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Lord Roberts: New immigration checks on bank accounts could drive financial exclusion

3 min read

Retrospective immigration checks on bank accounts could force people into illegal economy, says Lord Roberts.

Britain is a nation with an dubious imperial past and a rather selective memory; one that has forced open the doors of countries the world over while continuing to close its own, bringing us to the latest measure to be implemented with a view to creating the ‘hostile environment,’ that Mrs May envisages will ‘incentivise voluntary departure,’ of ‘disqualified persons,’ - Schedule 7 of the 2016 Immigration Act seeks to supplement section 40 of its 2014 predecessor in precluding banks and building societies from opening current accounts for ‘disqualified persons.’  

What’s new about the latest Act, however, is its retrospective effect; in going further in applying not only to prospective bank accounts but existing ones, it allows for an estimated 70 million current accounts to be checked by anti-fraud organisation Cifas as of January 2018, once regulations have been put in place. While it’s uncertain that examination of such a number will play out in practice, there are more than a few reasons to be concerned.

For one, doubts have been cast as to whether the Home Office could seamlessly execute such a large scale change, with former TSB Board Member Phillip Augur telling BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that both banks and the Home Office are ‘not exactly known for flawless execution.’ The Home Office’s reputation for inaccuracy is nothing new, having been similarly flagged by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association which highlighted that the Home Office ‘frequently provides incorrect or out-of-date information about a person’s immigration status,’ noting the ‘extremely disruptive impact,’ that a bank account closure in error is likely to have, ‘given the need for an account to receive a salary or meet ongoing rent or mortgage payments.’

Such financial exclusion is a barrier to formal employment which forces vulnerable people not out of the country but out of the visible economy; at best, into illegal employment and the hands of exploitative employers and at worst to the human traffickers and modern day slave owners that Mrs May’s 2015 Act aims to tackle.

Moreover, setting aside the matter of whether a person’s status as an illegal migrant or a failed asylum seeker as opposed to a refugee is a morally relevant distinction (although one could argue that a person who has failed to navigate Britain’s mystified asylum system doesn’t deserve to be homeless and/or destitute by virtue of that fact), there are no guarantees that the legislation will not affect those legally in the U.K.

As noted by the Home Office itself, the similarly designed ‘right to rent scheme,’ which penalised landlords who let properties to illegal migrants did exactly that. Research by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has revealed that since its inception, ‘foreigners and British citizens without passports, particularly those from ethnic minorities, are being discriminated against in the private rental housing market,’ as landlords who are understandably deterred by the hefty sanctions imposed for renting to illegal migrants resorted to racial profiling.

Mrs May’s disdain for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants is clear. We all have a part to play in building a more inclusive country; one founded on Liberal values where diversity is recognised not as a disadvantage but as the asset that it is; part of what makes Britain Britain.

Lord Roberts is a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords

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