On Sunday 4 April 2021, following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Liberty published findings from the Home Office’s Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) into its punitive and legally dubious ‘rough sleeping immigration rule’. The EIA shows that the rule may well discriminate against people on the basis of race, disability, pregnancy and age, but the Home Office argues that this is not “automatically unlawful” since it is justified in the “public interest” or for “public protection.” The EIA accepts the potential of the rule to discriminate on the grounds of race and gives the example of Asian women being made homeless because of domestic violence. It goes on to say:
“However, as rough sleeping is the primary identification criterion, any indirect discrimination on the grounds of race is not automatically unlawful and can be justified as it is proportionate to achieving the legitimate aim of protecting the public, by cancelling the permission of foreign nationals who cannot support themselves and who present a risk of harm by their anti-social behaviour.”
The Home Office has concluded that any discrimination that occurs can be mitigated by its exercise of discretion when making decisions about deportations. However, the reality is that in our experience, discretion is hardly ever used in a compassionate way or to exercise justice. It is usually used to prop up an increasingly harsh immigration enforcement system.
On 1 December 2020, the Home Office changed the UK immigration rules to enable caseworkers to refuse permission to stay or cancel any permission held by a person who has been rough sleeping. According to freemovement, “rough sleeping is defined elsewhere in the Rules as “sleeping, or bedding down, in the open air” or in “other places not designed for habitation”. Whilst some groups are exempt such as asylum-seekers, SBS is alarmed by this proposal which will impact on the majority of our users who are migrant women subject to domestic abuse and who often end up destitute and street homeless due to the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition.
On 18 December 2020, Southall Black Sisters, along with a coalition of over 30 specialist violence against women and girls (VAWG) organisations wrote to the Home Secretary Priti Patel to “raise our grave concerns” about the rule, which we said “will present severe risks to people experiencing domestic abuse and their children, who may be forced to stay with their perpetrators, experiencing further abuse and harm, if they are unable to seek help for fear of having to sleep rough and face deportation.” We urged the Home Office to reconsider its decision, stating that: “This amounts to double punishment for fleeing violence and flies in the face of promises made for a ‘humane, compassionate and outward-looking Home Office’, following the Windrush Lessons Learned Review.”
Government double speak
In our view, the Home Office response to the EIA lays bare the cruelty at the heart of the Home Office rule and demonstrates the ways in which the Government’s hostile anti-immigration agenda continues to trump the protection of women and girls from violence every time. In the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill through Parliament, the Government has espoused a narrative of treating all women as ‘victims first and foremost’, regardless of background or immigration status, but this is evidently not true. The Home Office’s has admitted as much by stating that its rough sleeping policy is justified even if it leads to discrimination towards migrant women fleeing abuse. SBS has long highlighted that BME and migrant women are at heightened risk of facing destitution and homelessness due to the punitive NRPF condition; which is itself the focus of our lobbying efforts in relation to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The immense irony is that this new policy will make it impossible for some women to exit from abuse for fear of finding themselves not only destitute, but also of being punished for their destitution – which is created by the NRPF condition in the first place. The rough sleeping rule gives a new meaning to the oft quoted sentiment that women are not safe in their homes or on the streets.
Whilst the tragic death of Sarah Everard has rightly sparked national outcry about the levels of violence against women in our society, we should not forget that this Government is actively creating the structural conditions that position particular women and children at heightened risk of violence and discrimination. The Government is knowingly and deliberately putting vulnerable women and other groups at risk of harm by enacting this rule, purportedly to ‘protect the public’. Such callous indifference is based on the assumption that the disabled and pregnant and migrant women fleeing abuse are not members of the public and therefore not deserving of the protection and human dignity afforded to others. As long as there is a climate of acceptance for this Government’s increasingly authoritarian use of power against some of us, none of us are safe. We will continue to draw attention to and fight against such forms of state driven violence and discrimination.