Oakington IMB Interview

Thursday, May 1st, 2008. 7:38pm

I was today interviewed as part of the application process to become a member of the Independent Monitoring Board at Oakington Immigration Removal Centre.

The interview broadly followed the published questions for the interview, (http://www.imb.gov.uk/docs/DC_10_04__Annex_C_.pdf ) to which I had prepared responses.

I was impressed by the fact that those interviewing me, the vice-chair of the IMB, another IMB member, and an independent panel member, who in my case was a member of the IMB at Nottingham prison had read my application form, covering letter and correspondence with Oakington’s IMB chair in detail. As with many job interviews, one individual (the other IMB member, the board’s training officer) appeared to ask the kind questions you would expect from someone from a human resources department, the other two focusing on the more substantive questions.

The tone of the interview was, as my emails with the Chair of the IMB have been quite confrontational. The Chair of the IMB, in response to my application had written to me stating:

Do you realise that we have no say whatsoever in Immigration Status or how long people are detained for. Will this affect your interest in the IMB work

I replied:

I cannot see where I may have given any indication that I do not understand the role of the IMB, or believe that an IMB has any direct say in Immigration Status or how long people are detained for. In my application form I stated:

“I am aware that in the UK the wheels of the state can turn very slowly, I would like to find out what is delaying decisions on whether to offer asylum or not. I don’t think that holding people for extended periods in these centres is good for Britain or for the people being held. I think the IMB has a role in lobbying, from its informed position, for improvements to the system which would benefit all involved.”

I believe that is a clear and considered statement and does not betray any misunderstanding of the role of the IMB.

Following an initial friendly question, asking about my first impressions of the centre, the vice-chair of the Oakington board quickly weighed into the same point disagreeing (perhaps just for the purposes of the interview?) with my suggestions that the IMB should or could have a role in lobbying democratically elected representatives and informing the UK electorate about what is done in their name in detention centers. My interviewer said that she felt that legal representation was the most important form of representation with respect to those being detained in Oakington, and those detained already had access to that. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but she went on to suggest that it such access to legal representation negated any role for the wider public and their democratic representatives in determining what goes on in immigration removal centers.

I had noted that recent Oakington IMB reports had not been made available to the public in a timely manner, this meant that at times when the reports’ contents was getting media coverage the raw report was not available, this was something I said I would want to correct as an IMB member. The interview panel put forward the argument that their role was essentially only to feedback to ministers and that communicating more effectively with the press and public could be detrimental to that. I noted the reports were public documents, but my interviewers appeared not to want to encourage their reports reaching a wider audience.

The final contentious issue was that of “Human Rights”, I had stated in my application:

I am prepared to defend the basic rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled, though I am cautious that “human rights” is a term which can encompass too much and assuring some rights for individuals can be detrimental to wider society.
If appointed I would attempt, despite any training, to maintain a viewpoint of an interested, educated and caring member of the public.

When I had visited the centre previously one thing I was told by the IMB member showing me around was that was pressure to take human rights to an extreme, the example given was that someone should have the “human right” to kill themselves should they choose to do so. I, and those interviewing me appeared to agree that the prevention of suicide in places like Oakington and other places where people are incarcerated should be a high priority. There is also a lot of excessively politically correct “human rights” in materials produced by the IMB secretariat, and some implication that they want to recruit those who will defend “human rights” at all costs, I stood by my statement that I would not be swayed on such issues during any “training”. I illustrated examples of where I feel “human rights” can go too far by asking the questions – are our human rights infringed because we can’t democratically elect the head of state? and should people in the UK be allowed to have as many children they like? I was assured that the aims of IMB training are primarily not about such brainwashing.

I then asked about recruitment:

In a covering letter with my application on the 2nd December 2007 I wrote:

I believe I have integrity, I am concerned this application damages my integrity as I am not convinced the positions on the IMB are openly advertised and the application process is accessible to all, I have asked what the “local recruitment” process involves and have made some efforts to publicise the positions available but do not have capability to do this as effectively as you or the IMB secretariat.

My concerns over the way in which you were recruiting were heightened when I found out the two members of your board who I have met were neighbours, though I can see this could have been co-incidence.

I specifically asked the independent panel member to note on his declaration (http://www.imb.gov.uk/docs/DC_10_04__Annex_D_.pdf) that the process had been properly run that in my opinion that there had not been a recruitment campaign. I had not applied as the result of any campaign. He agreed to do this. One member of the IMB on the panel stated she had applied having seen a poster in a gym, indicating that at some point there has been advertising – I let them know I felt this was a good sign. However no-one could tell me where I could currently find a poster or other advertisement for the position, the vice-chair used the excuse that Cambridge central library is closed, I pointed out there are at least three community libraries near-by (Milton Road, Histon, and Arbury Court) none of which have a poster despite the IMB chair telling me posters were circulated to local libraries .

