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
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories