HC Deb 19 March 2002 vol 382 cc66-72WH 1.30 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

All of us remember clearly what we were doing last year when aeroplanes crashed into various buildings in the United States of America. I remember only too well: I was at home, listening to the radio. Our house was being redecorated and I was amateurishly helping. When I heard the breaking news, I first thought that it was some sort of stunt—it was so unreal. I went downstairs to turn on the television and witnessed what I thought at the time was a remake of a Hollywood movie, so incredible were the scenes. Little did I realise that the terrible events that took place would affect several of our constituents, particularly those of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois).

As politicians, we know that it is possible to forget such events too quickly. The terrible attack last year was undoubtedly the result of failure in all sorts of areas. If the world were in a good state, the planes would not have crashed into those buildings in the United States. I hope that people in all countries will never forget the events of last year, but will continue to work towards recreating the world order so that such a thing can never, ever happen again. That will not be easy to achieve, but it is something that politicians in the UK Parliament should not forget.

It is easy to forget the loved ones of the victims. I had no idea how closely we in Essex were involved in the matter until I received a letter just a few weeks ago from Mrs. Berenice Gould, who is the mother of Mrs. Gilbey. Mrs. Gilbey, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh, contacted him some considerable time ago.

I am in total command of the correspondence in which my hon. Friend has been engaged and wish to pay tribute to his efforts. He has done a magnificent job in bringing the circumstances of the widowed Mrs. Gilbey to the attention of the American authorities and in trying to get the British Government to do all that they possibly can to help her. I make no criticism whatsoever of the British Government's role in supporting the victims.

My hon. Friend and I spoke to Mrs. Gilbey last night on the telephone for more than an hour, so we are in a position to give the House an accurate account of how she feels at present. It was moving to hear her two small children aged three and seven in the background as we spoke with her. In one sense, she is entirely on her own, because her husband has no relatives at all. However, the local community has given her wonderful support. Her own circumstances were not particularly well managed. A short time after the tragedy, she was told to leave by the American authorities. Not only was she told that, but she was given no financial support. Even now, she has been given no financial support by the firm, Euro Brokers, for which her husband worked. She advised me last night that the only money that she has received has been from the Red Cross and United Way. Each week, she reports to them along with the other widows, giving them her bills. It is humiliating. I am not sure that there is any easy way around the problem, but her circumstances are dire.

Unless Mrs. Gilbey becomes an American citizen, her life policy on her husband will be taxed at 60 per cent. Not only that, but the compensation will be taxed at 60 per cent. She wants to become an American citizen; it is what she wants for her children and, indeed, it is what she believes her husband, Paul, would have wanted. She said last night that she had spent the past nine years in America building a home that she believed would be a future for her family. The memories of her husband are still very clear in her heart. Her children, Max and Mason, were born in the United States of America. It is the only way of life that they know. Mrs. Gilbey believes that her little family have suffered enough. They deserve the issue to be resolved quickly.

The gentleman, Paul, was a hero. He could have got out of the building. He did, but he was told by the security people that it was safe to return. He was working on the 84th floor. The second plane hit that floor. However, we have first-hand evidence from his secretary that, during the 10-minute interval, he went to the fast elevator on the 78th floor and, together with a colleague, organised that the men went down the stairs and the women and the disabled went in the elevator. As a result of helping American citizens out of the building, he lost his life.

We can all imagine how devastated Deena Gilbey was when she spoke to her husband on the mobile telephone from the building, when he had given the impression that all was well and that he was just about to see people out of the building. Mrs. Gilbey received another telephone call and heard a man's voice before the caller rang off. She thought that her husband was safe. In fact, the voice was not that of her husband, but of her husband's friend who had also been in the building. He was telephoning the home of the Gilbeys to find out if Mr. Gilbey was safe. I end with the plea from Mrs. Gilbey. She said:

Paul's body has not been found and is unlikely to be. His grave site will always be the World Trade Centre. My children and I are experiencing a genuine longing to reach out and be close to Paul, even if the only way to do that is by visiting his grave site. I simply cannot imagine not living in the country where my husband and father of my children is buried. I realize that nobody can give me back my husband or my children their father, but in offering me citizenship it will enable me to start to pick up the pieces of our lives. Mrs. Gilbey also said that, for her sons to heal or even begin to heal, they need to be surrounded by the wonderful support system that's come out of this tragedy. People back in England keep asking, 'Why don't you just come home?' I've said I am home. I've been home for a very long time.

1.39 pm
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), on securing this important debate. I express my thanks to him and the Minister for allowing me to contribute.

