A form that's not just bad but cruel

forms, legal
Rob Waller

The Guardian today published a leaked questionnaire which the UK government apparently plans to require asylum seekers to respond to. They are trying to clear a huge backlog of applications by moving from a face-to-face interview to a form.

Complex questions

At least it's not so much a form, just a letter listing a series of complex questions they need answers to - it feels like the script that they probably use in interviews.

But writing a form is very different from writing a script.

For example, it asks:

"• Which countries did you pass through on your way to the UK?

• Did you claim asylum in any other country on your way to the UK? If you did not, why did you not claim asylum in any of these countries?"

Face to face, an interviewer might ask where they passed through? Then as each country is mentioned they would ask the second question. The answer could be same for all the other countries, of course: I didn't speak the language, I have family in the UK, etc. But how is someone who may not speak much English supposed to structure their written answer?

Difficult language

And there is little attempt to use plain language (common words, short sentences) in questions like this one: "Were you subject to human trafficking (the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit) or modern slavery (severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain) during your journey to or after you arrived in the UK?"


This staggeringly poor questionnaire is not only inconsiderate, by asking unanswerable questions in complex language, but it’s actually cruel. It is inflicted on people who, by definition, have a fear of authority, and for whom failure could mean deportation and worse.

A good form could make this OK

We should reject bad forms, but not all forms. A well-designed form, properly tested, with a reasonable deadline for completion, could be useful here, if it allows people to provide information in their own time, perhaps with help, and without the pressure of an interview. It could allow people to collect evidence over time and upload it to an evidence portfolio. Their answers could be properly considered and written with advice from others. A digital form could include translation tools, and could lead people through a virtual interview in easy steps.

Starting with the work of DHSS’s Document Design Unit in the 1980s, most government forms have improved hugely in my lifetime. Departments like DWP and HMRC have developed specialist teams and invested in plain language training, design standards and research. The Government Digital Service is internationally renowned. All this seems to have completely passed the Home Office by.

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