Victims of domestic abuse: data-sharing for immigration purposes

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 17th June 2020.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must make arrangements to ensure that personal data of a victim of a domestic abuse in the United Kingdom that is processed for the purpose of that person requesting or receiving support or assistance related to domestic abuse is not used for any immigration control purpose without the consent of that person.

(2) The Secretary of State must make arrangements to ensure that the personal data of a witness to domestic abuse in the United Kingdom that is processed for the purpose of that person giving information or evidence to assist the investigation or prosecution of that abuse, or to assist the victim of that abuse in any legal proceedings, is not used for any immigration control purpose without the consent of that person.

(3) Paragraph 4 of Schedule 2 to the Data Protection Act 2018 shall not apply to the personal data to which subsection (1) or (2) applies.

(4) For the purposes of this section, the Secretary of State must issue guidance to—

(a) persons from whom support or assistance may be requested or received by a victim of domestic abuse in the United Kingdom;

(b) persons exercising any function of the Secretary of State in relation to immigration, asylum or nationality; and

(c) persons exercising any function conferred by or by virtue of the Immigration Acts on an immigration officer.

(5) For the purposes of this section—

“consent” means a freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the victim or witness, by an express statement of that person signifying agreement to the processing of the personal data for the relevant purpose;

“immigration control purpose” means any purpose of the functions to which subsection (4)(ii) and (iii) refers; “support or assistance” includes the provision of accommodation, banking services, education, employment, financial or social assistance, healthcare and policing services; and any function of a court or prosecuting authority;

“victim” includes any dependent of a person, at whom the domestic abuse is directed, where that dependent is affected by that abuse.”—(Jess Phillips.)

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to make arrangements to ensure that the personal data of migrant survivors of domestic abuse that is given or used for the purpose of their seeking or receiving support and assistance is not used for immigration control purposes.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I want to begin by telling the story of my constituent Marian, who is a lovely woman. She was able to access the domestic violence destitution fund that we have been talking about today. She was in the middle of the process—thus proving that one does not get automatic, indefinite leave to remain from that scheme—of accessing potential indefinite leave to remain. She is now on a two-and-a-half-year roll of immigration cases.

Funnily enough, I received the death threat to Marian, because it was sent to my office. It was a death threat to her and some members of her family, both here and in Pakistan. I handed it over to her and then spoke to the police. She then called the police, because she was concerned about the threat to her life. She has been a victim of domestic abuse for a while.

The police turned up at her house. Marian’s English is not particularly good. The next time I heard of her, her neighbour was calling me to tell me that she had been taken away. I said, “What do you mean she’s been taken away?” They said, “She’s been taken to Bradford.” Bradford is another site where there is quite a lot of refugee accommodation. It is not uncommon for people in the immigration system to be moved from Birmingham to Bradford, so I thought, “Something must have gone wrong here.”

Then Marian called my office and said that she was in Yardley, which was again confusing. Eventually, I got to the bottom of it: she was in Yarl’s Wood in Bedford. She had been taken to detention, because the police, while they were at her property, had seen her Home Office immigration papers on the side. Instead of taking her, with the death threats against her, to a place of safety, they detained her in a detention centre, when she had every right to be in this country. She followed to the letter all the exact rules laid out by the Minister today. Funnily enough, she is still here.

That case of my constituent is not an isolated one, as I found out when I started to look into it. It is not uncommon for such action to be taken when people come forward, whether they are victims of rape or of crimes that are not related to violence against women and girls. A number of cases were raised during the Windrush scandal about victims coming forward and being told that they were going to be taken to detention. Some were wrongly deported. This is not a new issue.

The absence of a safe reporting mechanism enables perpetrators to continue their abuse against victims, as they are afraid to report them to the police for fear that their immigration status will be used against them. The Home Office has now recognised in its statutory guidance framework on controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate and family relationship that perpetrators routinely use immigration status as a tactic of coercive control towards migrant women.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Is not that the point about data being shared between the police and immigration services? The very fact that immigration status is sometimes used by the abuser to exercise coercive control over the victim means it is good that sometimes information is shared between the two authorities.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I absolutely agree. I would say it is very uncommon, when someone whose immigration status is either in process or unstable has come to see me for help about domestic abuse, for me not to get in touch, eventually, with the Home Office. That is absolutely the case. It is totally bread and butter that I would say, “I am going to take your case, and here are the things that you might need for this part of your life—and also we need to settle your immigration status. We need to sort this out so that it cannot be held over you.” The hon. Gentleman is right.

