UK banks to check 70m bank accounts in search for illegal immigrants

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Banks and building societies are to carry out immigration checks 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.

The Home Office expects to identify 6,000 visa overstayers, failed asylum seekers and foreign national offenders facing deportation in the first year of the checks, which are to be carried out quarterly.

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 [for those involved] to agree to voluntary departure” so they can secure their money once they have left the country.

Immigration 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.”.

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.

The Guardian confirmed with the Home Office the January implementation date for the bank checks after being alerted by a reader who is a European national resident in Britain. Her husband spotted a reference to “changes to how we check your eligibility to bank with us based on your immigration status” in an email from Barclays detailing their latest changes in their banking terms of conditions.

Dominique Welbank said: “As a French national having lived here since 1991, and having been denied permanent residence because I do not have comprehensive sickness insurance, I have no confidence the Home Office will not extend this scheme to EU citizens like myself because of Brexit.”

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 new legislation requires the banks to check the identity of every current account holder against a Home Office supplied database held by an anti-fraud organisation, Cifas. It includes details of those whom the Home Office regard as liable for removal or deportation because they are overstayers, failed asylum seekers or those who have absconded from immigration detention.

Safeguards are included to prevent the closure of a bank account which would leave the account holder without the subsistence means to live. Account closure can also be delayed to recover debts or deal with complex joint accounts.

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” and promises to monitor the situation. Officials add that the banking laws ban discrimination against legally resident customers.

The January implementation of the quarterly checks on the current accounts operated by every bank and building society in Britain are part of Immigration Act 2016 measures to create a hostile environment for illegal migrants. Other measures include “right to rent” checks with heavy fines for landlords who let homes to illegal migrants, checks on driving licences and tougher measures against illegal working.

An 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”, but says this will not be a significant issue because they are already breaking the law.

“This policy is not expected to exacerbate the situation but to contribute to the hostile environment, encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the UK on a voluntary basis,” it says.

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.

A Home Office spokesperson defended the introduction of the checks saying: “We are developing an immigration system which is fair to people who are here legally, but firm with those who break the rules. Everyone in society can play their part in tackling illegal migration.

“As approved by parliament in December 2016, from January banks and building societies will be required to carry out regular checks on the immigration status of all current account holders against the details of known illegal migrants to establish whether their customers are known to be in the UK unlawfully. This is part of our ongoing work to tackle illegal migration. People who are here legally will be unaffected.”

A Barclays spokesperson said the bank was simply complying with the Immigration Act 2016 and the checks impacted on all customers regardless of nationality.

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