Doctor’s family ‘forced to endure a living nightmare’

Alison Hewitt and Al Amin Dhalla ENGPNL00120121113165453
Alison Hewitt and Al Amin Dhalla ENGPNL00120121113165453

The family of a doctor who works at the Princess Royal Hospital who endured a “living nightmare” at the hands of a stalker are to receive £130,000 because of Home Office failings.

A Health Service Ombudsman investigation has found that former City worker Al Amin Dhalla stalked Dr Alison Hewitt, tried to burn down her mother and stepfather’s home and hired a private investigator to snoop on her despite her family alerting the authorities to his criminal past.

The investigation found that vital opportunities to protect the family were missed by the Home Office because procedures were not followed, allegations were not followed up and two of Dr Hewitt’s mother’s letters to the former UK Border Agency were lost.

The Home Office failed to put adequate measures in place to test the information they receive about visa history, criminal convictions and good character and was ordered to pay the family £130,000 compensation.

Dhalla moved in with Dr Hewitt in Brighton, East Sussex, months after meeting her through an elite online dating agency for professionals in 2010.

But their relationship soured after Dr Hewitt’s family voiced concern over his “unseemly haste” to marry her and over lies they uncovered about his past.

The Ombudsman investigated a complaint from Dr Hewitt’s mother, Pamela Hewitt, who discovered that Canadian Dhalla had lied about his overseas criminal past when he came to the UK to live and work.

Fearing for the safety of her daughter and herself she raised her concerns with the Home Office in November 2010.

The Ombudsman said despite being sent information about Dhalla several times, the Home Office missed vital opportunities to keep the family safe and took no responsibility for the consequences of their mistakes, which caused unnecessary pain and distress to the family for over two years, the Ombudsman said.

Dhalla was jailed indefinitely with a minimum term of six years at Lewes Crown Court in March 2012 after he was found guilty of arson being reckless as to whether life is endangered, attempted arson, harassment of Dr Hewitt and her mother, theft, damaging property, having an offensive weapon and perverting the course of justice.

The court was told Dr Hewitt had ended their relationship in December 2010 after Dhalla’s lies led to him being suspended from his job.

His behaviour became increasingly erratic and he was arrested by police in April 2011 who found him in possession of an air rifle, an air pistol and two mini crossbows. While on bail he torched Dr Hewitt’s parents’ thatched cottage, the court heard.

That same month he was spotted at Dr Hewitt’s workplace, the Princess Royal Hospital, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, posing as a doctor.

When he was arrested by armed police they found a loaded crossbow, a large knife, fuel cans and a fake doctor’s outfit in his hire car, the jury was told.

Mrs Hewitt had written to the Home Office in November 2010 alerting them to the fact that Dhalla was due to re-enter the UK on a flight from Toronto to Heathrow and that she had discovered he used aliases, had an extensive criminal record for violence and use of weapons in Canada, and had been convicted of assault causing actual bodily harm in 2006.

But the Ombudsman said mistakes were made while logging information about Dhalla which meant it was too late for any action to be taken.

This meant the Home Office told the police they had no interest in Dhalla when he was arrested.

The investigation also found the Home Office had not responded to the email with the original allegation and two subsequent letters from Mrs Hewitt, and that it took no responsibility for what happened to Mrs Hewitt and her family.

The Ombudsman recommended that the Home Office should review the way they check visa applicants’ statements about their overseas criminal records and good character, and look at the way they handle allegations and deal with correspondence.

Ombudsman Julie Mellor said: “The Home Office needs to embed a culture of learning from mistakes into the organisation to ensure that no one else goes through this terrifying experience.

“We are pleased that the Permanent Secretary will be taking responsibility for looking at their systems and processes to ensure this never happens again.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The Permanent Secretary has apologised to the family for the suffering they endured after failings by the former UK Border Agency in 2009 and 2010.

“Institutional failures of this type are completely unacceptable and show why the Home Secretary was right to disband the Border Agency and bring back ministerial oversight of all immigration matters.

“We have accepted all the Ombudsman’s recommendations and will see how they can further improve the organisation.”

The Home Office’s senior civil servant, permanent secretary Mark Sedwill, told the Home Affairs Committee: “This is an appalling episode and I’ve written to the family to apologise.

“I’ve offered to meet them and we have provided compensation to them as the ombudsman has suggested.

“This simply shouldn’t have happened. That’s quite clear and the ombudsman’s report makes that clear and I apologise again to the Hewitt family for the distress they suffered as a result.

“This was a case of maladministration. It was a failure by the Border Agency - but that is part of the Home Office - to follow up information properly.

“There are recommendations in that report and we are acting on all of those recommendations. Some of those changes are already in place.”

Mr Sedwill added: “We have strengthened our internal audit function and appointed a director of risk and compliance within the Home Office - the kind of role that you would have in a City firm or a bank - to try to strengthen our understanding of and illumination of the risks that exist within the Home Office and therefore the risk that we let individuals down.”