In those circumstances I seek the consent of the person to that, and that is all I am asking for in the new clause. I do not know when the rule was brought in that we now have to get people to sign something to say we are going to get in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions, for example. We all do it quite routinely in casework. We seek consent. If I am getting in touch with the Home Office, the likelihood of the constituent being carted off to detention will be almost zero. They do not make that mistake too many times the wrong way. However, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine is absolutely right. I recognise the argument that we need a system through which the police can help with immigration. All I would seek in that circumstance is consent.

The issue goes back to what would happen if I walked into a police station and said that someone had hurt me or was threatening to kill me—in fact, I have to do that quite regularly. No one has ever asked me my immigration status—not once. They dealt with me primarily as a victim in front of them. Fair enough, because I am a quite well known Member of Parliament, and I presume that they assume. However, I know very few white British people who would ever be asked their immigration status. All I seek through any of my new clauses or amendments is equitable treatment from the beginning. The fact that that is not given, and the fact that such cases happen, has unfortunately given perpetrators another tool and enabled them to say, “They’ll throw you in detention.”

The Minister focused earlier on the need for legislators always to be aware of how systems can facilitate abuse, and how unintentional and collateral damage can be used, giving perpetrators tools to inflict suffering. She set it out clearly, with lots of cases. Perpetrators can use the current situation against victims. That is how the way we process victims when they come forward is currently being used. The Minister made a compelling case about the issues with county lines, and this bit of law is currently being used by perpetrators.

Data sharing is a breach of both the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Government’s international human rights obligations to treat victims with respect in a non-discriminatory way. Articles 4 and 59 of the Istanbul convention—it has never had so much airtime—which the Government have signed and are committed to ratifying, require victims to be protected regardless of their immigration status. However, freedom of information requests have shown that 27 out of the 45 police forces in England and Wales share victims’ details with the Home Office. We cannot necessarily assume from those FOIs that they are sharing such information without good intention, but we do not know. I would argue that it is prioritising immigration over victims’ safety.

Establishing safe reporting mechanisms within the Bill will give survivors the confidence to report their perpetrators and to access justice and safety. It will also provide direction to statutory services that their priority is to safeguard victims. I think of my constituent—what do hon. Members present think is the likelihood of her ever calling the police again? I think it is pretty unlikely.

There have been suggestions that data needs to be shared to safeguard victims, but the Government have not provided any examples or evidence to demonstrate where a victim has benefited from data sharing between the police and immigration enforcement that could not have been achieved by signposting the victim to a relevant support service. Nobody is suggesting that we do not try to help those people.

As somebody who does a huge amount of immigration casework, I have never known a police officer to take forward a client’s immigration case. I have a huge amount of time for the police force in my area, but I do not think that they are sitting down and helping people fill in forms for the Home Office. Nor do I think they should be; it is not their job. If, through speaking to immigration services, they refer people to services such as their local MP, Southall Black Sisters and Women’s Aid in their area, I could totally understand that. However, we have absolutely no evidence that that is what is happening. Unfortunately, we do have evidence—as I have mentioned—of numerous examples of victims reporting that they have been turned away, interrogated and even detained. The system instils fear in potential victims who are exploited by perpetrators, so they do not come forward and will never report their abuse.

By definition, women who report abuse to the police and other services are coming forward; they are not trying to go underground or evade authorities. They need legal advice and specialist support in order to resolve their situation. The first step will be resolving their insecure immigration status. Specialist agencies have estimated that this might take between four months and 2 years. To catapult victims into the immigration enforcement system without legal advice or support at the point at which they are simultaneously most vulnerable but have also bravely taken the first step to escaping abuse, is not only unnecessary and counterproductive; it is also cruel.

There are some nuances about illegal immigrants and not-illegal immigrants. In the case that I am talking about, the victim was entirely within the process set out by the Home Office and living completely within the correct system, but she still ended up being detained. Victims of domestic abuse need to be treated as victims of domestic abuse—end of. When a victim of crime comes to a public body in a crisis, we must respond to that cry for help, and to that cry for help only. We need crystal-clear guidance for our often overworked police and public services. The police must offer protection, investigate the crime and signpost the individual to the specialist domestic abuse service provider, where appropriate legal advice and support can be accessed. As the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine said, where it is in a person’s best interests to have immigration advice, nobody would want to see anything else.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:30 pm, 17th June 2020

As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has explained, new clause 37 seeks to prevent personal information about victims of domestic abuse from being shared for the purpose of immigration control in cases where the individual has not given their consent. The new clause seeks to ensure that migrant victims are not deterred from reporting domestic abuse or seeking support for fear that immigration enforcement action will be taken against them.

