'Racist witch-hunt' claim in row over council corruption

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The Independent Online
Hackney council has accused the Home Office of conducting a witch-hunt against African employees. The Labour-run local authority yesterday hit back at allegations of internal corruption by launching an unprecedented assault on the Immigration and Nationality Department claiming it was racist and detaining individuals illegally.

It is understood that eight employees of the east London council, including three finance officers, do not have proper immigration status to remain in Britain. Some have been served with notices of intention to deport. Three other employees, it is understood, were dismissed by Hackney following immigration requests to interview them.

Hackney has been the subject of recent controversy after a senior officer was dismissed following attempts to crack down on employment fraud in the authority. The council denied that his departure was an attempt to "cover up" the corruption.

Nicholas Tallentire, the leader of the council, said in a letter to all employees yesterday that Hackney had been "under sustained attack from sections of the media for allegedly covering up fraud". He claimed that the "onslaught" was not "accidental". He said that the Home Office had colluded with the campaign.

Mike Craig, acting chief executive, wrote to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday, asking for his intervention: "These are very serious issues which affect the liberty and freedom of individuals."

The council distributed a media pack yesterday in which it alleged that immigration officers had used illegal information stolen from the authority to pursue African employees unfairly. It claimed that a list of 600 council employees had been taken from payroll records and passed, without permission, to the Immigration and Nationality department. "The names on this list appear to be exclusively African," a statement said.

The list allegedly came to light after a Benefits Agency official told her manager that she had been asked by the immigration authorities to check the status of 600 individuals. She was asked to do so discreetly. Hackney claims the Home Office has refused to allow it to interview the immigration officer involved.

The council has asked Brian Sedgemore, Labour MP for Hackney South, to ask the Home Secretary to clarify how the information was passed to the immigration authorities. His questions were tabled yesterday. Mr Sedgemore said: "I find it appalling that a section of the Home Office is not fully co-operating with an inquiry designed to identify individuals who have broken the law."

Mr Sedgemore also tabled an Early Day motion in which he asks MPs to condemn the "witch-hunt". The motion expresses dismay "that Home Office staff colluded in a number of unlawful and criminal acts".

The Home Office has already started to interview council employees with suspect immigration status. Two teachers were briefly detained earlier this month, and then released. It is understood that the Home Office has identified 70 employees it wishes to interview.

While the council insists that the Home Office investigation of illegal immigration is racist and illegal, a councillor said last night that it was justified. The Labour councillor, who asked not to be identified, said: "This is the council trying to discredit its critics, those who say there is corruption. This is them trying to deflect attention from the real issues."

The most prominent critic of the council's strategy is its former housing director, Bernard Crofton. He was dismissed for alleged racism earlier this year. Mr Crofton, who denies the racism charge and claims that it followed his attempts to investigate corruption, has an appeal against his dismissal pending. He was not available for comment yesterday. He initiated a crackdown on internal corruption and discovered widespread evidence of employment fraud, including recruitment of illegal immigrants. Mr Crofton has claimed his dismissal was part of a cover-up by the authority; Hackney in return accuses him of orchestrating a campaign to discredit it with allegations of corruption.

A Home Office spokesman yesterday denied there was a witch-hunt against Hackney. "All information regarding breaches in the immigration law is investigated."