My involvement in the matter is that Deena and her late husband Paul come from Hockley, which is in my Essex constituency of Rayleigh. Although Deena Gilbey has lived in the United States for nine years, she is still a British citizen and therefore, in effect, I am her Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend has approached the case from the viewpoint of Deena's mother—his constituent—but I am approaching it on behalf of Deena Gilbey herself.

The case was first brought to my attention last autumn by people who live in Hockley, including June and Roy Mills, and also by press coverage, not least in the local Evening Echo newspaper. I wrote to Deena Gilbey in November last year to offer any assistance that I could and we have remained in contact since. I wrote to the Prime Minister last week about her case and, not unreasonably, I am still waiting for a reply.

As we have heard, Deena's husband Paul worked in the financial markets and was murdered by terrorists on 11 September. According to several eye witnesses, he had helped to evacuate people, many of whom were American citizens, from the stricken towers before he lost his life. He left behind his widow Deena and their two sons: Max, who is aged seven, and Mason who is turning four. Both sons were born in the United States and have American citizenship. Although their parents had applied for residency under the American green card system, their application had not been finalised when Paul Gilbey was murdered. Consequently, the United States' immigration authorities argue that because Deena's husband died before the application was finalised, Deena Gilbey will have to leave the United States, even though her US-born children would be permitted to remain. It is perverse that after all the support that the United Kingdom has rightly given to the United States in the war against terror, the US authorities should place Deena Gilbey in such an invidious position six months later.

The Patriot Act, which was passed in America in the aftermath of 11 September, relates to the case. It provides for a grace period of one year for people in Deena's situation—the period expires this September. It also provides for the facility to exercise discretion in special cases to allow people to remain beyond that period. However, as things stand, officials of the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service refuse to interpret the discretionary clause in Deena Gilbey's favour.

Deena Gilbey has nothing in writing from the INS—or anyone else—to assure her that she will be allowed to remain in the United States beyond September 2002. My hon. Friend and I personally double checked that with her by telephone last night. She told me that she had been given endless warm words but that no one would give her a definitive letter to guarantee her right to remain in the United States. Moreover, even if she were given a temporary extension under the Patriot Act, she fears that the INS could revoke that at a later date because the power is discretionary.

Deena is still living in Chatham, New Jersey, and Senator John Corzine, who is a Democrat from that state, has taken up her case. He is trying to resolve the issue on Deena's behalf once and for all. He plans to introduce what is, in effect, a private Member's Bill in the US Senate to allow Deena Gilbey to be naturalised as a US citizen and, thus, to remain in the United States indefinitely without relying on the whim of the INS. That would give the additional advantage of clarifying her personal financial and tax position, which would allow her to be taxed more advantageously as a US citizen along the same lines as the other US widows of the attack.

I have been in touch with Senator Corzine's office for some time about the draft Bill. If it is to stand a chance of becoming law under US procedures, it requires the initial sponsorship of 12 Senators. It currently has five sponsors—both Democrat and Republican—including Senator Corzine and Senator Hillary Clinton from New York. Deena has strong support from local residents in Chatham, including US families who lost relatives on 11 September. The mayor and the local chamber of commerce have written to US senators in support and 500 local schoolchildren have written to President Bush asking him to help.

Deena Gilbey has done nothing wrong. Her husband was a brave man, arguably a hero, who died trying to help others—mainly US citizens—to live. As a result, she is now a widow with two small children, caught in a bureaucratic trap that is not of her making. Her husband intended to raise their children in America as US citizens and she wants to carry out his wish.

The United Kingdom has stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in support of the war against terror. I therefore ask the Minister if anything can be done through diplomatic channels to support Deena Gilbey and, ideally, to back Senator Corzine's Bill to settle the matter once and for all. I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West for helping to raise this crucial issue and I look forward with great interest to the Minister's reply.

1.45 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate and the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) on his contribution. Both have a personal as well as constituency interest and they put their cases extremely forcefully. As both hon. Gentlemen know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was asked by the Prime Minister to oversee the co-ordination of appropriate support arrangements for the families of British victims of the terrible tragedy. She was keen to take part in this debate, but unfortunately had to fulfil a previous engagement outside London, so she asked me to respond on her behalf.

It is six months since the tragic events of 11 September that were so graphically illustrated, and we can all remember where we watched those appalling images unfold on the television—they were surreal. After the initial shock, when the numbness was beginning to wear off, we quickly moved into action, and the hon. Member for Southend, West congratulated the British Government on the action taken. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State went to the US and set up a network of support mechanisms for the families and victims. We took every possible step, which has now been recognised. Although we will never return those families to how they were before 11 September, most people acknowledge that the steps that we took were effective and provided some form of help.

