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Has Sunak’s bank account closure plan killed off the Windrush Lessons Learned Review?

One of the measures announced by Rishi Sunak in his asylum statement on 13 December 2022 was the re-starting of hostile environment immigration checks on bank accounts. These checks were introduced by the Immigration Act 2016 but were paused by Sajid Javid in 2018 when he was Home Secretary. There was no consultation on Sunak’s plan and it seems to herald government disengagement from the ongoing Windrush Lessons Learned Review process.

These banking checks are extremely controversial. The Immigration Act 2014 already required banks to conduct immigration checks before opening a new account. This already proves problematic for refugees and students in particular, but at least it does not involve losing something you already have. Having your existing bank account closed on you is a whole new level of catastrophe.

Imagine it. With no notice, you suddenly cannot make or receive any payments. The only money you have now is whatever was in your wallet. You cannot buy food, travel or pay rent. Your phone will soon run out of credit. You cannot pay a lawyer to try and sort things out, either, because you have no money.

Some people will say this is fine if those affected are illegal immigrants with no right to be here. Personally, I disagree with this. These sorts of measures force people into destitution and leave them open to exploitation. There is no evidence that they actually persuade or force people out of the country, though. They make life hard and marginal, but not that hard and marginal. Voluntary departures from the UK have actually plummeted since 2016. I am not OK with a measure that is supposedly about immigration actually having no immigration impact, just a disastrous social and economic one. To my mind, the hostile environment is different to and worse than actual removals. I’m never going to be happy about being people forced onto a plane — it certainly isn’t my dream, Suella — but I accept that this is a necessary part of a functioning immigration system. I know some readers of this website will disagree with my premise here.

One problem is that the Home Office immigration data on which these checks are based is known to be seriously flawed. There are mistakes in it, basically. For example, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration said in a report on small boat crossings in July 2022 that “data, the lifeblood of decision-making, is inexcusably awful”. In another report on juxtaposed controls in October 2022 he recorded that “there were issues with poor record keeping and incomplete or inaccurate data entry. This echoes findings from previous inspections and internal Border Force assurance reports.” The last annual report, published in September 2021, summed it all up:

It has been a regular feature of ICIBI inspections across all areas of BICS that the data inspectors have required to test the efficiency and effectiveness of a particular function has not been readily available. In many cases, it has not been recorded, or not in a form that is retrievable. Meanwhile, the BICS [Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System] data that has been provided has frequently been incomplete and unreliable. The obsolescent Casework Information Database (CID) is often “blamed” for this, and the department has pointed to its replacement, Atlas, as the answer.

The report went on to say that the “roll-out” of the new Atlas database “has suffered repeated delays” and that focus on this supposed panacea “has diverted attention away from the fact that record keeping standards are simply not good enough”. The new system “will only be as good as the information that is entered onto the system” and there is “a great deal of work to do to embed a proper regard for accurate, detailed record keeping.”

Another problem is that the checks are actually carried out against a privately-maintained third-party database which is derived from the potentially faulty Home Office data. This must be a “specified anti-fraud organisation or a specified data-matching authority”. This is CIFAS, which describes itself as a not-for-profit fraud prevention organisation. Exactly what data is shared by the Home Office with CIFAS and how is not clear, at least to me.

Another problem is that the banks are forced to check a person’s details against this Home Office data and then forced by the Home Office to close the account “as soon as reasonably practicable” if the check comes back negative.

Another problem is that there is no effective or timely remedy available. Complaining to the bank is pointless because they have no discretion and do not control the data. Complaining to CIFAS is pointless as they don’t control the data either. Complaining to the Home Office is pointless because it’s the Home Office, a defensive, impenetrable, labyrinthine bureaucracy. What are you going to do, call the helpline? Good luck with that.

Another problem is that, since these measures were introduced in 2016, some six million EU citizens have passed through Home Office data records. A tiny percentage of errors affects a very considerable number of people. And it affects them catastrophically.

One of the original recommendations by Wendy Williams, author of the report, was to review the hostile environment laws and measures both individually and cumulatively. Some progress was being made on this, apparently. The Home Office had published a comprehensive improvement plan. A review of the right to rent policy was promised but is yet to be published. A follow-up report by Williams published on 31 March 2022 set out the detail of what the Home Office has been doing.

The Home Office has conducted a “discovery phase” on its own laws and processes. It might be observed that it seems a bit late for that. This has “revealed an extremely complex data landscape whereby some data is held by us, some is held by other parties, and some is not held by us at all (where third parties have acted but may not have data to share and are not obliged to share with us anyway)”. As Williams dryly observes, this is hardly unexpected, at least to anyone else. She goes on, very politely, to criticise the Home Office for failing to conduct the promised review with sufficient urgency. Williams concluded that the review recommendation had not been implemented yet.

And now we hear that banking checks are to be re-started.

It’s probably time to call it: the Windrush Lessons Learned process looks dead. It is a shame, as there did seem to be some serious work being done on this by some people at the Home Office. I cannot imagine they will be happy about this latest development.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.