Eighty library professionals have signed an open letter condemning a deal between the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and UK Visas and Immigration that will see libraries provide biometric visa support services.
The new contract, delivered by IT consultancy Sopra Steria, will be rolled out across 56 library services in the UK and will enable visa applicants to submit biometric data and supporting documents. The role of library staff will be to support online access for applicants to submit their documents and biometric data, but they will not give visa or immigration advice, or know the results of visa applications.
The move has been condemned by members of the Radical Librarians Collective, who have issued a statement urging library workers to resist the scheme, signed by 80 people so far.
According to the collective, the contract will result in the "creeping normalisation and increased presence of Home Office divisions" in public libraries which will "actively work against" the creation of an inclusive and diverse public library service.
The statement criticised the Home Office, which it says has been "ruthless in its pursuit to effect ‘hostile environment’ policies", for example, using charity data to deport homeless migrants. The librarians cited a Freedom of Information request by the BBC which last year highlighted an agreement between the Home Office, the Department of Health and the NHS digital which saw the sharing of confidential patient information collected by frontline services to help the Home Office locate and deport undocumented people.
The letter said: "SCL acquiescing to, and public libraries participating in, a softer but arguably more insidious form of gate-keeping following the Windrush scandal, which would allow Home Office divisions to take advantage of the largely open, inclusive and supportive role of public libraries, to attract undocumented or otherwise vulnerable people (and equally for users to be put off from using library services".
The statement also said the firm contracted to deliver the service, Sopra Steria, had been linked to a "colossal" loss of patient data between 2011 and 2016.
The signatories expressed concern about the possibility of librarians being put under pressure to offer advice they are not qualified to give, and about library workers being seen as agents of the application process rather than offering independent help and support, thereby undermining the crucial role of libraries as trusted spaces for all.
"If we are serious about achieving a more inclusive and diverse public library service which actually cares about breaking the glass ceiling for minorities, asylum seekers, refugees, temporary residents and migrant workers in the UK, we need to start by protecting and restoring the foundations of our public library services in order meet our statutory obligations ‘to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons’," the letter read.
"This includes taking the ‘radical’ step of adequately funding libraries to serve culturally diverse communities, ‘as an integral part of any library’s full range of library and information services, rather than an isolated or additional part’ and diversifying the library workforce so that library users can see themselves represented.”
In response to the letter, a spokesperson for SCL told The Bookseller the organisation believes the contract was an "important initiative" and that the Sopra Steria underwent the relevant checks by the Home Office before being awarded the contract.
“We believe this is an important initiative where libraries will provide accessible local service points for visa applicants", the spokesperson said. "The Home Office ran a full procurement process before awarding the contract to Sopra Steria. Services will be delivered through libraries as part of this contract. Library staff will not be involved in any part of the decision making on applications, be required to give immigration advice or know the results of any applications.”
SCL chief executive Isobel Hunter also clarified that no volunteers would be involved in the services and that while they would receive payment for the service, libraries would not be charging visa applicants for their help.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: "The new streamlined service will make the visa application process quicker and easier to access than ever, by increasing the use of digital services. We look forward to working with Sopra Steria to continue to deliver a world class and convenient service for UKVI customers.”
They added: "The term 'hostile environment' as a description of Home Office immigration policy is incorrect, unhelpful and does not represent our values as a country."
Ian Anstice, librarian and editor of Public Libraries News, said that the contract shows how complicated expanding out into "such controversial things" is for libraries.
"The SCL has seen the need to push the use of libraries to various agencies and this deal will help the cause of public libraries in Whitehall. The extra money will be of great help too to cash strapped authorities," he said. "On the other hand, it challenges the traditional role of libraries and can, if handled improperly, dent their neutrality. And that welcome-to-all image is over 150 years old and is there for a reason.
“As times change, libraries need to change but new opportunities can also be a minefield, as the SCL deal demonstrates. For Isobel Hunter, the new chief exec, it reveals early how hard things are going to be, almost from day one, despite the fact that this decision was made before she came on board."