A critical issue

Dominic Williamson, Executive Director of Strategy and Policy, St Mungo’s, talks about the review he undertook into our approach to working with Home Office enforcement teams between 2010 and 2017.

Photo of Dominic Williamson and the Housing Minister talking to a St Mungo's outreach team during an evening shift.
Dominic Williamson (right) and the Housing Minister talking to a St Mungo’s outreach team during an evening shift.

Today (5 Nov 2019) St Mungo’s publishes an internal review I was asked to undertake by our board of trustees in response to criticism of St Mungo’s for “collaborating” in the Government’s “hostile environment” migration policy.

Our charity has spent 50 years helping people who are homeless and destitute on the streets around us. The desire to help was, and still is, melded with a real of sense of injustice and anger that our society seems unable – or perhaps unwilling – to guarantee the very basic of safety nets that might prevent our fellow citizens ending up deprived of dignity and the most essential necessity of life: a home.

This societal failing seems more intractable when the people are from elsewhere. Fifty years ago it was often people from Scotland or Ireland on the streets of London. This decade, alongside growing numbers of UK citizens sleeping rough, the “outsider”, has been more likely to be from Poland or the Roma community in Romania.

Over the years St Mungo’s has channelled that sense of solidarity and anger into developing our services and into campaigning for change. For us, the two go hand in hand.

Common goal

By the mid-2000s, government investment in services and reform meant the numbers on the streets had fallen by two thirds. Part of this success came from a close relationship between local authorities, charities and other partners, working together in partnership with a common goal of reaching out to and helping people to come off the streets for good. In some situations joint work included an enforcement element, for example, working with the police to tackle large encampments in order to reach exploited or vulnerable people.

While the numbers of UK citizens on the streets was falling, the accession to the EU of East European countries and the resulting migration brought a new group of people on to the streets. This was of such concern that in 2008 the Labour government’s new rough sleeping strategy promised that the Home Office would assist in finding solutions.

Engagement by the Home Office started as a pilot in Westminster in early 2010 and then extended to other areas in the next few years. Home Office Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (HO-ICE) teams conducted joint operations with local councils often working alongside outreach workers, including teams from St Mungo’s and other charities. The HO-ICE teams issued “minded to remove” warning letters explaining to the individual that if they continued to sleep rough, not exercise their EU treaty rights nor engage with realistic options off the streets, they could be detained and removed back to their home country in the EU.

For the homelessness charities involved this approach was seen as an extension of the “assertive outreach” model that had become established good practice over the previous decade. The warning of potential action by the Home Office was considered to be a proactive tool, giving outreach workers time to engage and support a change in behaviour before the threat of any enforcement action became a reality. The approach included the option to share basic information without consent as part of efforts to encourage people to take up options away from the dangers of the street.

Were St Mungo’s and the other charities wrong to work in this way?

Dying on the streets

During the review I spoke to colleagues who felt strongly for and against this approach.

Some colleagues said that by working in this way people would stop trusting outreach workers, avoid being found or even become aggressive towards them.

On the other side, those who supported it strongly felt this joint work was morally justified by the reality of the alternative: growing numbers of people left to become unwell, and frequently dying on the streets.

I heard some horrific stories from colleagues about the conditions in which people were living. One worker graphically described stepping through human excrement to get to a hidden area in a park where people were living in makeshift structures. Another explained how people were driven to stealing alcohol-based hand sanitiser from hospitals to drink. Emails I found in the review showed our teams sometimes working with severely mentally ill people where it was essential to establish where the person was from and that meant contacting the Home Office.

In many other cases it was clear that outreach colleagues were able to advocate for EU citizens, support them into work or tenancies and help them demonstrate to the Home Office that they were starting to exercise their treaty rights.

Change in approach

Then in May 2016 the Government introduced a change in policy that began to treat rough sleeping in itself as a breach of EU treaty rights (a policy which was ruled unlawful by a judicial review in December 2017). This policy change meant the window of opportunity to positively engage with clients became shorter and the rapid use of detention and removal became more likely.

As a consequence from July 2016 outreach managers at St Mungo’s agreed a change in approach, which said that working with the Home Office should become a last resort.

In the years before this, the Home Secretary Theresa May had announced her intention to make Britain a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants. This was quickly followed by the infamous advertising vans telling illegal migrants to “Go Home” and legislation requiring landlords to check the migration status of their tenants.

Campaigners against the hostile environment practice and rhetoric began to see any charity working with the Home Office as “collaborators”. St Mungo’s suddenly found itself the target of critical media reports and activist campaigning. For colleagues in outreach teams who had worked tirelessly to find solutions for homeless migrants, this criticism was particularly upsetting.

Critical lessons

This has been a difficult and painful experience for St Mungo’s. Which is why it is important that the review has highlighted a number of critical lessons for us. We made a number of mistakes – including not communicating our change in approach to all teams clearly enough, which meant that one outreach team out of 18 continued to share information with the Home Office until February 2017.

We also need to be very careful when we are under public scrutiny to make sure we know all the facts before responding.  And we need to be better at explaining our position where we are taking risks in the interests of our clients.

The executive team accepts that we could have done better. That said, the review found that St Mungo’s always acted lawfully and our outreach focus was, and continues to be the welfare of those we seek to help. Critically, I found no evidence that any individual suffered harm as a result of our approach.

Our policy on information sharing today.

My review dealt with the past, but going forward St Mungo’s is committed to continuing to deliver services to help migrants who are sleeping rough. I am proud of what we do to provide options to people who are destitute and have too few options because of their migration status.

Today we are accommodating more than 50 people who have no recourse to public funds whilst we work with them and our partners in the migrant advice sector to resolve their immigration status and help them find a home for good.

We will continue to evolve our approach but always with the safety, wellbeing and rights of our clients at the forefront.

And St Mungo’s policy on sharing information today is clear: we will not share any information about our clients with the Home Office without the client’s full and informed consent unless we are legally obliged to do so. If the request for information from the Home Office is related to safeguarding concerns, the senior safeguarding lead will assess whether releasing any information is necessary and proportionate. If they find data sharing is justified, the information will be shared with the local authority safeguarding team only, not directly with the Home Office.

The challenge continues

As we publish the review, the situation in relation to people who are sleeping rough remains complex and challenging. We will continue to do what we can to reach out to and help more people off the streets, whatever their immigration status.

My great hope is that going forward everyone who is concerned about this crisis on our streets will work together to urge the next government to take real action to support people to come in from the cold and to prevent more people dying on our streets.