Participants of the Radical Librarians Collective condemn the deal between the Society of Chief Librarians and UK Visas and Immigration. We call on library and information workers to sign this statement by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and to help resist the deal and its implications for the future of public library services.
Since 2010, the Home Office has been ruthless in its pursuit to effect ‘hostile environment’ policies which up until recently introduced de facto border controls in schools, hospitals and banks as well as used charity data to deport homeless migrants (Bradley, 2018; Hall, 2018; Taylor, 2018).
Last year, a freedom of information request by the BBC highlighted a secret agreement between the Home Office, the Department of Health and NHS Digital. It revealed that ‘NHS Digital was sharing confidential patient information collected by frontline services with the Home Office on an industrial scale to help it locate and deport undocumented people’ (Bradley, 2018). Although the government has since U-turned on some of these breathtakingly underhand arrangements, questions remain about the degree to which Home Office initiatives combined with public services could foster a culture or perception of informal gate-keeping, ‘because of new duties put on [staff]’ (Campbell, 2018).
This represents only part of the concern about the deal that was recently struck between the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and an initiative ‘to support applicants for in-country visas on behalf of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI)’ (Bernard, 2018).
Any system which boasts that it will ‘streamline’ services whilst dealing with complex issues such as the immigration status of individuals should be carefully scrutinised, particularly as many are concerned about the impacts of such a stress test on an already demoralised front-line workforce. There is some evidence indicating that the scanning service is already at risk of failing applicants who then ‘cannot re-submit any documents at a later date’ if there is an administrative or communication error (UKmarriagevisa.com, 2017). Although SCL have said in their recent statement on Twitter that library staff would not know the results of visa applications, the fact remains that they represent the human face of such transactions and may be put under pressure to offer advice that they are not qualified to give (UKSCL, 2018).
The firm contracted to deliver the service, Sopra Steria, has also been linked to a colossal loss of patient data between 2011 and 2016 (Campbell and Duncan, 2017).
Library staff are also deeply concerned about:
- Library workers being seen as agents of the application process rather than offering independent help and support, thereby undermining the crucial role of libraries as trusted spaces for all;
- SCL acquiescing to, and public libraries participating in, a softer but arguably more insidious form of gate-keeping following the Windrush scandal, which would allow HO divisions to take advantage of the largely open, inclusive and supportive role of public libraries, to attract undocumented or otherwise vulnerable people (and equally for users to be put off from using library services. See: Littlejohn, 2018);
- SCL capitulating to pressure for libraries to ‘demonstrate their value’, by enabling conditions to shape the nature of service delivery in ways that run counter to the ethics that should be present in such spaces (IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto);
- the strain such initiatives will likely impose on workers who are already under considerable pressure to provide support or guidance on often complex, sometimes life-changing decisions (employment, benefits, housing), which exist outside their remit and for which there is minimal support available;
- how any further mishandling of private data by Sopra Steria may negatively affect the positive public perception of libraries as trusted services;
- how outcomes of the partnership will likely influence public libraries’ key performance targets;
- setting a precedent for outsourcing immigration services to public libraries at a time when such unethical pressures on public service workers should be rolled back.
If we are serious about achieving a more inclusive and diverse public library service which actually cares about breaking the glass ceiling for minorities, asylum seekers, refugees, temporary residents and migrant workers in the UK, we need to start by protecting and restoring the foundations of our public library services in order meet our statutory obligations ‘to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons’. This includes taking the ‘radical’ step of adequately funding libraries to serve culturally diverse communities, ‘as an integral part of any library’s full range of library and information services, rather than an isolated or additional part’ (IFLA/UNESCO, 2006; Leong, 2016), and diversifying the library workforce so that library users can see themselves represented (see Bayjoo, 2018).
We believe that the creeping normalisation and increased presence of Home Office divisions in public libraries will actively work against the creation of an inclusive and diverse public library service. This is especially important considering that it can no longer be claimed that the recent ‘Windrush’ crisis was simply an administrative error – an unintended consequence of successive immigration regimes. It was a result of repeated and concerted efforts to appear tough on migration, and we now know that ministers were fully aware of the impacts of such policies (Perkins and Gentleman, 2018). As such, as library and information workers, we need to think critically about the incremental impact of such proposals, and resist the death of library ethics by a thousand cuts.
