PUBLIC officials have been accused of “institutional racism” in a hard-hitting report into the treatment of immigrant workers seeking a new life in Scotland.
The report, commissioned by Oxfam, says members of the large Roma community in Glasgow have been systematically threatened and lied to by government employees while long delays in payments of legitimate benefits have led to high levels of child poverty.
Evidence of discrimination and prejudice against the most marginalised ethnic group in Europe is contained in the report written by the Govanhill Law Centre (GLC), which investigated how more than 60 Roma families living in the city were dealt with by the DWP and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
The lawyers who carried out the investigation said the way many Roma were treated was contrary to the UK government’s legal obligations and amounted to unlawful and unequal treatment.
As a result of delays in payments – up to three years in some cases – 36 per cent of low-paid Roma claimants faced destitution. These included one woman with three children and a baby less than one year old who was unlawfully evicted from her home because her housing benefit had been wrongly assessed. Another woman with seven children was also evicted and had to sleep on a family member’s floor.
Charities, legal groups and politicians have now called for an inquiry into the findings. Lindsay Paterson, a GLC solicitor and one of the report’s authors, said: “We believe that this discrimination is part of a much wider picture of institutional racism in the DWP and HMRC and hope that immediate action will be taken to remedy this.”
Judith Robertson, the head of Oxfam Scotland, said: “This report into the treatment of Roma claimants makes for worrying reading. We are extremely concerned by evidence that Roma people are being treated differently from other EU citizens. Evidence of discrimination within the DWP or HMRC against any particular group should be properly investigated and acted on. We need to make sure that our benefits system treats people equally.”
Among the report’s findings are that:
n public employees made unwarranted threats to return claimants back to their home countries and wrongly stated the law;
• there was an unreasonable delay with decisions on benefits in 56 per cent of cases;
• nearly half of all Roma claims - 47 per cent - were automatically dealt with as fraudulent by the HMRC;
• as a result of delays in payments, one in five Roma claimants faced homelessness;
• 70 per cent of Roma interviewees said they felt discriminated against by public officials.
Hanzala Malik, a Labour MSP in Glasgow, called for an inquiry. He said: “I am gravely concerned if people are being pushed into destitution by the very systems meant to protect them.
“Many Roma people across Europe have endured a great deal of hardship in their home country, only to be met with suspicion and discrimination here in Scotland. The allegations of public authority staff wrongly stating the law and making unwarranted threats to people who do not know ‘the system’ are very serious and if proven would be totally unacceptable.
“The resources to support and advocate for ethnic minorities or pursue claims of racism or discrimination have diminished to practically nothing. This leaves groups such as the Roma communities even more vulnerable and people or institutions acting in a racist manner feel they will not be investigated. I fully support and call for a full inquiry as such attitudes need to be challenged.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Jobcentre Plus takes this kind of allegation extremely seriously. We expect high standards of behaviour from staff and we have a system in place so that staff can report concerns anonymously. Where a staff member does this, we investigate all allegations to establish the validity and take the appropriate action if complaints are upheld.”
An HMRC spokesman said: “HMRC treat allegations of unequal treatment very seriously and will, of course, co-operate fully in any official enquiry.”