Gillian Drummond: Coming back home is bureaucratic minefield

The Brain family case shows it can be hard to stay in Scotland. But it can be difficult to return too, finds Gillian Drummond
Nicola Sturgeon meets Lachlan Brain and his mother as the Australian family battle the Home Office in their bid to remain in what they now call home. Picture: PANicola Sturgeon meets Lachlan Brain and his mother as the Australian family battle the Home Office in their bid to remain in what they now call home. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon meets Lachlan Brain and his mother as the Australian family battle the Home Office in their bid to remain in what they now call home. Picture: PA

I feel for the Brain family and the tick-tocking of the Home Office clock as they wait to see whether or not they can stay in the Highland town that has become their home. I feel for the bureacracy they are battling as they fight over a now overdue visa, and to prove that they would be valuable members of society in their adopted country.

As a British citizen, I have to prove neither. And I certainly am at no risk of being deported. My situation is different entirely. I, too, want to stay here. Yet as an expatriate who has returned to Scotland after 17 years abroad, I am facing my own bureaucratic headaches as I discover that my home country is making it far from easy for me to be here.

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I knew some of it already, of course. I’d been told I’d have more chance of qualifying for a mortgage than securing a mobile phone contract. Getting a loan for a car would be nigh on impossible. I may have to stash cash in bags in a wardrobe, as one friend had to do on her return from a stint in France, until a bank would let me open an account.

But I felt smug about a lot of that, safe in the knowledge that, during the time I and my (British) husband had lived in the USA, we kept two bank accounts in the UK, bought a property in Scotland and already had a mortgage.

Still, the hurdles started to appear days after I arrived back here in March. The plan was that I would come first, start my new job, sell an investment property we owned here, then buy a home for the family. My husband and kids would follow once the children had completed their school year.

The house hunting began in earnest, me living temporarily with my parents. Within days, as everyone had predicted, I got turned down for a mobile phone. Within weeks, though, I had a mortgage promise.

“Go on the electoral register,” said a wise family member who works in financial services. “That should help with your credit rating.” I did. And yet when I applied for a credit card, I was declined.

At a meeting with a mortgage adviser, I was told to not apply for any more credit cards as every application would push down my credit score. So I waited. And then when my bank called to say I now qualified for a credit card, it also told me, in the very same conversation, not to accept it. “I hear you’re shopping for a house. Best not to take the credit card then. That could scupper your chances for a mortgage.”

Confusing? Hugely.

And then there was the fiasco at the doctor’s office. I explained my return to my homeland to the office manager, to be told: “Um, no.” No? “Oh we can treat you. We won’t deny you treatment. But you have to pay for the first six months after your arrival in the UK. It’s £30 per consultation. Plus, we’ll need to see your one-way plane ticket.”

I actually laughed at the mention of the one-way ticket. I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. So I cried. Then I called a central NHS Scotland number to verify what I’d been told. It was true, they said. Despite being a British citizen and paying National Insurance, I wouldn’t be treated under the NHS for at least six months. This was, I was told, “because of health tourists”.

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Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Although I didn’t have the threat of deportation hanging over me, I did have just weeks until my family arrived.

There was another attempt to get an iPhone. Again, I failed the credit check. I told the store manager I was now on the electoral roll, had been offered a credit card, and had a mortgage promise. “It was probably the mortgage that did it. That can hurt your score,” he said.

There then followed a farcical series of events surrounding the property we had to sell: leaky roof, trashed ceiling, building tenants unwilling to pay their portion of the bill, oh and a mouse. Those things, in turn, delayed me being able to buy a place. And, with no permanent address, I couldn’t register my children at a school.

With no prospect of a home purchase on the near horizon, I turned to looking for a rental property – one in the catchment area of the primary and secondary schools we had our eyes on. Then, in the final emotional blow this week, the secondary school and the city council governing it told me that there were no places left at said school. The roll was already full. This from an establishment which is not even open yet; it’s a brand new campus due to open in August.

This last piece of news has been the most crushing yet. That a school can spend years, as this one has, building a new campus and be at capacity before it even opens its doors blows my mind. The council says it will provide a place for my child elsewhere. But it can’t say where that elsewhere would be. And that’s too much of a gamble for us and our 15-year-old, who is about to enter a crucial stage of her secondary schooling.

There was a tiny moment when I considered going private, which would allow us to be able to live where we want and to school our children there too. But not only is that a financial squeeze, philosophically it’s a challenge for me, a strong advocate of state education. A big reason for us moving back here was to escape an increasingly rotten state education system in the USA. As a proud product of a Scottish comprehensive and a Scottish university, I had always rooted for and touted Scottish schools and universities. But already what used to be one of the best education systems in the world was letting me and my family down. Not just that, it was forcing me to waver from my pro-state education principles.

Given the school situation, we’re looking at living in another city entirely. The kids may now have to get to grips with the idea of not just a new country but a completely different place from the one I’ve been touting as our new “home” and excitedly talking up. They get here next week. I feel like I have failed them already.

As for the Brains, they have “suffered a breach of trust at the hands of the UK government”, says Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. Gregg Brain is confident that “common sense will prevail”. Me, I wonder. Because so far my return to Scotland has made no sense at all.

• Gillian Drummond is a public relations consultant living (for now) in Perthshire