The independent panel member stated that be believed the IMB application form was available to download from the IMB website. I disagreed at the time, and still disagree having searched the site again this evening. My suggestions for improvement of the recruitment process were largely dismissed, with the whole panel resigned to the fact they were working with a highly inefficient and bureaucratic organisations – both in the institutions and the secretariat. I hope I made clear I would be happy with that and would not take on the role – as particularly the vice-chair did during the interview as an apologist for areas where the IMB secretariat is lacking (such as not putting reports up in a timely manner, or forwarding applications to the relevant IMB chair). The board’s training officer was particularly dismissive of my suggestions for improvement to the recruitment process stating that other people weren’t raising the same points, she suggested other people don’t have a problem with a recruitment system which doesn’t openly advertise positions. I have been told that the Oakington board has essentially always been undermanned, and they are not being overwhelmed with applications. The board has only 1 male member currently and nationally only 1% (one or two individuals) of IMB members are under 30. I believe this shows there are clear problems with recruitment, and while I might be the only person who has had the tenacity to get to an interview and make suggestions directly I don’t think that is a reason to dismiss them.

I did not have a chance to note that I was surprised to learn that sometimes IMB members plan to attend the centre alone, for example during an incident, and didn’t put across my point of view that I don’t think that is a good idea on the basis there would be no-one to corroborate what has been seen or heard. If appointed I can’t imagine any serious opposition to this, particularly as the IMB ought be closer to or at full strength and so have more individuals to share the responsibilities between.

I feel I was given the opportunity to put across to the panel who I am, what I believe in, and what I believe I could bring to the IMB, and following the experience I am even more sure I have a set of beliefs, skills and experience, quite different to those of the existing IMB members to offer.

Example Questions and Answers (Based on my prepared notes, updated following the interview to reflect what was actually said).

1. You’ve had an informal tour of the prison – to what extent did it match your expectation of what a prison is like?

It was more dilapidated than I expected, the poor fabric of the place such as the fire door leading outside the secure compound was surprising. If people and their effects were removed and I was given a tour I might assume the place had been out of use for a decade. The state of the canteen serverey counter– dirty with cracked tiles is a specific example of that.

2. It’s not unusual to feel nervous when you go into a prison for the first time. What aspects of the visit surprise or alarmed you? What did you find most interesting?
I am aware that taking cameras into the immigration centres is something people work to avoid, yet I was able to walk in with a camera phone, without being asked to surrender it. I have visited secure establishments and thought the general attitude at Oakington was lax. I took my camera phone out at this point of the interview. We discussed, as I had when I visited previously the potential reasons for this and the same explanation was put forward namely that those visiting as “guests of the IMB” were trusted. The members of the IMB tried to reassure me that generally the standards of security were higher, and a visitor to a detainee would not get in with a camera.

I was surprised by the “jobsworth” nature of the IMB members – a detainee’s complaint regarding access to the Home Office monitor was not recorded in the book of complaints in the IMB office or otherwise acted upon because “we’re not on a formal rota visit”.

The fact the two IMB members who showed me around were next door neighbours raised alarm bells given what I have experienced of the recruitment process, it increased by suspicion that the process was not open.

I was surprised to learn that sometimes IMB members plan to attend the centre alone, for example during an incident, I don’t think that is a good idea on the basis there would be no-one to corroborate what has been seen or heard.

I was surprised that tourists and students sometimes end up in Oakington – highlighting a problem as these people ought to have been sent straight home, people being in Oakington for extended periods simply awaiting a flight home was a problem those showing me around told me existed.

I was asked to specifically address the question of if I felt intimidated / scared coming into an institution like Oakington. I answered saying that while clearly a place where people are locked up against their will has a rather morbid and unpleasant atmosphere I didn’t feel unsafe walking around the site.

3. How did you first become interested in joining an Independent Monitoring Board?

Following the media coverage of mistreatment of detainees in Oakington, I first expressed an interest in applying for the IMB here.

I first enquired about joining the IMB in June 2005, shortly after the BBC “Real Story” documentary and the associated media coverage on Oakington, as I wondered then why it took an undercover documentary to uncover problems, it suggested to me the IMB and other oversight mechanisms weren’t working. More recently I have felt the IMB wasn’t working when the IMB’s 2005 report was not made available online by the IMB secretariat until January 2007.

