Changes to the Immigration Rules published on 22 October 2020 made rough sleeping grounds for refusing or cancelling a person’s right to remain in the UK and new guidance published last week has clarified Government’s intended approach.
The message from our members has been clear and unified since October and remains true: these Rules will drive people who are already vulnerable away from the support they need and will hamper efforts to end rough sleeping. By sowing fear and distrust in services, they directly undermine the work of the homelessness sector at a time when it is - in many ways - more difficult than ever. For these reasons, we are calling for these damaging and potentially discriminatory Rules to be scrapped immediately.
We welcome the emphasis in the Guidance that the policy can only be applied when an individual refuses repeated offers of suitable support and engages in persistent anti-social behaviour. Importantly, where a person has not been offered support or exhausted their support options because of restrictions to their eligibility, for example if they have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), the Guidance clarifies that the Rule should not be applied.
However, these limitations remain worryingly open to interpretation. It is unlikely to be straightforward to assess whether an appropriate support offer was made in the first place, or to understand the complex reasons - often related to past discrimination, trauma and mental health issues - that many people rough sleeping do not engage with support. Fundamentally, the policy goes against decades of good practice and learning on the trauma-informed approaches that work to support people who are sleeping rough, especially those who struggle to engage with services.
There will also be serious and damaging unintended consequences. The Rules target a wide range of people, including people who have the right to live here. While they are not intended to affect victims of modern slavery or applicants to the EU Settlement Scheme, for example, we know from past experience of similar policies that they will have knock-on effects on wider groups. The Rules risk being a new weapon in the arsenal of traffickers seeking to exploit victims of modern slavery. Information about the nuanced categories of those affected is unlikely to be understood by many on the ground, and uncertainty and distrust in services spread quickly through communities. Following the 2017 Home Office crackdown on EU nationals rough sleeping, later ruled illegal by the High Court, frontline workers have told us how fear and distrust persisted for a long time and affected their work with all migrant groups.
Finally, providers of rough sleeping outreach services are deeply concerned and uncertain about how these Rules will affect their services. The new guidance offers little clarity about how and if commissioned and non-commissioned homelessness services will be expected to participate, nor any consideration of the inevitable implications for confidentiality and trust.
Of course, participation by Local Authorities with this policy remains entirely optional. Homeless Link will work closely with councils and our members to protect the safety and integrity of our services while these Rules remain in place.
We share Government's goal to end rough sleeping by 2024. But to do this, we need a joined-up approach across Government that is not compromised by hard-line immigration policies.
We urge Government to continue the successful approach taken with Everyone In: to prioritise public health and support-led, trauma-informed measures and to suspend NRPF restrictions while the pandemic is ongoing. In addition, we call for significant investment in independent immigration advice and employment support, as a priority, to allow non-UK nationals to end their homelessness for good and to live healthy, productive lives.