Theresa May ignored Home Office warnings about potential discrimination from 'hostile environment' policies

One assessment foreshadowed Windrush scandal, while inspector accused Home Office of ‘explaining away’ discrimination in controversial rent scheme

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 20 April 2018 09:47
Theresa May said in 2013 that 'Go Home' immigration vans were 'too blunt an instrument'

Theresa May ignored repeated warnings from the Home Office over potential discrimination and hardship caused by “hostile environment” policies affecting migrants, it has emerged.

The current home secretary, Amber Rudd, has come under pressure to resign over policies enacted under her predecessor amid the growing scandal affecting the Windrush generation.

But four years ago, when Ms May was home secretary, an internal impact assessment found that plans to demand immigration documents from tenants could make it harder for foreign nationals to find homes, and provoke discrimination.

In a second warning in 2015, while Ms May was still the home secretary, her department assessed how the new Immigration Bill could deny migrants housing and driving licences or see their bank accounts frozen.

The document also foreshadowed the current scandal over threats to deport people who were welcomed to Britain during the Windrush arrivals.

“Some non-UK born older people may have additional difficulties in providing original documentation,” it said. “Some may have had their immigration records destroyed. Some will have originally come into the country under old legislation but may have difficulty in evidencing this.”

A third report, issued last month by immigration officials, accused the Home Office of “explaining away” evidence its policies were causing discrimination and suggested some “hostile environment” measures were not even having the desired effect.

Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said the latest development was "yet further evidence of the discriminatory nature of the government's immigration policy".

She told The Independent: “The Home Office under the Tories has brushed aside repeated warnings that this would impact migrant and other communities. They chose to ignore it.

“This government must start treating people decently. The hostile environment must end.”

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Reports of deportation notices being handed to people who arrived in Britain as children more than 50 years ago started to emerge in November, and outrage has mounted over British residents being refused vital medical treatment, benefits and work.

Amber Rudd has apologised for the “appalling” treatment and vowed to stop the deportation of Commonwealth citizens and to help them confirm their immigration status – a move made harder by the government’s decision to destroy thousands of landing cards.

Her suggestion that Home Office officials were to blame for the fiasco prompted Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, to urge Ms Rudd to “consider the political strategy and rhetoric adopted by her government over many years rather than suggesting it is individual civil servants who have lost their focus”.

But the impact of the “hostile environment” for illegal immigration – as Theresa May herself dubbed the onslaught of policies as home secretary in 2012 – has gone far beyond Windrush citizens.

Immigration checks have spread across public services, with the NHS demanding identification before treatment or charging patients, while sharing their information with the Home Office, and banks carrying out status checks on current accounts.

Police have reported victims of crime, including a woman who was raped, to immigration enforcement and teachers say migrant families are too “terrified” to attend meetings or sign up for free school meals.

Monitors cite the decision to drive Home Office vans telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” around Britain in 2013 as a turning point for the “hostile environment” policy, which the government recently rebranded as the “compliant environment”.

“Right to rent” checks requiring landlords in England to check prospective tenants’ immigration status, or face fines and criminal prosecution, have sparked particular concern and are the subject of a legal challenge.

A 2013 impact assessment by the Home Office said the policy “may provoke discrimination against those perceived to be a higher risk based on an unfounded belief that the person may be a foreign national”, while an evaluation of a pilot scheme two years later found black and minority ethnic people were being disproportionately asked for documentation, and reports of discrimination and exploitation by rogue landlords.

The government did not wait for the evaluation before deciding to roll the scheme out across England, saying afterwards that no evidence of “significant” discrimination was found. No time has been set for its planned extension to Scotland and Wales.

A report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration accused officials of “explaining away the evidence” when it was published last month.

The chief inspector, David Bolt, found no indication that right to rent checks were having the intended effect as part of the “hostile environment”.

More than 10,000 homes have been raided by Home Office enforcement but only 265 fines and no prosecutions have been handed out so far, he said, calling intelligence “sluggish” and communication “ineffective”.

“Concerns about right to rent’s impact on racial and other forms of discrimination by landlords, exploitation of migrants and associated criminality, and homelessness, have been raised repeatedly,” Mr Bolt said, adding that the Home Office has not attempted the scheme’s impact or discrimination allegations.

“It is yet to demonstrate its worth as a tool to encourage immigration compliance, and the number of voluntary returns has fallen.”

Campaigners said the failure was “disgraceful” and accused the Home Office of refusing to allow representatives of affected migrants to sit on a consultative panel.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), has launched a challenge against the measures, while the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) is working to stop the NHS handing patient information to immigration enforcement.

Rita Chadha, acting director of the MRN, said there is evidence that people are failing to report crime to the police or seek medical help because they fear being deported.

“Everyone understands what institutional racism is but now we have institutional hostility,” she told The Independent.

“Everyday organisations are closing their doors on migrants. It’s housing, it’s banks, it’s health, it’s the police, driving people into exploitative relationships where they become more vulnerable.

“There should be a cost-benefit analysis, not only for people’s lives and wellbeing but also the public purse.”

A Home Office spokesperson said it was taking the chief inspector’s recommendations on the right to rent scheme into account to make sure it was evaluated and communicated “as effectively as possible”.

“As the policy equality statement on right to rent specifies, we have undertaken significant work to ensure that the right to rent checks do not have an adverse impact on any age group,” she added. “This included working with charities, local authorities, landlords and letting agents on the range of documents required.

“We also set up an enquiry service to provide support to landlords delivering the checks and have worked with organisations such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to ensure that anyone who may be affected has access to advice and practical assistance to satisfy the check.”

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