Telling the truth on the Hostile Environment

The Government’s ‘Hostile Environment’ policy, designed to co-opt public services and others into immigration enforcement, has been controversial from the moment it was announced in 2012. I have been one of many people to publicly oppose the policy. I have done so on a local, national and international level, pointing out the ways it demonises people without immigration status whilst also punishing those with the right to live in the UK such as the Windrush Generation.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read in the Bristol Cable that Bristol City Council was apparently refusing to join with other Local Authorities in taking a stand against the Hostile Environment as manifested in the Rough Sleeping Support Service. The article claims that unlike 11 other Councils, Bristol is “participating in the programme”, which is “using homelessness charities to pass rough sleepers’ personal information directly to the Home Office without their consent”.

Sadly for the Bristol Cable, but happily for Bristol’s rough sleepers, this claim is wildly, and wilfully, inaccurate. Before publication of the article, Bristol City Council were asked for a statement on their relationship to the programme. That statement, in full, read:

“Bristol City Council has not made referrals to the Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS) and would only work with them in order for people to be housed more quickly by reducing delays in obtaining settled status.

“The council’s view is that referrals should only take place after an individual has firstly received legal advice from a registered OISC (Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner) and has given their informed consent.

“Non UK citizens who are sleeping rough can spend months or years waiting to hear back from the Home Office in order to resolve their status and we are continuing to work with a range of local and national partners, including central government and our commissioned partner St Mungo’s, to find ways of supporting people to move off the streets regardless of their migration status.’’

How does this compare to the 11 Councils who are lauded for taking a stand against the scheme? Helpfully the Cable article provides a link to a Guardian story on this, which explains that “It is understood that 11 councils, including Brent, Croydon, Enfield, Islington, Hackney, Haringey, Lambeth, Liverpool, Newham, Oxford and Rugby, will not share the personal data unless explicit consent has been given.”

So the thing that marks out these 11 Councils in their opposition to the programme is a commitment that they will not share any personal data unless explicit consent has been given. As the BCC full statement says, that is exactly the position in Bristol. In fact, BCC’s position is even stronger, with the additional provision that a referral should only happen after an individual has received proper legal advice.

But rather than report the truth, that Bristol City Council are in fact leading the way on opposing the Hostile Environment, the Bristol Cable journalist Adam Cantwell-Corn decided to selectively quote from the Council statement, leaving out the critical sentence about requiring informed consent. He then supplemented this with some hostile quotes from an opposition politician, and ‘hey presto’ – news.

The hostile environment is one of the most damaging public policies of our time. It is therefore critical that people are properly informed about it, and are able to direct their rightful indignation about its impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable at those who are truly responsible. By misquoting the Council in order to falsely damn it, Adam Cantwell-Corn has done everyone a disservice. He has misinformed the people of Bristol about a critical issue in our society. He has eroded trust in the Council and its efforts to support rough sleepers off the streets. And by directing anger away from the Home Office and the Government, he has left those impacted by the Hostile Environment further away from the solution they need and deserve.

p.s At time of writing, Adam Cantwell-Corn is claiming that because the Council statement said that referrals “should only take place” with informed consent, this marks them out against the 11 other Councils. Such pedantry hardly merits a response. He has also criticised the Council for not making a public statement, despite the fact that I have blogged here within the last month about the need for a ‘complete rethinking’ of the Hostile Environment.

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