The Government share that objective, and it was shared by the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which made a related recommendation in its report. Before I turn to the issue of consent, the hon. Lady may recall our response to the Joint Committee last year. The Government were clear that all victims of domestic abuse should be treated first and foremost as victims. That is set out in relevant guidance from the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Although we were unable to hear from Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe, the national policing lead on domestic abuse, during the Committee’s oral evidence session, she did give evidence on the previous iteration of the Bill. She was clear that there would be circumstances in which information sharing between the police and immigration authorities is in the interests of safeguarding victims of abuse. It can help resolve a victim’s uncertainty about their immigration status.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine made a point about removing the perpetrator’s ability to coerce, control and manipulate. It can also help prevent victims from facing enforcement action if they are identified by immigration enforcement in an unrelated system. On the particular constituency point that the hon. Lady raised, I ask her to speak to me afterwards as I would like to investigate further.

To ensure the victim’s needs are put first, the National Police Chiefs’ Council strengthened its guidance in 2018, setting out a clear position on exchanging information about victims of crime with immigration enforcement to encourage a consistent approach across the country. That gives us confidence that data sharing will operate in the interests of the victim.

Turning to the points on consent, alongside our duties to protect victims of crime, the Government are equally duty bound to maintain an effective immigration system, not only to protect public services but to safeguard the most vulnerable from exploitation because of their insecure immigration status. The public expects that individuals in this country should be subject to our laws, and it is right that when individuals with an irregular immigration status are identified they should be supported to come under our immigration system and, where possible, to regularise their stay.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I take on board what the Minister is saying, but I keep coming back to the fact that a crime has taken place: it is domestic abuse; it is violence against women. We are making it difficult for the authorities to act in a lot of cases by making the victim afraid of coming forward and we are not identifying people who are a danger, and not just to those women but to others.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. It is the balancing act that the Government must employ, and not just on this subject matter. Where there are competing interests, we have to try to find that balance and we take that very seriously. We listen very carefully to concerns that are raised—I am very happy to discuss individual cases outside the glare of the Committee—but we have to abide by our duty to ensure that there is an effective immigration system. We have to balance that against our duties towards the victims.

The data exchanged between the police and law enforcement are processed on the basis of it being in the public interest, as laid out in articles 6 and 9 of the General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018.

The problem with consent is that it can be withdrawn at any time—that is the point of consent. As such, it cannot be the basis on which public bodies, such as the Home Office, discharge their duties in the interests of all of the public. To require consent would, we fear, undermine the maintenance of effective immigration control.

I emphasise that we must, of course, keep the NPCC guidance under review, and we work with it to do just that. There are other ways of scrutinising the conduct of the police and, indeed, the Government. We know that there are two forms of legal action on this subject at the moment. Clearly, we will reflect on the findings of those cases when they are delivered.

I very much understand the motivations of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley in tabling the new clause, but I must balance the interests of victims with the need to ensure that our immigration system works as effectively as possible.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity in wanting to ensure that this matter is sorted out. She invoked the public, and she is right that the public would expect people to live within the rules. However, I think if we asked the general public, “Would you rather a rapist was not reported or that somebody got to stay in the country a bit longer?”, they would be on the side of ensuring that crimes are properly investigated and that people come forward to help deal with those crimes.

All I am trying to do is send a clarion call to victims: “You will be safe and you will be supported if you come forward.” All we are ever trying to do in the field of domestic abuse is to increase the number of people who come forward. That is why we would never ever criticise when domestic abuse figures go up, although it would be easy to use it as a blunt tool and do that; in fact, we all celebrate the idea that more people are coming forward. That is all I seek to do with the new clause. I do not doubt that the Minister agrees and wishes to ensure that that is always the case.

What I would ask, as the situation is reviewed and as we work with the NPCC, is for some sort of evidence—once again, we are calling for an evidence base—that when these matters are passed on to immigration control, it is less about enforcement and more about safeguarding. I am sure that, over a period of time, that data could be collected.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.