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 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.