Assaults, abuse, threats... thugs terrorise staff at Belfast Passport Office
Staff at the Passport and Immigration Offices in Belfast are becoming increasingly concerned for their safety amid an alarming increase in assaults and threats from angry customers.
Sources have told the Belfast Telegraph that an employee was physically attacked at Law Society House on Victoria Street last month.
The police were not called out to the incident, and it is understood that staff are reluctant to speak out about the extent of the abuse for fear of losing their jobs.
One worker, who asked not to be named, said: "No one will say anything on the record because such so-called 'scaremongering' is very much frowned upon."
A scanning device at the Belfast Passport Office, which moved to its current location in 2010, has also detected people carrying knives, scissors and other weapons.
Mike Jones, the Home Office group secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said the level of anxiety among employees was on the rise.
"Our members have raised concerns regarding incidents of verbal and physical attacks on staff in the Home Office in Belfast," he said.
"Violence or the threat of violence against workers is unacceptable.
"We will continue to work with members to address these issues under health and safety legislation and ensure that members feel safe, protected and supported at work."
An alarmed visitor to the Belfast office told this newspaper they had seen three knives which had been removed from people before they were allowed into the building to do their business just a fortnight ago.
The Home Office, which is responsible for both the Passport Office and the Immigration Office in Belfast, said it "takes the safety of its staff and customers extremely seriously".
It added: "We do not recognise the incidents described. However, we are keen to speak with anyone with knowledge of them, including the Public and Commercial Services Union, to ensure that they are investigated fully."
One of the main issues is that people aren't leaving enough time to apply for passports and are reacting violently when they are told they can't be issued with one there and then.
It is also understood the worst offenders are young men in the 18 to 25 age group.
Belfast High Sheriff Tom Haire condemned the threatening behaviour towards Home Office staff who he said, like nurses in emergency wards, "are only trying to do their jobs".
"I am concerned at the level of threatening behaviour towards staff in the Passport Office and towards those elsewhere in other public roles," said the DUP councillor.
"They are only fulfilling their roles of employment and people should treat them with respect at all times. They should not be abused. No one deserves to be treated like that.
"It's also concerning that a number of people are obviously walking around carrying knives and other potentially deadly weapons."
Veteran Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers also condemned the threats and assaults.
"This is disgraceful behaviour towards public servants doing their very best," said Mr Rodgers.
"Employees should not have to get up and go to their workplaces and be expected to operate in a climate of fear."