A couple of Saturdays ago I attended the Home Office's Asylum Intake Unit (AIU) with a client. I previously worked at Lunar House – the headquarters of UK Visas and Immigration in Croydon, Surrey – between 1985 and 1988. For the last 18 months of my time there, I was an Executive Officer in the Public Enquiry Office (PEO), now long-gone. My job involved supervising the 30+ desks and conducting asylum interviews on behalf of Group A, where protection claims were considered back then.
This was one of only a handful of return visits to Lunar House since I left the Home Office to start my law degree. The last time I was there was probably around 10 years ago, again with a client, for a substantive interview.
The exterior of building – a monument to 60s hubris, it would probably be called – looks remarkably similar all these years later. No cladding or facelifts here. Aside from a few Immigration Enforcement vehicles – we had nothing like that in the old days – in the car park, I could have been my 20-year-old self, looking across to Apollo House, and down the uninspiring drag of Wellesley Road.
The AIU occupies the same part of the building as the old PEO (latterly known as the Public Caller Unit, PCU). My client had an 8.30 appointment for screening in relation to his asylum claim. We went along with our own interpreter, and the first challenge was persuading the security guards to let us all in. The client's partner – not a dependant on his claim – was denied entry, something she later disclosed she had secretly been hoping would happen.
Experiences with security appeared mixed. Most of those seeking entry did not of course have a lawyer in tow – nobody to fight their corner if they had no or limited English. The guards – private contractors – veered between impatience and politeness. At this point in the process nobody has access to a Home Office interpreter, and difficulties were manifest.
Once inside we walked up to the third floor and were greeted by two reception staff. Duly ticked off a list, we took our seats. The office has – I think – been refurbished since the 80s, but it is a tired, uninspiring place. If ever a building were destined to demonstrate sick building syndrome, it would be Lunar House.
Biometrics followed after about an hour. Then the waiting began in earnest. Having sat down in the waiting area around 9.15, it wasn't until 3pm that we were called forward for the screening interview. The wait was all the more surreal due to the rolling news coverage of the Queen's death on the BBC News Channel that was being screened in the waiting area. My client – from a totalitarian part of the world – agreed that such blanket coverage of the death of an esteemed leader would not have been out of place where he was from.
The officer began by offering my client a phone appointment the next day – a Sunday – rather than an in-person meeting. Having waited more than 5 hours we were in no mood to agree to that, so the interview proceeded.
A couple of reflections on the wait. First, the random nature of their system. Screening interviews seemed to be mixed in with Service and Support Centre (SSC) appointments, and ticket numbering was totally random. So you had no expectation of being seen in a certain time, or knowledge of when and why you were eventually called 5 hours after arriving. This lack of predictability certainly added to my frustration at the time everything took. Staff were another mixed bag; the reception duo were good in parts, tending towards the brusque and dismissive. I appreciate – and you are reminded at every turn by notices telling you this – that public servants deserve to be treated with respect. But how about a bit of civility in return? There is no effort to deal with language barriers at this stage of the process – you only get an official interpreter on the phone once you're in the interview.
When we got started, I was struck by the lack of background knowledge – life experience really – held by our interviewer. Asking the interpreter to spell out well-known place and individual names for example. In the 80s I interviewed many Sri Lankan and Iranian asylum claimants, and made it my job to learn about the situation in that country so I could interview from a position of some knowledge.
A familiar – and I think unnecessary – focus on past international travels took up a good 45 minutes. Questions were asked in an unhelpful, non-chronological way, were then repeated, and ended up confusing my client to a significant extent.
Practitioners will know that a screening interview isn't supposed to go into too much detail about the substance of a protection claim, but our man hadn't read the guidance. He embarked on an almost-2 hour interview of my client. The fact that we were prepared, and my client ready to answer all his questions, meant that we allowed this to happen. Other claimants are less likely to be ready for such a level of questioning. Certainly as an advisor I will be reappraising my approach pre-screening, warning of the possibility that detailed questioning could occur.
The notes we received at the end – the familiar ASL.3211 Initial Contact and Asylum Registration Questionnaire – contained a fraction of the information disclosed by my client, written in summary form rather than verbatim. A dangerous approach in my view.
We emerged into the milky Croydon sunshine around 5.30, having waited to receive copies of our documents. I embarked on my return trip to Manchester, arriving home just short of 24 hours since I'd set off on the journey south.