The vice chair thought she had spotted an inconsistency here, raising the fact that in my application as well as writing the above, I had, in a section apparently asking about the effectiveness of recruitment, stated that I could not recall when I first became aware of IMBs. I wrote that I thought I was aware that there were organisations such as these for about as long as I had had an awareness that there were prisons, though I had thought particularly about Oakington’s IMB having not been able to read its reports when they were being discussed in the press. I thought this question was aimed at determining which recruitment channels (posters, word of mouth, adverts etc. ) were working and wanted to make clear that my application was not as the result of any recruitment, and in fact I have not been able to find any evidence of any recruitment campaign.

Lastly one question which was not on the list, but was asked by the vice-chair and as stuck in my mind was “Have you looked at the board’s website?”. I replied the board does not have a website (it doesn’t even have dedicated pages on the IMB secretariat’s site) I think IMBs should have such dedicated pages on which they control content. She then asked if I had read the IMB secretariat’s website, I was surprised, and to a degree insulted by this question, as it would be incredible if I had not, and it was very clear from my application and interview so far that I had. I had refered to past reports and their publication dates, had referred to correspondence with the IMB secretariat and to letters sent to chairs and IMB members made available on the site, as well as showing I had considered guidance and information related to the application process.

6 comments/updates on “Oakington IMB Interview

  1. Richard Article author

    Today, 1st December 2008, I noticed adverts for IMB members at Oakington, saying the membership had dropped to seven.

    I wrote the following email:

    Dear Penny Lambert and the IMB Secretariat,

    I would like to congratulate you for publicly advertising the vacancies on Oakington’s IMB in the local newspapers for the first time, this is something I had been lobbying for.

    Could you please let me know if my application, which I made on the 2nd of December 2007 is still under consideration, or if a new application in response to the current advertisements would be in order. I note my address, email address and phone number have remained the same during this time.

    I was shocked to learn from the advert that the board’s membership is again well below its target number.

    The open advertising of these positions could I believe potentially lead to the IMB becoming a group with the ability and vision required to improve the lives of those held in Oakington, this makes me even more keen to join the board.

    If Penny Lambert is no longer the IMB chair at Oakington could you please pass this to the new chair.

    Richard Taylor

    PS. I feel I must point out your use of thumbnail photographs of around 1MB in size on the IMB’s National Council, contact webpage is astounding, and makes the page difficult to access. (http://www.imb.gov.uk/members-information1.html/national-council.html/nc-contact.html/ )

  2. Richard Article author

    I was shocked by the reply. No wonder they have almost no-one under thirty on IMBs.

    Dear Mr. Taylor,

    I have been regularly chasing up outstanding applications that have been forwarded to the IMB Secretariat. The delay is caused by security clearance which is carried out outside of the Secretariat, and this has not yet been completed. There is no way I can hurry this procedure up. You will appreciate that there are many working positions that need clearance and this now does take a long time. You will be notified direct from the IMB Secretariat when your application has been considered by the Minister.

    Yours faithfully,
    P. Lambert

  3. Richard Article author

    Today, eleven months after my interview at Oakington, I received a letter from the IMB Secretariat telling me I have not been selected.

    The letter stated:

    It is open to you to receive detailed reasons for your non-selection and I will be happy to provide this if you would like to write to me requesting that feedback.

    I have requested details.

  4. Richard Article author

    I have today, 8th May 2009, received feedback on my 1 May 2008 interview at Oakington.

    Overall I think it indicates they don’t want someone like me who is prepared to be a nuisance.

    The feedback states:

    The panel noted that you had the time to commit to the Board. The panel also noted that you were articulate and listened well to their questions. However, the panel was concerned that you had a tendency to respond rapidly and in a confrontational manner and appeared to be unaware of your reactions upon others. For example, when the Chair explained the reasons for the delay in the Board’s Annual Report being added to the IMB website, the panel considered that you had already decided on the reasons and were dismissive of the Chair’s explanation.

    As I noted above it was a very confrontational interview, that approach began with the email I received before the interview from the chair of the IMB.

    The panel’s chair did not give an explanation for the delay in publication. She and the interview panel argued it wasn’t important that the annual report was not made public in a timely manner. I stated that if I was a member of the IMB I would do all I could to ensure the annual report was openly published in a timely manner. (I made the 2005 Annual report available on this site six months before it was made available by the IMB secretariat.)

    I think the chair and other members of the panel were wrong to claim that it wasn’t important that their report had not been published; there’s little point in the IMB doing its work if it doesn’t communicate what it is doing. I understood and accepted the point made that the report had been sent to ministers, but that did not answer my concern.

