Revealed: Abuse of Roma at Glasgow job centre ‘routine’

Children from Slovakian Roma community play in Govanhill, Glasgow. Picture: Angela Catlin
Children from Slovakian Roma community play in Govanhill, Glasgow. Picture: Angela Catlin
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“ROMA people are routinely referred to as gypos, scum, beggars, suicide bombers, thieves and paedos amongst staff. It is almost as if there is a competition to see who can make the most outrageous statement for a cheap and nasty laugh,” wrote the whistleblower in an email.

The author, who worked at the Laurieston Jobcentre Plus (JCP) in Glasgow, went on to relate the story of a Roma woman who arrived with her two children to sign on.

“The staff were all joking and saying they should sanction her for claiming whilst pimping out her kids. They then went on to make horrible remarks about the children, saying they were ‘mongs.’

“I joined JCP because I thought it would be a way of helping people find jobs and get their lives back on track. Instead, all I see is people having their dignity, confidence and self-respect worn away by JCP staff until they give up.

“The irony of all this is that out of all the people we deal with, Roma are the most keen to work and are prepared to take literally anything (this is often exploited by dodgy companies). If our targets were to humiliate, upset, sanction and abuse Roma we would be the greatest job centre in history.”

The source, who wants to remain anonymous, worked in the main JCP for Glasgow’s Southside, which is home to some 1,800 Roma, many of whom are from Slovakia and have lived and worked in Scotland legally for a number of years as a result of freedom of movement between EU member states.

As with most low-income and unskilled workers, working Roma rely on means-tested benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit to survive but, according to the report commissioned by Oxfam, what appears to be blatant discrimination within the public sector has resulted in dire poverty and left families with young children penniless.

According to the report, Roma are regularly threatened and abused and often told they’ll be arrested and “sent back” if they do not apply for a job; people have had benefits stopped unjustly; staff deliberate fail to organise language assistance: there is also hostility towards employees of organisations who advocate for Roma. Furthermore, it was alleged that some managers are aware of blatant discrimination but are content to turn a blind eye because it “keeps sanction figures up” at a time when there is pressure to get people off benefits.

The whistleblower provided several disturbing anecdotes. “Today I actually heard an obviously distressed customer being told that if he couldn’t get a job, the job centre would put him out of the country.”

For the report by the Govanhill Law Centre (GLC) – “Unequal and Unlawful Treatment” – evidence was gathered from more than 60 families on their treatment at the hands of the job centre staff working for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

The authors said that many claims by Roma are automatically dealt with as fraudulent by HMRC. In some cases, it held on to passports and birth certificates for several years, which meant travel outwith Britain was impossible.

One Roma man was awarded income support more than two years after first applying, but it still took the DWP another four months to make payment – and that only arrived after lawyers threatened legal action.

Lindsay Paterson, a lawyer at GLC and one of the authors of the report, said the discrimination uncovered breached equality and human rights laws. “GLC provides advice and representation to Roma clients in the Govanhill area of Glasgow,” she said. “We wish to commend the bravery of the job centre employee who has given evidence confirming our clients’ fears that the reason they were being treated differently by job centre staff was because of their ethnic origin.”

Her colleague Mike Dailly, principal solicitor at GLC, described Laurieston Jobcentre Plus as the “very worst of the worst”. He said: “The DWP Race Equality Action Plan looks very good on paper, but in practice it is not being implemented and there is clearly a systemic failure in DWP staff implementing their own race equality policies.

“Client reports of routine racist and discriminatory behaviour from job centre staff should sound alarm bells. We would like to see the DWP undertake a root cause analysis of the systemic failure at the local Jobcentre Plus, and indeed a wider review and remedial action to put a stop to the unlawful and unequal treatment of Roma customers in Glasgow.”

Most of the Roma living in Glasgow are there legitimately. Many are from eastern Slovakia, although increasing numbers are from the Czech Republic and Romania.

Facing increased hardship, racism and discrimination in nations such as Slovakia where they are pariahs of society, some Roma left their deteriorating situation, first as asylum seekers and later, after May 2004, as new citizens of an enlarged European Union.

Roma are regarded as the most discriminated-against ethnic group in Europe. There has been violence against Roma in Italy, France, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany.

Now it appears that Roma who have arrived seeking a new life in Scotland have also suffered from prejudice. In 2007, Scotland On Sunday first exposed the levels of racism encountered by Roma, which resulted in abuse, violence and high levels of unemployment.

Charity workers say there were problems initially with Roma integrating into Glasgow life due to cultural differences, but most Roma have now settled well. Indeed, Oxfam said that Roma residents in Govanhill recently formed the “Clean Green Team” and spent weeks litter-picking, cleaning out tenement backcourts and planting trees around the Southside. Each of the ten volunteers gave 25 hours a week of their time.

Lyn Ewing OBE, chair of Govanhill Community Development Trust, said: “The Clean Green Team did a fantastic job – not just because the streets are looking better, but also because they’ve been challenging negative stereotypes.

“Too often, Roma people have been blamed for the state of Govanhill’s streets. The truth is that we’ve had problems with litter and dumping here for a very long time, long before people from eastern Europe moved into the area.”