Latest step to combat illegal immigration runs into criticism from immigrant welfare group
A Government database of suspected illegal migrants is now being shared with banks to close their accounts and force them to leave the country.
The banks will be required to check around 70 million accounts and inform the Home Office when there is “a clear data match” with someone on its list, under the new crackdown.
Caroline Nokes (pictured), the new immigration minister, said the Home Office would “double-check and - where appropriate - instruct the bank or building society to close the account”.
“In cases where criminality is suspected, we may apply to the courts for an order instructing the bank or building society to freeze the individual's account,” she said.
The Home Office hopes to catch more than 6,000 illegal immigrants with British bank accounts in the first year of the new policy, an impact assessment stated.
People without a valid visa are banned from setting up accounts, renting property and working in this country, but the Home Office is aiming to stop many slipping through its net.
No blind eye
Confirming that the measure, included in the 2016 Immigration Act, had come into force this month, Nokes said: “This will prevent known illegal migrants from continuing to operate existing accounts.
“Those affected by these measures have had every opportunity to regularise their immigration status and have failed or not attempted to do so. We are not prepared to turn a blind eye to such actions.”
The Home Office said it was only sharing details of illegal migrants who are liable for deportation from the UK, or who have absconded from immigration control. Those with outstanding applications or appeals would not be affected – including asylum seekers – nor will those who have been granted leave to be in the UK, including refugees, it insisted.
But campaigners criticised the measures. Chai Patel, legal policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the Home Office frequently makes mistakes determining immigration status.
“What is shocking about this system is that people’s bank accounts, which they rely on for their jobs, their homes and every aspect of life, can be closed with no clear means of redress or compensation in case of errors,” he said.
“This places people affected at even greater risk of exploitation and of being driven into a cash-only economy at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and landlords.”
Nokes sought to calm concerns about errors, adding: “If, despite all the checks, an individual believes they are lawfully present in the UK and their account has been incorrectly closed, a dedicated Home Office telephone line will be available for them to report this.
“We are able to make changes to the database in real time, ensuring errors are corrected quickly, and banks and building societies are able to consider corrective action.”
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, she insisted: “Some sections of the community have expressed concerns about this - suggesting it will lead to innocent people having their accounts shut down. Let me be clear - that is not the case.”
The crackdown is a significant extension of Prime Minister Theresa May's promise to create a “hostile environment” for people believed to building a life in the UK without the right to be in the country. It follows similar, hugely controversial data sharing with the patient lists compiled by the NHS and the pupil database held by the Department for Education.
Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0