Home Office signs up charities to scheme that could lead to deportation of rough sleepers

AW crop
When approached by Liberty Investigates over concerns about the scheme, a London-based charity immediately deregistered.

Reports Aaron Walawalkar, Liberty Investigates journalist, and Mark Townsend, Home Affairs editor at the Observer. Edited by Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor.


The Home Office has quietly relaunched a controversial programme that uses councils and homelessness charities to obtain sensitive personal data that could lead to the deportation of non-UK rough sleepers.

Two charities and six councils have signed up to the Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS) since it was relaunched in September last year, according to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Liberty Investigates.

When approached by Liberty Investigates about concerns over the programme, London-based charity the Single Homeless Project immediately deregistered saying it had used the RSSS “in good faith” but did not want to use “any scheme that puts [clients’] futures at risk”.

The RSSS is touted by the Home Office as an express service to access information to help undocumented rough sleepers establish their immigration status – which can, in turn, gain them access to public funds.

But it was mired in controversy after the Observer revealed in 2019 that it was part of a shocking plan by the Home Office to obtain rough sleepers’ sensitive personal data without their consent. Enforcement teams could then use the data to deport those found to have no legal status.

Critics viewed the scheme as an attempt by the Home Office to embroil charities in its much maligned “hostile environment” policy.

It asked signatory organisations to sign up to a 19-page user agreement, which lists “deportation” among four possible outcomes, telling them to give rough sleeping clients the opportunity to read it before signing a permission form.

The RSSS’ written consent form states that, while “the service is not intended to identify or locate immigration offenders,” there is a “possibility that you may be required to leave the UK” if you have no lawful basis to remain.

"The person giving them this form is not someone who has Home Office or Border Force written on their tabard. It is somebody who they’ve turned to for help"

Julianne Morrison, Barrister

Experts spoken to by Liberty Investigates said consent obtained in this way was “questionable”, given the vulnerabilities faced by rough sleepers, language barriers, and the power dynamic between client and caseworker.

Barrister Julianne Morrison, who specialises in data protection, said: “The person giving them this form is not someone who has Home Office or Border Force written on their tabard. It is somebody who they’ve turned to for help. It’s very difficult to see how anyone can be sure that those in such a vulnerable situation, and in a situation of obvious power imbalance vis-à-vis the Home Office, are giving proper GDPR-compliant consent.”

Benjamin Morgan, PILC’s EU homelessness coordinator, added: “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.”

Rutherfoord told LI that one of its local teams, working in a hotel laid on during the Everyone In campaign, but which was about to close its doors to rough sleepers, used the RSSS with the best intentions. They wanted to help four homeless migrants regularise their status – a key step in securing publicly-funded help off the streets.

The team faced paperwork problems, she said: “They had approached other agencies for the information … They either didn’t have it or won’t be able to give it to you unless you have photo ID – and the whole problem for them was they didn’t have the information to get any kind of ID.”

The team did not realise there was “anything … bad” about the service, and there was no organisation-wide agreement to use the RSSS more widely, she said.

The RSSS supplied one SHP client with the information he needed to regularise his status, but in another case no useful information was found. Two other clients also did not receive any of their personal information through the RSSS but were directed towards other Home Office schemes.

After Liberty Investigates approached SHP, it backed out of the RSSS and said it would not rejoin until further guidance is published on a new immigration rule announced by the Home Office last October which will make rough sleeping grounds for revoking a person’s leave to remain.

“[This is] so that we can provide guidance for our staff so that they understand a) the role of the RSSS and b) what kind of risk assessment we should be doing on any referrals in the future,” said Rutherfoord. “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.”

Home Office Immigration enforcement vans in Southwark, London.

PILC’s Morgan said he had long been concerned that grassroots charities and day centres may resort to the service “with the best of intentions, but without understanding the possible implications” for those they are trying to support.

“We remain concerned that there do not appear to be any specific data-protection protocols setting out precisely how information will be shared through the RSSS and what safeguards are in place to protect the misuse of people’s data,” he added.

The second charity that signed up to the scheme, RTS Camden, run by charity Change Grow Live, did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for Camden Council, which commissions the charity to run a multi-agency rough sleeping support hub, said it had not referred anyone to RSSS and would only do so on the basis of fully informed consent and “will continue to seek for clarities” around the scheme.

Test Valley Borough Council also said it had not yet used it.

Luton Council said the two people it referred to the scheme were eligible for state-funded assistance and received positive outcomes. A Reigate and Banstead Council spokesperson said it referred one person to the scheme and received no response.

Somerset West and Taunton, Ribble Valley and Sedgemoor District councils have been approached for comment.

The Home Office did not confirm when asked if, and how many, rough sleepers had been deported using RSSS data since the scheme’s inception.

“If the service establishes that an individual has no leave or immigration status, this information is not routinely shared for the purposes of immigration action,” a spokesperson said.

“The purpose is to resolve their status and identify any additional support they may need.”

A version of this story was published in The Observer.