Local councils in England are refusing to share sensitive personal data of rough sleepers with the Home Office over fears it could result in their deportation, the Guardian has learned.
A secret programme using homelessness charities to pass rough sleepers’ personal information directly to the Home Office without their consent was revealed by the Observer this month. Data shared through the scheme, which is currently in its trial phase, could lead to the deportation of non-UK rough sleepers in some cases.
It is understood that 11 councils, including Brent, Croydon, Enfield, Islington, Hackney, Haringey, Lambeth, Liverpool, Newham, Oxford and Rugby, will not share the personal data unless explicit consent has been given. Some local authorities have slammed the programme, criticising it as a manifestation of the “hostile environment” policy for rough sleepers.
Haringey council has called on homeless charities that hold contracts with the borough to follow the same principle of refusing to cooperate with the Home Office enforcement team, even when working in other geographic areas.
Emine Ibrahim, cabinet member for housing and estate renewal at Haringey council, said: “This is about privacy, this is about data protection and it is about human rights. How you behave as service provider in a situation where people are at their most vulnerable is important.
“Our primary focus is to help people safely exit the streets. We know the risks that are involved with rough sleeping and we want to make sure we have plans in place to ensure that, whatever people do, there is choice and consent is involved.”
Linda Smith, the deputy leader of Oxford city council, said: “I was deeply concerned to read the Observer report on the Home Office wanting to use homelessness outreach services to target non-UK rough sleepers for deportation. Oxford city council will never allow this to happen in Oxford.”
Smith said the council would only help people experiencing homelessness in Oxford return to their home countries with their unequivocal consent. “The Home Office’s hostile environment policy has no place in Oxford and we call on other councils to adopt our position,” she added.
Leading homelessness charities have come under fire in the past for sharing rough sleepers’ personal data with the Home Office, leading to their removal from the UK.
Lynnie Hinnigan, Liverpool city council’s deputy mayor and cabinet member for housing, said: “In Liverpool we will not support a policy that creates a hostile environment for rough sleepers.
“People who are sleeping rough are vulnerable and we work very, very hard in Liverpool to gain their trust so that we can offer them support.” Hinnigan pointed to the homeless shelter Labre House, saying “it guarantees a solution for anyone who needs one, no matter what their circumstances may be”.
Last year, the London borough of Newham was named England’s homelessness hotspot. The town’s mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, said: “We will not collude with the Home Office immigration service to further their repugnant hostile environment, which seeks to further marginalise and persecute our most vulnerable residents.” She added that the council recently set up a taskforce to tackle the housing crisis.
Diarmaid Ward, executive member for housing and development at Islington council, said the authority would not compromise the success of the work their outreach team does by encouraging them to participate in the hostile environment.
Ward said: “Islington will not be cooperating with the Home Office enforcement teams in sharing the personal data of rough sleepers. We also ask our partner agencies not to do so, and we have been unequivocal in our opposition to this practice.”
Alison Butler, Croydon council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for homes and Gateway services, said: “We do not and will not pass information on rough sleepers to Home Office enforcement teams. We assist people to remain here and we also help people experiencing homelessness return to their home countries if that is their choice. However we only do this, and will only ever do this, where they have expressed their wish to return, and when a package of support and transition has been developed with them.”
The Home Office established the programme, called the Rough Sleeping Support Service, last year.
A previous plan to deport EU rough sleepers was deemed unlawful and discriminatory by the high court 18 months ago.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with the councils’ statements and have been clear that the Rough Sleeping Support Service is not using charities or local authorities to target rough sleepers.
“Charities and local authorities use the service on an entirely voluntary basis and no information is passed to the Home Office for assistance without their knowledge.”