Revealed: Rough sleepers’ data shared with Home Office by councils and charities

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Critics say the risks of the programme outweigh any benefits

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

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English local authorities and charities have shared the personal data of dozens of non-UK rough sleepers with a controversial Home Office programme that could lead to their deportation.

The details of homeless people were shared with Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS) 85 times between 14 October 2020 and 23 December 2021, according to documents obtained by Liberty Investigates under Freedom of Information laws.

The service promises to identify within 24 hours whether an undocumented rough sleeper has an immigration status that allows them to access public funds, such as housing support.

But anyone found to have no lawful basis to remain in the UK could ultimately face removal – either voluntarily or forcibly. The Home Office would not confirm how many – if any – of the 85 people referred since October 2020 have been removed from the UK.

The Home Office began trialling RSSS in 2018 until the Observer exposed it as part of a strategy to quietly deport rough sleepers after acquiring personal data without their consent. Following a legal challenge by the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC), it was relaunched in September 2020 with a new requirement to obtain rough sleepers’ “fully informed consent”.

“Sharing our clients’ data with the Home Office through the RSSS ... puts them at increased risk of detention and deportation”

Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, policy and public affairs manager at migrant charity Praxis

Experts questioned whether fully informed consent was possible, given the potential vulnerabilities of rough sleepers, as well as language barriers and a power imbalance between them and the organisations contracted to help them.

Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, policy and public affairs manager at migrant charity Praxis, which has not used the service, said: “Our main concern is that sharing our clients’ data with the Home Office through the RSSS in its current form puts them at increased risk of detention and deportation, and this risk outweighs any benefit that the service may have.”

James Tullett, chief executive of charity Ramfel, which supports destitute migrants and also does not use the RSSS, added that rough sleepers are also at risk of being given the wrong advice. “From our casework experience, it’s plausible a person with a valid asylum claim could be told: ‘Nothing can be done, you should voluntarily return,’ when in fact it’s not true. They’ve just received partial information and the Home Office’s interpretation of their prospects,” he said.

The RSSS’s lack of independence, and the Home Office’s failure to remove the risk of deportation to those using the service, has made it untrustworthy and a “waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

A Home Office response to a Freedom of Information request shows that the referrals were made by 11 councils including Gloucester City and Leeds City; housing provider Keystage Housing; and three charities – one of which, Single Homeless Project, has since withdrawn from the scheme saying it wanted to avoid putting rough sleepers at risk.

Reporters asked all the organisations whether the people they referred through the scheme had been helped by it, and whether any had been deported or voluntarily removed.

Five answered, who between them had referred 13 rough sleepers using the RSSS. Nine had valid status, or were able to regularise their status.  One has an immigration application which is ongoing.  One council said it is waiting for information about a referral which is “on hold pending further investigations”, while another council received no response to its inquiry with the service.

One person was referred to the RSSS by Birmingham-based youth homelessness charity St Basil’s, wanting to leave the UK through the voluntary returns process – but then decided not to go through with it.

Two other organisations declined to answer, but said none of the 36 people they referred had been removed. One was Keystage Housing, Luton Council’s homelessness partner, which has made the most referrals (28). A spokesperson said: “We don’t discuss individual cases, however I can confirm that at the time [we] received an outcome for RSSS there were no instances of removal or deportation from the UK.” The other, Slough Council, added: “Some of [the eight people] referred have had their status sorted much faster than it would have been.”

What happened to the remaining 36 people remains unknown.

The number of rough sleepers using the RSSS appears to have fallen short of expectations within the Home Office, which is now conducting a review. In a letter dated 19 November 2021 inviting stakeholders to feed back, officials admit that “participation in the [service] has been low.”

Migrants’ rights organisations hope the review will at last resolve concerns expressed since the scheme’s inception in 2018.

Praxis said there should be a firewall between migrant rough sleeping services and Home Office enforcement teams.

Whitaker-Yilmaz added: “We firmly believe that migrant destitution is ultimately the result of harmful hostile environment policies. Any initiative to resolve migrant destitution must be underpinned by a robust rights-based approach and address the structural disadvantages that migrants face when accessing homelessness services and moving on with their lives.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We remain committed to the RSSS to help get people off the streets, which has been an open and transparent service throughout.

“The public expects those with no right to be here and who make no effort to legalise their status to be removed – either voluntarily or enforced.”

A version of this story was published in The Observer.