Madeleine Noor Baker
Library Freedom Project
Ian J Simpson
J. David Cheyne
Bayjoo, J. (2018). Hi from DILON. Available: https://libdiverse.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/hi-from-dilon/
Bernard, M. (2018). Public libraries giving users the digital help they need. Available: http://goscl.com/public-libraries-giving-users-the-digital-help-they-need/. Last accessed 20 May 2018.
Bradley, G. (2018). The Government is contemplating destroying patient confidentiality in the name of border control. Available: https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/news/blog/government-contemplating-destroying-patient-confidentiality-name-border-control. Last accessed 20 May 2018.
Campbell, D and Duncan, P. (2017). NHS accused of covering up huge data loss that put thousands at risk. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/26/nhs-accused-of-covering-up-huge-data-loss-that-put-thousands-at-risk. Last accessed 20 May 2018.
Campbell, D. (2018). NHS will no longer have to share immigrants’ data with Home Office . Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/09/government-to-stop-forcing-nhs-to-share-patients-data-with-home-office. Last accessed 21 May 2018.
CILIP. (2017). Existing ethical framework. Available: https://archive.cilip.org.uk/research/topics/ethics-review/existing-ethical-framework. Last accessed 25/05/2018.
@dawnafinch. (2018). Did I miss a memo? When did library workers receive all this extra training in things like universal credit, employment law, housing law and benefits and now immigration law? The Govt keeps sending pe. Available: https://twitter.com/dawnafinch/status/997501252748677122. Last accessed 20 May 2018.
Hall, K. (2018). Business Arrow Policy UK Home Office hands Sopra Steria £91m digital visa contract. Available: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/05/18/home_office_hands_91m_digital_visa_contract_to_sopra_steria/. Last accessed 20 May 2018.
IFLA/UNESCO. (2006). IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto. Available: https://www.ifla.org/files/assets/library-services-to-multicultural-populations/publications/multicultural_library_manifesto-en.pdf. Last accessed 28/05/2018.
Leong, J. (2016). Library services for immigrants and refugees: actions and principles from a global perspective. Available: http://library.ifla.org/1334/7/081-leong-ppp-en.pdf. Last accessed 25/05/2018.
Littlejohn, G. (2018). David Lammy ‘appalled’ at Home Office after arrest of Windrush constituent. Available: https://inews.co.uk/news/david-lammy-slams-the-home-office-after-windrush-constituent-is-arrested-after-being-invited-to-confirm-immigration-status/. Last accessed 29/05/2018.
Newland Chase. (2018). UNITED KINGDOM: New Application Service Announced for Work and Study Visas. Available: https://blog.newlandchase.com/united-kingdom-new-application-service-announced-for-work-and-study-visas?utm_content=71840103&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter. Last accessed 24/05/2018.
Perkins, A and Gentleman, A. (2018). Government knew for years that Windrush generation hurt by ‘hostile environment’ . Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/22/government-aware-for-years-that-hostile-environment-hurt-windrush-generation. Last accessed 28/05/2018.
Taylor, D. (2018). Homeless charity aided deportation patrols in search for rough sleepers . Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/05/st-mungos-homeless-charity-helped-target-rough-sleepers-to-deport. Last accessed 20 May 2018.
UKmarriagevisa.com. (2017). UKVI document scanning service widely introduced around the world in 2017. Available: http://www.ukmarriagevisa.com/new-ukvi-scanning-service-introduced-for-some-participating-countries.html. Last accessed 20 May 2018.
UKSCL. (2018). 1/7 Here is a series of tweets with more detail on the new assisted digital contract we announced last week. 21 May 2018 Available: https://twitter.com/UKSCL/status/998572540254720000. Last accessed 23/05/2018.
Wylie, A. (2018). The Society of Chief Librarians, Sopra Steria and visa/immigration services in libraries!. Available: https://dontprivatiselibraries.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/the-society-of-chief-librarians-sopa.html. Last accessed 24/05/2018.