Banks and building societies are to carry out immigration checks which are to be carried out quarterly on 70m current accounts from January in the biggest extension of Theresa May’s plans to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants in Britain, the Guardian has learned. Banks have been told to adopt a default position of telling customers to take up the matter with the Home Office if a mistake has been made, even if they provide a passport or biometric residence permit showing they are lawfully present in Britain. Also, banks have also been told there is no requirement on them to contact account holders or require additional documentary evidence as part of the check.
The Home Office expects to identify 6,000 visa overstayers and failed asylum seekers and foreign national offenders facing deportation in the first year of the checks. Status checks are required by anyone opening a new bank or building society account under the Immigration Act 2014, but no measure has previously required checks on the scale of every current account in Britain.
The accounts of those identified will be closed down or frozen “to make it harder for them to establish or maintain a settled life in the UK”. Officials say freezing accounts that hold significant sums “will create a powerful incentive to agree to voluntary departure” so they can secure their money once they have left the country.
Welfare campaigners warned that the Home Office’s recent record meant it could not be trusted to implement this new system without errors and that migrants with every right to be in Britain were likely to be hit by mistakes in the imposition of the checks.
Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, criticised the move: “The government’s own record shows it cannot be trusted even to implement this system properly. Immigration status is very complex, and the Home Office consistently gives out incorrect information and guidance. Migrants and ethnic minorities with every right to be here will be affected by the imposition of these new checks.”
An official Home Office impact assessment acknowledged “the proposed measures may have the potential to impact on the appetite of firms to offer banking services to legal migrants who do not have permanent leave to remain in the UK”
Another official Home Office impact assessment acknowledges that rather than encouraging illegal migrants to go home it could simply drive them even further into the “hidden economy”.