By Bethan Jenkins AM
You may have heard of Louise Perrett. She is the former UK Border Agency official who blew the whistle on her colleagues after witnessing widespread racism and other discrimination against asylum seekers at the government department’s offices in Cardiff.
She spoke about her experiences before a packed meeting last week of the Cross-Party Group on Human Rights that I chair in the Assembly. The audience comprised mostly people with first hand experience of the immigration system – asylum seekers and groups that work on their behalf – and when Louise had finished, we were all as equally shocked and disheartened that such appalling practices could lie at the heart of such an essential government service.
How has this been allowed to happen? In this day and age, how is it that staff from a government department (and the Government is supposed to lead on combating inequality and intolerance) can be go unpunished when they are so allegedly racist? Worse, such racism would impact on the lives of people that genuinely need our help, people whose lives are often in very real danger when they arrive in the UK. I know this from my postbag, and from the number of times I am asked to write on an asylum seeker’s behalf to the Home Office, or to an airline.
Louise worked for three-and-a-half months last summer for the UK Border Agency, having spent her working career in the public sector – including policy development for the Welsh Assembly Government. She admits she had reservations about beginning this new job, as she “did not relish the prospect of kicking asylum seekers out of the country for money”.
Working out of the agency’s Newport Road offices, Louise began by shadowing a lead case-owner for unaccompanied children. She says she had only been with this officer for 15 minutes when she said: “If it was up to me I take them all outside and shoot them.” When Louise told her that she found her remarks offensive and unprofessional, the officer replied: “Well, you’ll quickly discover that no one in this office is very PC. In fact, everyone is the exact opposite.”
Louise said: “Over the next week, I remained sat in this team. I have never, in all the years I have worked in the civil service, encountered such an unprofessional manner in the workplace. People would stand up and scream at each other or have very loud personal conversations, talk about claimants in a derogatory manner and continuously swear, regardless of who was in the room or on the phone.”
She puts this office culture down to “an undeniable sense of power” within the Border Agency. It has the power to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant – in fact, Louise had those powers. Despite minimal training and very limited experience, she was able to detain a family for up to 28 days. She believes that such powers should be matched with responsibility, and that remains in short supply at the Border Agency.
She was given a live case to handle. It involved a 15-year-old girl who had left Bangladesh to escape an arranged marriage and had fled her father’s custody when he tried to have her wed to a suitor in the UK. But because the Border Agency had taken so long in processing her claim, the girl was approaching her 18th birthday and was to be returned to Bangladesh as an independent adult rather than claiming asylum as an unaccompanied child.
Louise did not agree with the deportation because, among other issues, she had fled abusive parents. But she admitted that her lack of training might have left her unable to make an informed judgement. At this point, she was given some interview tips from a team leader. He told her that when he interviewed someone claiming to be from North Korea he always asked if they ate chop suey. “If they say yes, they’re from China,” he added. “They don’t eat chop suey in North Korea, it’s a Chinese dish. That would be a material inconsistency and you’d know he was lying about where he came from. If he’s lying about his country of origin, he’s going to be lying about his claim for asylum.” Chop suey, as most people know, was created in the US.
Louise saw how this way of thinking permeated down to staff. She witnessed a case worker seek out the opinion of two team leaders and the legal department because she did not want to approve a Congolese woman’s application for asylum. An officer in the legal department responded by singing: “Umbongo, umbongo, they kill them in the Congo.”
She continually heard comments along the lines of: “They shouldn’t bloody be here” “How can they afford a mobile phone?”, and “If you grant asylum to one, they’ve got the right to bring their whole family over.” But she suggests that it is institutionalised. Combat training was one of the first courses Louise attended, and believes it is part of the siege mentality prevalent at the Border Agency, that asylum seekers are generally bogus and often dangerous criminals capable of attacking staff.
On another course, her trainer said that she had worked for the department for three years and in all that time had granted just three applications. “And she was one of the good ones,” added Louise, who managed to equal her number in the short period she worked there. She also refused two, but found herself berated and ridiculed when she offered asylum.
This manifested itself in one of the most shocking allegations of bad practice at the Border Agency – the ‘grant monkey’, a stuffed gorilla that was placed on the desk of any officer who approved an asylum application, as a mark of shame.
Apart from portraying an office in a timewarp – “like something from Life on Mars”, as Louise puts it – we have to ask where the direction is coming from where this department is concerned. Louise says there were examples of professionalism and a duty of care demonstrated by staff, but that they were few and far between. Who is responsible for ensuring that the Cardiff office is run properly, and what is the Government prepared to do about it?
Apart from a call from Keith Vaz, the Home Affairs select committee chairman, for a full investigation into Louise’s claims, we have heard little except that the Border Agency “takes these claims very seriously”. But we are all forgetting the most important consequence of this appalling set of events – asylum seekers with legitimate claims could be bring returned to persecution and perhaps even worse as a result of what has happened in Cardiff.
To that end, we now need to call a halt to any deportations planned as a consequence of the casework completed at the Cardiff office. There needs to be a full investigation into Louise Perrett’s claims, and every case before the department here in Wales must be reviewed. Officers should be assessed for retraining or disciplinary action. And this needs to happen now. I am also calling on the Equalities Committee at the National Assembly to look in to this matter.
Too many people’s lives could be left in the balance by racist unprofessionalism. Racism isn’t tolerated on our streets, and it should certainly not be accepted within a UK government department.