The Home Office has quietly relaunched a controversial programme that uses councils and homelessness charities to obtain personal data that could lead to the deportation of non-UK rough sleepers.
Two charities and six councils have signed up to the scheme since it was relaunched six months ago, according to documents obtained by Liberty Investigates, a journalism unit of the human rights organisation Liberty.
When one charity was approached over its participation, it immediately deregistered from the programme, saying it wanted to avoid putting rough sleepers at risk.
The disclosure follows last week’s widely derided overhaul of the asylum system by the home secretary, Priti Patel. Campaigners fear this could dramatically increase the number of homeless foreign nationals by leaving future asylum seekers destitute without the right to settle permanently, work or claim benefits.
The Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS) was trialled by the Home Office from 2018 until the Observer exposed it as part of a covert strategy to deport rough sleepers after acquiring personal data without their consent.
Following a challenge by the Public Interest Law Centre, the Home Office amended the RSSS last September and relaunched it with a new requirement for charities and councils to obtain what it calls “fully informed consent”.
However, the Home Office would not reveal how many – if any – rough sleepers have since been deported under what critics say is an attempt to embroil charities in the government’s “hostile environment” policy.
Part of the scheme’s relaunch involves asking signatory organisations to sign up to a 19-page user agreement, which confirms deportation as one of four possible outcomes, telling them to give rough sleepers the opportunity to read it before signing a consent form.
The form states that “the service is not intended to identify or locate immigration offenders”, but there is a “possibility that you may be required to leave the UK” if the individual does not have lawful basis to remain.
Experts said consent obtained in this way was questionable, given the vulnerability of 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.”
She added: “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, Public Interest Law Centre’s EU homelessness coordinator, said: “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.”
The RSSS is touted by the Home Office as an express service to access information to help undocumented rough sleepers establish their immigration status and in turn help them access public funds.
When London-based charity Single Homeless Project (SHP) backed out of the scheme after being approached by Liberty Investigates, it said it had joined only because of problems obtaining paperwork to help four people who had been placed in a hotel during the pandemic, and were now faced with the premises closing down.
Liz Rutherfoord, chief executive, said an SHP team had used the RSSS in good faith, but that the charity would not rejoin without further investigation of the risks to the future of those they were attempting to help.
“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,” said Rutherfoord.
The second charity that signed up to the scheme, Camden Routes off the Streets, 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 the RSSS and was seeking clarity on the “boundaries and safeguards in place”.
A spokesperson for Reigate and Banstead borough council, one of the local authorities that have signed up to the scheme, said it referred one person but received no response.
A Home Office spokesperson said the RSSS did “not routinely” share an individual’s status for potential immigration action and was instead designed to establish if the rough sleeper had access to public funds.
“The purpose is to resolve their status and identify any additional support they may need.”
They added: “Charities and local authorities involved in the service should make the individual aware of the purpose of the service and get their consent to be referred.”