    I have not received a credible explanation from anyone for the reason for the delay in publication. The chair merely blamed the secretariat and rejected my assertion that the IMB had a role in demanding a better service from the secretariat. I have no idea what the real reasons for the incredible delay were, though I now know IMB members weren’t particularly interested in correcting it.

    I had access to the vast majority of the questions asked for about two years prior to the interview. I was well prepared. It ought be no surprise that I was able to give rapid answers. That is no indication of those answers being ill-considered, quite the opposite in-fact.

    The panel also noted that although you understood the independent nature of the IMB, you made no mention of the important monitoring role of the IMB. The panel also considered that you understood the role to be about lobbying for the rights of detainees, rather than simply independent monitoring.

    I suggested that the IMB had a role in making the public, and elected representatives, aware of what is going on inside detention centres. I think that’s very important – there’s little point “monitoring” if you’re not going to disseminate what you learn. The IMB appears to focus on things like the quality of the food, much more important is the time people are detained and the fact they are kept in an state of uncertain limbo for months and years on end. I think the public and democratic representatives could usefully be informed by the IMBs about the reasons for this. There needs to be a wider awareness too of the conditions in which people are held.

    The panel was also concerned about your ability to work as a member of a team as you did not give good examples of teamwork.

    I am concerned that the IMB do not work as a team, I think that members visiting the centre alone is not good practice as there is no independent corroboration of observations. One of the main outputs of the IMB is a collaborative report, I described lots of experience I have had in working collaboratively to produce technical documents . I have published my application online here so you can judge for yourself.

    The panel was also very concerned that you stated you had twice taken a camera telephone with you into Oakington and that you appeared to be triumphant at what you considered to be uncovering lax security.

    I did not take a camera phone into the area where detainees were living. I took it onto the site, past security, and left it in my car on one occasion, and into the board room – which is outside the secure compound on the second.

    I did draw attention to the fact that security appeared to be primarily theatre. This is a point I have also made with respect to the magistrate’s court. Those fleeing persecution need to feel safe and secure, some would have legitimate concerns about being photographed and people finding out where they were. It is very important that the detention centre rules are followed. I would have thought ensuring that was the case would be a key role of the IMB. I made clear a primary reason for bringing up this, and other points, was to urge action on them even if I was not appointed.

    The panel also noted your comment that you would not be bound by the Centre rules if you felt they were at odds with your principles.

    I would fully support the IMB not appointing someone who said they would not be bound by the centres rules! I certainly made no such statement. The centre rules are statutory instruments which have the force of law, it would be a stupid statement to make. What I did say is that I would treat any training offered to IMB members with an appriopriate degree of cynicism. This followed the description of completely ludicrous “human rights” training which members of the IMB had described to me when I had been invited to visit the centre. I had stated: “If appointed I would attempt, despite any training, to maintain a viewpoint of an interested, educated and caring member of the public.”

    As a result of these concerns, the panel did not recommend you for appointment. The Minister was minded to accept the recommendation of the panel and did not feel able to offer you an appointment.

    I had asked how many vacancies there currently are at Oakington’s IMB and was told:

    The Board at Oakington currently has seven members in post and there are five vacancies.

    I am left feeling very concerned about the type of people who end up on the IMB, and am surprised that the board is still so woefully under manned after a number of recruitment rounds. It would be interesting to know how many others have been rejected for similar reasons to me.

    I cannot understand why I could not have been told very rapidly after the interview that the panel were not recommending me for appointment. Why waste time and money security clearing people who are not being recommended? I was told that only those who were recommended would be presented to the Minister and that the Ministers wanted a choice of acceptable candidates put in front of them. A choice between someone who you’re told will not consider themselves bound by the detention centre rules and another candidate being recommended by a panel is not providing a meaningful choice at all for a minister.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    In light of the Oakington IMB’s view that how long people are detained for was none of their business I was encouraged to read the following in the Yarl’s Wood IMB report for 2012:

    The Board regularly questions the reasons for these lengthy periods of detention: the basis of detention is that there should be a realistic prospect of removal in a reasonable time. We are concerned that the reasons for continued detention should be reassessed regularly in each case. We recommend that UKBA give greater weight to alternative methods of monitoring people in the community.

    local UKBA staff who are willing to answer questions about individuals, and explain reasons for lengthy detentions to Board meetings.

    A key problem with one IMB effectively selecting its own members is that it may not introduce those with other views of what the board could, and should, be doing.

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