What was the border agency doing at Kensal Green station?

In light of the "racist van", I found the Home Office's spot-checks at Kensal Green station intimidating and heavy-handed, says Matt Kelcher.

I'm proud to live in Kensal Green, in the London Borough of Brent. Its biggest asset is the diversity of its people, with the strength of our community demonstrated by strong local campaigns to prevent the building of a nearby waste incinerator and to save the local library.

All of which makes what happened on 30 July even more remarkable. 

As I approached the Kensal Green tube station, where I catch the Bakerloo Line to work every morning, I could see a group of burly men blocking the entrance to the station. As I got closer, I realised they were uniformed UK Border Agency officers, complete with protective vests and walkie-talkies.

I asked them what they were doing and was told it was a random check of identity documents to find illegal immigrants.  They didn’t seem interested in me and I walked straight through, but the two Asian women who entered the station after me were stopped, taken to one side and questioned.

Even as a young man, over six feet tall, with the confidence of a free born Englishman who knows he has nothing to hide, I found this whole experience to be extremely intimidating.  The station I use twice a day had suddenly taken on the suspicious air of a border crossing.

I shared my experience on Twitter and found many people had experienced the same feelings and problems.  Another resident, Phil O’Shea, told the local paper how he found the behavior of the UKBA staff to be “heavy-handed and frightening” and how when he asked what was going on he “was threatened with arrest for obstruction and was told to ‘crack on’.”

I’ve no doubt that there is a problem of illegal immigration which needs to be tackled, but surely this is the wrong tactic in the wrong place.

Very close to the tube station is a hostel, and many of the people who were stopped will have been foreign tourists – perhaps here for the one-year anniversary of the Olympics – on their way to see the sites.  At a time when we need all the money from tourists we can get, what message are we sending back out across the world?  Britain: a place where you sometimes need a passport to board a tube.

Brent already feels under attack. We are the borough which is hit worse than any other in London by the bedroom tax and benefit cap and the last thing we need is anything with the potential to split the local community.

As a diverse borough we were also one of the areas chosen for the Home Office’s infamous "go home or face arrest" vans.  With UKBA officers arriving just a week later local people will begin to worry what is next.  Should we start carrying our passport with us to the supermarket, or cinema, or park, in case we are stopped and asked for it there?

The rules are clear. Immigration checks cannot be speculative, the UKBA must have a clear reason to suspect someone is an immigration offender before carrying out an on-the-spot check.  Kensal Green does have a very diverse community, but surely this is not enough of a reason to target the station. Local people deserve a clear answer from the Home Office as to why we were chosen. (You can see the Home Office's statement on the incident here.)

I fear this whole episode was more about posturing than a real desire to deal with the problem of illegal immigration. 

Speak to any immigration caseworker and they will tell you that once an appeal to remain is exhausted and an applicant told to leave, the follow-up is very slow, or none-existent.  Targeting resources at these people – who the UKBA have addresses for – would surely be more prudent.  As would a real desire to enforce the legal minimum wage across the capital, which removes the demand for illegal immigrant workers.

Instead we get four large guys blocking the entrance to a tube stop located on a quiet residential road.  The government may feel the need to shore up their right wing under threat from UKIP, but it’s not fair that people in Kensal Green should pay the price for that.

Kensal Green station. Photograph: Hectate1 on Flickr, CC-BY-ND
Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University