bureaucratic skills, and a more compliant official sent to replace them. .
So I can well imagine the scenario with Ai Weiwei. A visa officer with a sheen of knowledge of his case, mostly culled from the Daily Mail (still no doubt shipped by air freight to the post in Beijing), who sees this Chinese avante garde artist attempting to sully the pure morals of the Great British public, and deciding to make a silent majority stand by turning him down. His or her Entry Clearance Manager, probably a Foreign Office appointee with a bit more political sense, would no doubt have had the `discussion' when reviewing the refusal, and suggesting a compromise (the 20 days). We have, ladies and gentlemen, the final result - a classic, great British cock up. I can well imagine the weary sighs in the Chancery the morning this story broke, because as ever they would be left to clear up a mess which, in this case, I truly believe, was not of their making.
Oh that there had been sinister calculations about how to avoid Ai bashing into Xi Jinping during his September visit. Or at least some artfulness and signs of intelligent (albeit perverse) life. But no, I really don't think there was.
But I would be happy (and relieved) to be proved wrong.