On the question of Mrs. Gilbey's request for US citizenship, I have been in contact with the hon. Member for Southend, West because of the personal nature of the case and I understand that other hon. Members have also written to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to the Prime Minister. All of the letters will receive a full reply and, in the best interests of hon. Members, copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Last night, the British consulate in New York spoke to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, which offered this statement:

Mrs Gilbey has been invited to file for permanent residence under the Patriot's Act. Filing a written application will result in the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) offering a written decision either granting or not granting her application based on the facts and evidence she produces. This has long been the agency's policy, and this is the procedure provided for by the Patriot's Act. Policy guidelines explaining the application process were faxed to Mrs Gilbey's attorney on 8th March 2002. They have also been faxed to the British Consulate-General, New York, on the 18th March 2002. The INS look forward to assisting Mrs Gilbey once she has taken the pro-active steps provided for her by the Patriot's Act". The British embassy in Washington has worked with the White House, the State Department and Congress to ensure that Mrs. Gilbey and other British family members whose immigration or resident status in the US may have been affected by the terrorist attack are treated fairly and sympathetically. The British ambassador in Washington raised that and other cases with the chairman of the US Senate Judiciary Committee on 9 October 2001. Following that, the US Congress passed, and President Bush signed, antiterrorist legislation—the Patriot Act—which allows all British family members affected by 11 September to continue living and working in the US.

The US Immigration and Naturalisation Service has assured Mrs. Gilbey that she does not face deportation. The British consulate general office in New York, which is in close touch with the INS and Mrs. Gilbey, has confirmed that she has not been served with a deportation notice. However, as the statement makes clear, she has been invited to make an application for permanent residency under the Patriot Act. I understand that papers about that were forwarded to her attorney on 8 March 2002. Once she has submitted her application, it will be up to the INS to make its decision. The British consulate general continues to monitor the situation closely to ensure that she and others like her do not have to suffer any further.

We will take up the points made by the hon. Member for Southend, West with both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our representatives in New York. I cannot give answers to some of the points raised this afternoon, but I shall make sure that responses are made to hon. Members and put in the Library for public scrutiny. In conclusion, our sympathies are with such families, both in the US and the UK, and we will do everything that we can to make sure that their circumstances are regularised as quickly as possible.

Mr. Francois

We have heard that some further checking needs to be done now that the full facts are available. The Minister says that he will follow that up both with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our people in New York. We are grateful for that. However, does he appreciate that the best way to round off the issue and close off all the anomalies would be for Deena Gilbey to be allowed to become a US citizen?

Mr. Caborn

That may well be the resolution to the matter. As I said, I am not sure what "permanent residency" means in its legal context, and whether it brings the security that the hon. Gentlemen have asked about. They raised questions about life policies and 60 per cent. taxation. I cannot answer those technical questions now, but I will make sure that we get answers to them. I shall also ensure that we raise the matter with the companies that had responsibility, as the hon. Gentlemen mentioned. If the case is as the hon. Gentlemen say it is, the issue of short to medium-term support should be revisited, and we will take it up with those companies.

Mr. Amess

I would like to thank the Minister for his courtesy on that matter. Perhaps he will pass on our thanks to the ambassador and all those who have worked so hard. Will he also bear in mind—he will not be aware of this—that the Patriot Act allows some leeway that, as Mrs. Gilbey explained last night, was included to deal with undesirables. She was a little concerned that, because of the personalities of those dealing with the matter, her case was being focused in an inappropriate direction.

I hope that the Minister will keep up the pressure, and that Mrs. Gilbey becomes an American citizen. Finally, I hope that Paul Gilbey is awarded a medal by the US Government.

Mr. Caborn

I am sure that those points will be taken up. I have no doubt that many people will read the Hansard report of the proceedings, will take those points and sentiments to heart, and will be able to act on them. The points made in this debate will be forwarded to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his thanks to those who worked so hard in the US—they went beyond the call of duty in trying to ensure that everything was done for the families and victims in a way that is commensurate with what we expect of our diplomatic service.

Mr. Francois

I thank the Minister again for his courtesy. Time will now be spent double checking some of the things that the Minister agreed to undertake. He agreed to inform my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West and me of the outcome of his investigations. I would like to remain in touch with him because the problem will not be resolved overnight. Without wishing to become a pest on his diary, I wish to remain in touch as the situation develops, as does my hon. Friend.

Mr. Caborn

I have absolutely no problem with that. The overall policy of looking after the concerns of and facilitating support for the British families of the victims falls to my Department, but the specific issue of Mrs. Gilbey's citizenship is a question for the FCO. To be honest, when the debate was tabled, we were not sure what the hon. Gentlemen were seeking, so we took it in the round, so to speak. When the issue became specific, it became a focus for the FCO rather than the DCMS. However, if the hon. Gentlemen write to my Department we are more than willing to answer their questions, and, if we do not have the information, we shall get it from the FCO.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Two o'clock.