Tuesday 5 November 2019
Homelessness charity St Mungo’s has today made public an internal review into information sharing practices with the Home Office between 2010 and 2017.
The review was established following public criticism for the way in which some St Mungo’s outreach teams worked with the Home Office immigration and enforcement teams when seeking to help EU citizens who were sleeping rough.
Formal complaints were submitted to the Charity Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2018. Both regulatory bodies found that St Mungo’s was acting lawfully and within regulations. Even so, St Mungo’s Board asked a senior member of staff to undertake an internal review into this matter and committed to sharing its findings. The review included interviews, evidence gathering from email archives, minutes of meetings and other fact finding. Members of staff were invited to come forward and talk confidentially if anyone had evidence or concerns.
The main findings were:
- Between 2010 and 2016, some St Mungo’s outreach teams worked alongside the Home Office in an effort to encourage destitute EU citizens who were sleeping rough to take up realistic options off the streets. This approach did sometimes involve sharing basic information about individuals with the Home Office without their consent. This was lawful under data protection law and recognised as good practice by London Councils, the GLA and Homeless Link in the 2015 Pan London Protocol.
- Our approach changed in May 2016 when the Government introduced a new policy which regarded rough sleeping in itself as a breach of EU treaty rights. This meant that people sleeping rough were liable to more rapid detention and removal with less opportunity to find alternative solutions. At this point St Mungo’s outreach managers agreed that working with the Home Office would be a last resort and information would no longer be shared without consent.
- However, against these expectations, one of our 18 outreach teams continued to share information between July 2016 and February 2017. The fact that one team had not changed its approach also meant that when we explained our approach externally at this time, it did not completely reflect what every team was doing or the change in approach that outreach managers had adopted from July 2016.
- St Mungo’s policy now clearly states that we do 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. In the case of 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.
Howard Sinclair, Chief Executive of St Mungo’s, said: “Accountability is one of St Mungo’s values and we take our responsibilities as a charity extremely seriously. We promised to review our actions and share our findings. Today we are delivering on that promise.
“There are important lessons for us from the review. We could have done more to explain the change in approach to internal teams and should have been quicker to put the change in approach into formal policies and procedures. The Executive team takes full responsibility for this and is sorry it happened. We have learned from it and have introduced new procedures to ensure a consistency of approach going forward.
“Our outreach managers changed our approach in 2016 in response to the significant change in Home Office policy which meant an increased risk of people sleeping rough being removed and deported with a reduced opportunity to find alternative routes off the streets.
“Our policy now is clear – we don’t share information with the Home Office without the client’s full and informed consent unless we are legally obliged to do so.”
Sinclair added: “While this report dealt with the past, the disgrace of a rough sleeping crisis continues. More than 720 people died last year while rough sleeping or homeless. Homelessness remains a national scandal and St Mungo’s is steadfast in its commitment to ending it and helping people rebuild their lives. But charities can’t deal with the problems people are facing alone. Services for EU and other non-UK citizens are either full or non-existent.
“We need urgent concerted government action if we are to stop more people living and dying on the streets. Everyone needs safe realistic routes for them to move on, be reconnected to services in other European countries or found decent, safe temporary accommodation, with appropriate healthcare, while their legal status is resolved.
“St Mungo’s outreach teams go out on the streets all year round to find people sleeping rough and to support them off the streets as quickly as possible. Many of the people they work with are extremely vulnerable and unwell, and I know our staff prioritise client safety and wellbeing at all times, despite the extremely difficult circumstances they work in. We are proud of the work they do. If a vulnerable person with no home, no money and no access to support in the UK, is to be supported away from the streets it takes a great deal of effort and the involvement of a range of agencies. Right now the help available for this group is far from adequate. Above all, the person’s safety and welfare is paramount.”