Home Office agencies at heart of Windrush scandal rife with discrimination and harassment, employees say

Benjamin Kentish

The government immigration agencies at the centre of the Windrush scandal are “rife” with discrimination and harassment, a survey of their own employees reveals.

Official documents show staff at Border Force reporting high levels of discrimination, with almost one in four (23 per cent) saying they had experienced it.

The rate is almost double the civil service average and the second highest of more than 100 government departments and agencies.

Other Home Office agencies fared similarly badly. One in five Immigration Enforcement personnel said they had experienced discrimination, as did 15 per cent of employees at UK Visas and Immigration, which handles claims for residency and asylum.

The Home Office group of agencies was found to be worse than any other government department for reports of discrimination and harassment. The responses do not specify what kind of discrimination or harassment was encountered.

The findings are revealed by The Independent’s analysis of the Civil Service People Survey, which asks government staff about their experiences at work. MPs called the revelation “deeply alarming” and demanded an urgent review of the UK’s immigration system.

The findings come as the Home Office is embroiled in an ongoing controversy over the Windrush generation, which has led to calls for a urgent review of the UK’s immigration system and criticism of the government’s attempts to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants.

As well as discrimination, harassment was also a common complaint within Home Office agencies, with one in five Border Force staff, one in six Immigration Enforcement workers and one in eight UK Visas and Immigration employees saying they had been the victim of it at work – in all three cases higher than the civil service average.

Labour MP Clive Lewis, who helped uncover the figures, said: “It is deeply alarming that more than one in five immigration staff have personally experienced discriminatory behaviour at work in the last year. That these organisations, which are Britain’s face to so many of our guests, workers and new citizens, are the worst workplaces in Whitehall for the very last kinds of behaviour that we would want to display, tells us something is seriously wrong with the system.

“It was already becoming painfully obvious that Theresa May had succeeded all too well in creating a ‘hostile environment’ not just for those seeking to visit, work or live in Britain but to longstanding British citizens, who have suffered the consequences. Now we know that the same ‘hostile environment’ is also what their own immigration officers face at work.”

The Windrush fiasco, which led to calls for Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, to resign, has seen people who have lived in the UK for decades lose jobs, pensions and the right to free healthcare and, in some cases, threatened with deportation.

The issue arose following a government clampdown on illegal immigration, which forced people living in the UK legally to prove they had the right to do so. Some Windrush migrants have been unable to provide the necessary documents, creating severe problems and ongoing anxiety.

Under mounting pressure, Ms Rudd admitted in Parliament that the Home Office “has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual”.

David Lammy, who has brought to light a number of the Windrush cases and been highly critical of ministers’ handling of the issue, told The Independent: “The findings of this survey are deeply concerning. The Windrush crisis has revealed our immigration system to be what many of us knew it was all along – pernicious, cruel and inhumane.

“If harassment and discrimination is so rife within the government agencies running this system very serious questions have to be asked about the impact this working culture has, especially given the fact that the decisions made by these agencies can have a significant human cost.”

The Civil Service survey also reveals a worrying culture of silence about inappropriate behaviour within the Home Office group of agencies. Almost half of Border Force employees said they did not feel able to report inappropriate behaviour, as did more than a third of employees at Immigration Enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration.

Of those who did experience incidents of bullying and harassment, 41 per cent of Border Force and 46 per cent of Immigration Enforcement employees reported it, but just 12 per cent and 15 per cent respectively said the matter had been resolved satisfactorily. UK Visas and Immigration has a similar level of staff dissatisfaction at how complaints were handled.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, the trade union which represents civil servants, said: “Our members have for a number of years raised concerns over bullying, harassment and discrimination across the Home Office, not just from staff survey results but from everyday experiences of the workforce.

“From the latest survey results a number of problem area ‘hot spots’ have been identified. This now needs to be taken seriously by those at the top of the Home Office.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We value all of our highly-skilled members of staff who work tirelessly to keep the public safe, protect the UK border and ensure we have an effective immigration system.

“Any discrimination, bullying or harassment is absolutely unacceptable and tackling the issue is a priority.”