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Inspection report on “hostile environment” finds hundreds wrongly denied services


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The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, has published five new inspection reports. The most interesting is on the “hostile environment”, specifically the powers to deny driving licences and bank accounts to migrants unlawfully resident in the UK.

The report reveals that the Interventions and Sanctions Directorate (“ISD”) responsible for enforcing the hostile environment has a staff of 146 and a budget in £5.5 million in 2015/16. It sounds like something out of a dystopian sci-fi film. It is, come to think of it.

Since the introduction of the power to revoke driving licences, 10,000 people have had licences revoked. The report found that hundreds of people per year had been wrongly affected and criticised the Home Office for its failure to appreciate the impact on the individuals concerned:

The Home Office provided figures for revoked driving licences that had had to be reinstated. While these cases amounted to a small percentage of the total numbers of revocations, the Home Office did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of such errors for the individuals affected, and its proposed avenue of redress for individuals who had left the UK with valid leave outstanding, and had subsequently had their licence revoked, was inadequate.

In 2015, 259 wrongly revoked licences had been reinstated. In the meantime, those affected would have been committing the strict liability offence of driving “otherwise than in accordance with a licence” (section 87 Road Traffic Act 1988). There was a particular problem with individuals who had left the UK and had their licence wrongly revoked but who had not received notice, meaning that if the person returned to the UK he or she would be committing the offence. The Home Office was unable to say how many people were affected already or to say how they would avoid doing this in future.

Further, where a driving licence was revoked correctly it was not terribly effective:

Only a small proportion of individuals who had had their driving licence revoked surrendered the licence to DVLA. This undermines the intended two fold impact of revocation: stopping illegal migrants from being able to drive lawfully, and from using a driving licence to access other benefits and services. While powers exist to prosecute for the non-surrender of a revoked licence, they are rarely used.

Similar problems existed with the banking denial provisions. 10% of the sampled cases were found to be wrongly listed as “disqualified persons”. There was no data being recorded on the number of current account application refusals but in 2015 there were over 16,000 searches of the database by financial institutions which led to a match with the disqualified persons list.

It seems a lot of people were wrongly being denied financial services and then even where a search by a financial institution matched with a known absconder, no action was actually taken by the Home Office. The extension of this power by the Immigration Act 2016 to close accounts as well as preventing them being opened is likely to lead to some very serious inconvenience to innocent people given the 10% error rate.

On the expansion of the powers in the Immigration Act 2014 by the Immigration Act 2016, the inspectors observe that there was no data to suggest that the earlier powers had been effective. Evidence based policy making this was not:

However, justification for extending the ‘hostile environment’ measures is based on the conviction that they are ‘right’ in principle, and enjoy broad public support, rather than on any evidence that the measures already introduced are working or needed to be strengthened, since no targets were set for the original measures and little had been done to evaluate them …

In the absence of even any ‘soft’ indicators of impact on, for example, voluntary returns, the Home Office lays itself open to criticism about the breadth of new legislation and the costs versus benefits. It is also harder for it to answer concerns about the potential damage to communities and to individuals.

The report notes that the numbers of both voluntary and enforced return have actually decreased during the era of the hostile environment. Two years after implementation, only early stage work was being done to attempt to analyse whether the hostile environment encouraged departures but no work was being done to research whether it discouraged arrivals.

So, the hostile environment is expensive, it catches innocent migrants in its net, criminalises them and denies them the banking facilities that are an essential aspect of modern life and there has been no attempt to evaluate the project even on its own avowed purpose of encouraging voluntary departure by undocumented migrants.

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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.