Tales of the Lecrin Valley

A personal view of life in an andalusian village.

Consuls and Competence.

I haven’t written in this blog about the Spanish Consulate in Casablanca or the thirteen hours we spent in the waiting room there while the staff huffed and puffed and blew their credibility out the window.  The Vice Consul in particular deserves mention,  A typical diplomatic wannabe in an over-tailored light grey suit with high waistband and calf exaggerating trousers, too-tightly tailored jacket with the stitching visible around the edge of the lapels as if he had rushed out of a fitting before the tailor had had a chance to finish his work, a light blue sea island cotton shirt, pink silk tie, slip-on shoes and his hair slicked back with half a jar of gel.  This martinet’s arrogance was only matched by his ignorance and both were surpassed by his incompetence.

So it was with a certain sense of national pride that I phoned the British Consulate in Malaga to get a visa for my adopted Moroccan daughter to visit my family in England, thinking that I could show my Spanish wife how things should be done.

‘We don’t deal with visas any more in the Consulate,’ I was told.  ‘You have to contact the United Kingdom Border Agency for an application.’

My heart dropped and I mentally adjusted my rucksack for a long, hard tramp through bureaucracy.   A few years ago I worked as a Customs officer and spent years in ports of entry.  We knew everything about smuggling and revenue collection, HM Customs and Excise having been in existence for many hundreds of years.  Alongside us were Immigration Officers who knew all there was to know about immigration rules.  Next to them were Police Special Branch Officers who also knew their stuff.  Then the Labour Government decided that all this expertise counted for nothing and formed the UKBA, a supposedly catch-all agency who, from my experience gained from many trips through entry channels since their inception, were unlikely to catch anything that came their way.  So I went through the website of the UKBA and found that they had outsourced to a company called Worldbridge and that I would be required to pay ninety nine euros to them for the application form alone.  So I did, there is no other way to get an application, and downloaded half an inch of paper telling me that I would have to learn about British culture, learn to speak English and a host of other rubbish.  The application form was about two-thirds of the way though the pile and I filled it out and was told that before I could submit it I would have to pay three hundred and fifteen euros for a one year visitor’s visa plus fourteen euros postage.  So I did and was then allowed to print it off.  I looked at what I had to do next and found that I was supposed to have booked an appointment in Madrid to process the application at the same time that I had made the application, but there had been no chance to do so as the relevant link had not been open, there being no interviews in August.  I tried in vain to get through to Worldbridge to see what my next step was, but was told that before they would answer the phone I would have to give my credit card number and I would be charged fourteen dollars.  Dollars, I thought, for a British entry visa?  So I did and was put through to a call centre in India who said that I would have to get in touch with the Consulate in Madrid.  I tried but that was impossible as they do not answer the phone but just refer you back to India, or to another advice centre in Budapest, but this time for only one euro eighteen cents a minute.  So I phoned them and they patched me through to a fax machine.  Three times.

I waited three weeks and then my wife became so incensed she got in touch with the Consulate in Madrid somehow, and they said,

‘Oh!  No need for a visit if the visitor is a baby, just send the application and the passport in with any supporting documents you feel might help your case.’

So I did, with a heap of stuff that I thought may help my case and a few days later was phoned from the Consulate telling me that they were not the documents they wanted.  ‘How do I know what you want if you don’t specify, surely the way you are running this is a little bit subjective?’, I answered.  A lot more words passed between us and I suspect they sensed my ire.  So I sent by fax what they wanted and sat back to wait.  A few days later I received my daughter’s passport and a form telling me that the application had been refused as I had not supplied the right documents that I had not in fact been told to supply and that there was no right of appeal.  I managed to get in touch with the Consulate and was told that ‘Those are the rules and there is no right of appeal but you can apply again.  You will not need an appointment if you wish to present the documentation yourself, I will leave your name at reception.’

‘And I pay another three hundred and fifteen euros plus fourteen euros a go?’ I said.

‘That’s right,‘ they said.

‘Jobswuth,’ I thought.

So I phoned friends of mine in the Foreign Office in London and Milton Keynes and to a man (and woman) they were astounded at the decision taken and the lack of a right of appeal.  To add insult to injury my daughter’s passport had been tainted with an ’entry clearance denied’ stamp.

So the process began again.  I paid and as soon as was possible the three of us, my daughter, wife and I, got up at four in the morning and drove the four and a half hours to Madrid.  We entered the modern tower block and were surprised that a member of the Consulate was in reception on the ground floor and that she knew of me and seemed to be waiting for us.

‘What’s this all about?’ I thought.

Suspicion loomed in my mind.  Ambush drills came to the fore and I looked around for Diplos hiding in the shadows, ready to pounce and smarm and charm me to death or explain that forms must be filled in and submitted correctly or I must bear the consquences.  They would glibly explain that they are only doing what is lad down in Directive X and are not allowed to waver from that and employ common sense.  Nuremburg Defense.

I was hurried through the booking-in formalities and sent on my way to the Consulate on the thirty-eighth floor.  The security staff there also knew my name in advance and were expecting us and were quickly shooed through and sent to a private cubicle in the Consulate, away from the rest of the waiting applicants, presumably in case I started a ruckus.  As we went I marvelled at the youth of the staff dealing with applicants in the main section there.  They were barely out of their teens and I felt that it must have been one of these makee-learnee box-tickers who had handled my first application.

The woman who dealt with us was obviously a senior member of staff, both by her age and her calm ability to deal with people.  We weighed each other up and she began with a Righteous Attack.  I repled with a Castigated Defence and showed her the document that she insisted had been needed for the first application.  She glanced at it and said,

‘That’s what we needed.’  It could have been a parking ticket for all she knew, it was written in Arabic and she told me that she didn’t read Arabic.

In an envelope in front of her I had the expensive new application and duplicates of all those documents submitted with the first application and a few unnecessary ones in case they needed them.  By the speed that she had scanned the document and the speed with which she decided that all was in order and the visa would be issued I knew instinctively that she knew that there had been an iffy decision made with my first application and that she was just trying to get things over and done with with a minimum of fuss.  She decided that she wanted to see our marriage certificate, the one document we didn’t have and an immaterial impertinence to my mind, but when I said I didn’t have it she said it didn’t matter.  As several of the women adopting children had been single mothers I wondered where that question came from but I shut up and decided to live and fight another day.  But I felt like a naughty boy who had had his homework marked and found wanting and was being made to pay for my slackness.  And pay dearly.  I was already composing my blog entry in my mind.

‘Do you want it valid for one or two years?’ she said.  ‘It’s the same price.’

‘Two years, please,’ I answered wondering at the reasoning behind that particular decision.

And then she handed the document back and said that the visa would be ready in ten minutes.

It was, and then we drove the four hundred and fifty-five kilometres back to Granada, nine hours driving, all told, all of which could have been avoided by a simple phone call or a proper list of what was required with a visa application.

I still smart from this particular shafting and understand now how the British dominated the world for so long.  Paint them into a corner, be nice, take their money and keep squeezing them until the pips squeak.  They didn’t even offer me a nice cup of tea to ease my frustration and in two years I have to go through it all again.  I don’t know which I prefer, sitting in a Spanish waiting room for thirteen hours for free or a month of hassle, a trip to Madrid and a lightening of my wallet by six hundred and fifty eight euros courtesy of the British.  Carmen is still smirking. 

There’s a wonderful Billy Connelly sketch on You Tube about booking a flight before computers came on the scene, which tells how simple things were then.  And so were visa applications before outsourcing.  Progress so often goes backwards these days.