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Immigration check outcry sees officers removed by councils

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Labour councils are removing Home Office immigration officers embedded within local authorities after calls from party members and councillors to stop enabling policies that lead to a “hostile environment” for migrants.

Embedded officials sit in on meetings between councils and vulnerable migrant families and ensure the Home Office is made aware of each person that registers for emergency funds. They can also pass information to immigration enforcement officers, and have been accused of encouraging undocumented migrants to leave the UK voluntarily and of providing poor advice that could damage applications to stay in the country.

Campaign groups say destitute migrant families can be put off from asking councils for support fearing that the involvement of Home Office officials can mean immigration action will be taken against them. “Their job is to enforce government-made laws, not to help people,” a Labour source said. “It is not the responsibility of Labour councils to be informing on vulnerable migrants when they come to us seeking shelter and support.”

Damien Egan, the mayor of Lewisham, said the south-east London council was removing its embedded official “to reassure vulnerable migrants that Lewisham will support them”.

Another London council, Southwark, scrapped its embedded Home Office official last year. Last week the Observer reported that the Home Office was attempting to insert immigration officers in local authorities and private companies at a cost of hundreds of pounds a day, offering “real-time” access to information about people’s immigration status.

Public bodies are often required to check the status of people who use their services, as part of what Theresa May described in 2012 as a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants. Egan, who said he was elected last May after pledging that Lewisham would become a sanctuary borough for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, said: “It is now time for Theresa May to scrap her government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy which has done so much to scapegoat and harm migrants, and to give councils the funding they need to support their communities.”

The migrants’ rights charity Project 17 urged all councils to remove Home Office officials. “A Freedom of Information Act response obtained from the Home Office confirms that the job description of the embedded immigration officer does not permit them to give immigration advice,” a spokesperson said. “However, we are aware of cases where immigration advice has been given, which is often poor quality and could be detrimental to a family’s immigration case.

“Local authorities often justify the use of embedded Home Office workers on the basis that they will speed up the processing of a family’s immigration case. However, in the local authorities that employ these officers, we have seen no tangible evidence that it speeds up the process of regularising immigration status.”

The officials are often put in place to ease the growing costs facing the council, amid unprecedented cuts to council budgets since 2010, worsened by what a Lewisham council spokesperson admitted was “a chaotic immigration system”.

“The council had been left facing a bill of millions of pounds in supporting residents with irregular immigration status, while also suffering funding cuts running to tens of millions of pounds, which have left local government at breaking point,” the spokesperson said.

Although Southwark’s agreement with the Home Office came to an end on 31 September, the council chose not to publicise the decision. It follows a similar move by Labour-run Haringey council in 2017.

The Labour source said the councils were making a statement that they believe vulnerable migrants should be entitled to emergency funds without being passed on to the Home Office.

Members of the Lewisham & Deptford constituency party have submitted a motion to a regional conference in March calling for all embedded Home Office officials to be immediately removed from Labour councils. Nine other London boroughs, including Barking and Dagenham, Hackney and Croydon have seconded such officers from the Home Office, along with a number of other local authorities across the country.

A Southwark council spokesperson said: “The embedded officer’s primary role was to help the council understand the immigration status of adults and families seeking assistance … and to help expedite cases within the Home Office.”

A Home Office spokesperson said it was not an immigration official’s role to advise individuals. “Local authorities can request for immigration officials to be based in their premises to help ensure those that need support receive it. This includes helping single mothers, families with young children and individuals who would otherwise be destitute.

“Immigration officials provide details of individuals’ correct immigration status on a case by case basis and only at the request of local authorities. Local authorities use this information together with additional evidence and advice, including that from social workers, to make their decision on whether to grant access to support.”

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