Author: Diane Taylor
The Home Office has reversed its plan to evict thousands of migrants during the pandemic, the Guardian has learned.
The U-turn affects about 4,000 migrants who were facing eviction from Home Office accommodation.
Concerns were raised that the department’s plan to resume evictions of some refused asylum seekers with “immediate effect” could increase the spread of Covid and discriminate against people of colour who will be disproportionately affected by the policy.
A court order signed on Tuesday by government lawyers and their counterparts challenging the evictions policy confirmed that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had withdrawn it.
Government lawyers stated in a letter on Monday night that Patel had agreed to “have regards to advice provided by Public Health England” (PHE) when deciding about how and when to resume eviction decisions and the Home Office would review its current equality impact assessment relating to its evictions policy.
The legal challenge that led to the U-turn focused on the adequacy of the government’s consultation with PHE and on the home secretary’s assessment of the impact of evictions on the communities of colour that have suffered most from the pandemic.
At a high court hearing about the case this month the judge, Mr Justice Garnham, raised concerns that Patel could have been distributing public funds without legal authority in part of its accommodation policy. In a witness statement to the court, a Home Office official said: “At the time we did not consider what power, or whether we had the power, to implement what we saw as administrative changes. This was a response to the urgency of events and the immediate concern about keeping people in the same accommodation.”
Garnham said: “The secretary of state is saying that she was acting without lawful authority. It seems to me a most serious submission to be making in court, if that is what she is saying.”
The court heard that PHE’s view was that it could not advise that anyone “should be enabled to become homeless from a public health perspective” during the pandemic.
The case was adjourned to give the Home Office time to clarify the policy. It was due to resume this week but now that the home secretary has said she will withdraw the policy the hearing will no longer go ahead.
The evictions policy will be considered again when England reaches step 4 in the pandemic roadmap. At the moment that is scheduled to be 21 June, but the date has not been finally confirmed by the government.
The claimants’ solicitors, Kathleen Cosgrove, of Greater Manchester Law Centre, and Sasha Rozansky and Will Russell, of Deighton Pierce Glynn, welcomed the decision to withdraw the evictions policy.
They said: “Our clients challenged the home secretary’s policy to evict thousands of migrants during the pandemic on the basis that she failed to take into account the public health impacts this would have, in particular on disabled people and black and brown citizens.
“We are hopeful that her letter means that she will now prioritise public health over her hostile environment policies and that particular care will be taken to protect all those still at risk of serious harm from Covid-19.
“By withdrawing her policy and agreeing to think again, she now has an opportunity to consider these issues afresh and to ensure that, at least in respect of this policy, she does not expose asylum seekers or the wider public to unjustifiable health risks.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is completely inaccurate to claim the government has U-turned on a policy necessary to manage the asylum accommodation and ease the cost to the public.
“Throughout the pandemic, large numbers of failed asylum seekers have had accommodation and financial assistance provided at the expense of the taxpayer. It is right that as restrictions ease we begin to withdraw this support from those who are able to return home but choose not to. The next cessation decisions will be made no earlier than 21 June and will take account of advice from Public Health England.”