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HMRC staff sacked for racial misconduct

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 18 August 2010

Seven revenue and customs staff in Northern Ireland have been sacked for deliberately paying people from ethnic minorities less benefits than they were entitled to. The Ethnic Minority Foundation tells Channel 4 News the events could increase suspicion of government agencies.

HMRC staff sacked for racially motivated misconduct

Two other members of staff quit when an investigation was launched earlier this year.

The workers were sacked for "racially motivated gross misconduct", Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) said today.

The group, based at an HMRC contact centre in Belfast, were accused of deliberately underpaying child benefits to people across the UK from ethnic minority backgrounds, thought to be non-nationals. All have now been reimbursed. 

Dave Hartnett, permanent secretary for tax, said HMRC operates a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racial discrimination.

"The department will not tolerate discrimination in any shape or form and yesterday seven members of staff in the Belfast contact centre were dismissed for racially motivated gross misconduct," he said.

"The vast majority of our people are entirely professional and one of the ways we support that professionalism is by taking decisive action against the tiny minority who let us all down by falling far short of those standards," he added.

The sackings and resignations came after an internal investigation into racially-motivated misconduct, which began last year when a complaint was lodged by someone who believed their records had been changed.

The inquiry eventually widened to take in another 16 cases.

'Could increase suspicion of government'
"This is obviously extremely disappointing news, no one entitled to particular benefits should be denied on the basis of racial or cultural background. I think there is a very real danger that this could increase suspicion of government agencies amongst all those that depended on their services the most, and has the potential to push them further to the margins of society, the chief executive of the Ethnic Minority Foundation, Krishna Sarda, told Channel 4 News.

"We have no evidence to suggest that this is a sign of endemic racism within government, and HMRC must be commended for acting as they have in relieving guilty parties of their duties.  However it would be appropriate for a review to take place into how appropriate regulation can prevent a re-occurrence of this type of tampering."

Patrick Yu, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), said he was shocked by the incident.

He said: "It is pretty horrific. From our experiences, non-nationals have little knowledge or no understanding of our benefit system. Due to our complex benefit calculation it is difficult to know what amount of benefits he or she is entitled to. In most cases they will accept the HMRC amounts without questioning."

He praised the HMRC for the swift disciplinary action.

Mr Yu said: "This is the only way to deal with institutional racism. NICEM is keen to support and work with the HMRC through training, policy and practice to tackle institutional racism. Today the message to the general public is pretty clear - discriminatory behaviour is not acceptable in our society."

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