The Town Hall’s use of an immigration officer who takes part in migrant families’ support assessments has come in for criticism from a migrants’ rights organisation and Hackney Green Party.
Hackney Council has defended the practice, pointing out that local authorities are required to inform the Home Office if a person seeking support is unlawfully resident in the UK, and no families have suffered “adverse consequences” as a result of their presence.
However, Project 17, which works with destitute migrant families to help them access council support, has stated that the presence of an immigration officer is acting as a deterrent, scaring people away from asking for help.
Eve Dickson, policy officer for Project 17, said: “Letting the Home Office know when someone approaches you when they don’t have permission to be in the UK is one thing, and then inviting immigration officers into child-in-need assessments is another.
“We sometimes meet people who are scared even of voluntary sector services. You can imagine the level of fear that a lot of undocumented people have. To approach a council is quite a big thing for a family in that situation to do, let alone to approach a council with an inhouse immigration officer.
“It’s always something that comes up when we speak to families about this. Unfortunately, because of the hostile environment and because of the perception of the Home Office by the families that we’re working with, an officer is going to be perceived as very intimidating and they’re going to deter some people from accessing support.
“We’ve never seen any tangible benefit from their presence. There’s something perverse about having an employee sit in to do standard checks that they can do by sending an email.
“It’s really for local authorities to decide that they don’t want to actively enforce the hostile environment. That needs to be a choice that they make.”
Local authorities by law have to assess the needs of the children of NRPF families, and have a duty to protect children in need in the borough, regardless of whether their family has no right to work, access to benefits or leave to remain in the UK.
Dickson said that, whilst Project 17 had seen some positive top-down change in culture and policy towards families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) led by Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville, the council’s retention of an immigration officer remained a “sticking point”, with reports of some families unaware that they would be meeting with an immigration officer .
Hackney Green Party have also condemned the practice, saying: “The Windrush scandal showed us once again that you cannot trust the Home Office to treat people decently.
“If the Labour administration really does care about the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, they won’t subject them to the trauma of having to justify themselves in front of the cruellest arm of the British state.”
Hackney Council are standing by the policy of keeping a Home Office staff member on site, stating that the immigration officer’s duties include verifying families’ documentation in order that they can access appropriate support.
Haringey ended this arrangement in 2017 after a number of complaints were lodged against its officer. Southwark has also done the same, and Lewisham has recently announced that its officer will not interact directly with families.
In Hackney, the council’s embedded Home Office employee will occasionally have direct contact with families that approach the council for support.
According to the Town Hall, this can happen when there are difficulties in reconciling the documentation provided by the family with the immigration service’s records, or where there is information about the family’s immigration circumstances that needs to be conveyed to them.
The officer’s core responsibilities also include providing families with an “overview” of their immigration status and voluntary return information if appropriate.
However, Project 17 have questioned the lawfulness of officers doing this; Dickson pointed out that “immigration advice is a regulated activity in the UK, so you’re committing an offence if you provide advice when you’re not registered to do that, if you’re not qualified.
“We, Hackney Migrant Centre and North-East London Migrant Action all have said that providing an ‘overview’ sounds to us like it comes very close to giving advice. We’ve argued with them about the definition of advice.
“It’s definitely something we would be concerned about, because in Haringey for instance, the kind of advice that the officer was giving families was totally in contradiction to the advice that they were receiving from qualified professionals in voluntary sector services.”
A council spokesperson said: “The presence of the embedded Home Office employee has assisted the council in making timely, informed and legal decisions about the provision of support to families with no recourse to public funds.
“They have assisted in highlighting such families to the Home Office in order that their immigration status and recourse to public funds can be positively resolved.
“None of the families supported by the council have been subject to forced removal from the UK or suffered adverse consequences because of the involvement of the embedded Home Office employee.
“In the case of the one family that sought support from the council as a consequence of the Windrush scandal, they were instrumental in ensuring that the family’s status was resolved as quickly as possible.”