Home Office Revives Plan to Deport Non-UK Rough Sleepers
According to the Guardian, the Home Office has relaunched an initiative that aims to identify and potentially deport rough sleepers who are not from the UK. They intend to do this by asking charities and councils to sign up for the scheme. This would then allow the Home Office to gather the necessary data they need to identify non-UK rough sleepers. The article says that so far, two charities and six councils have signed up to the scheme; this was uncovered by Liberty Investigates, the journalism section of the human rights organisation Liberty. They reported that one charity that was contacted about its involvement in the scheme immediately deregistered, stating it would not want to put rough sleepers at risk.
The programme is a relaunch of the Home Office’s Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS) trial from 2018, which the Observer discovered aimed to ignore “European privacy laws by passing rough sleepers’ sensitive personal information directly to the Home Office without their consent”. The scheme has been relaunched following a legal challenge by the Public Interest Law Centre, after which the Home Office said it would only enlist charities and councils who have received “fully informed consent” from the individual. While this may sound like a positive move, it appears that this fully informed consent relies upon rough sleepers reading and understanding a 19-page user agreement before giving their approval. Within the document, deportation is outlined as one of four possible outcomes. The consent form is also somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, it reassures the reader that “the service is not intended to identify or locate immigration offenders”, but it then proceeds to warn them that there is a possibility they may be required to leave the UK if they have no lawful permission to remain.
The RSSS is pitched as a way of helping undocumented rough sleepers to establish their immigration status and, therefore, allow them to access much needed public funds. Hence it is easy to see why non-UK rough sleepers would sign up and provide consent for the use of their data without realising the consequences.
The Issues With Gaining Consent
There are clear issues with such an approach, including language barriers and the ability for some to understand what they are signing up to. After all, how many people click accept or sign documents without reading the details of what they are legally agreeing to? According to Benjamin Morgan of the Public Interest Law Centre, “In our casework experience, rough sleepers – especially those who do not speak fluent English – end up being asked to sign all sorts of documents without necessarily understanding the implications of what they are doing.”
In addition, it must be remembered rough sleepers being asked for consent to have their data used are in a vulnerable position. Ultimately they are seeking help for their basic needs and hence may be more inclined to sign away their consent if they think this is necessary to receive the help and services they need.
As explained above, some charities have sought to deregister from the scheme once they understood its implications. Liz Rutherford, the Chief Executive of the Single Homeless Project (SHP), explained to Liberty that the charity had only joined the scheme to gain better access to information to help four people who had been placed into a hotel during the pandemic which was being closed down. She advised that SHP would not re-join without a better understanding of the implications for service users; she stated, “We take our responsibility to safeguard our clients and their welfare very seriously and will not support any scheme that puts their futures at risk”.
How Has The Home Office Responded To Criticism Of The RSSS?
The Home Office continue to maintain that the purpose of the RSSS is to identify undocumented rough sleepers to help them resolve their immigration status and access public funds; “The purpose is to resolve their status and identify any additional support they may need… Charities and local authorities involved in the service should make the individual aware of the purpose of the service and get their consent to be referred”. This puts the onus on the charity and council to explain to rough sleepers what they are signing up for. Immigration solicitors at Reiss Edwards argue that for all charity and council staff who may interact and request permission from a rough sleeper to understand all of the 19 pages of guidance is simply not feasible. This justification somewhat echoes that given by the Home Office in relation to the New Plan for immigration which explains that they are simply trying to help those in need.
By wishing to be perceived as trying to help asylum seekers and non-UK rough sleepers while seeking new ways to deport them may be viewed by some with suspicion. The risk is that in taking such approaches, highly vulnerable people may find themselves being deported without being offered the support and help they need. It may be perceived that by signing up to the RSSS, a non-UK rough sleeper is effectively spinning the roulette wheel without knowing whether they will receive legal status and access to public funding or be deported.