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Anger over banks' account check system

CHECKS: From January, UK banks will be monitoring account holders to check their immigration status

PLANS FOR UK banks to carry out immigration checks on all its account holders could have a negative impact on black customers campaigners warn.

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.

Under the measures the government will be able to apply, without notice, for a court order to freeze the accounts of migrants found to be in Britain illegally.

The Home Office may also order banks to close accounts under the plans which are designed to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants by making it very difficult for them to open a bank account, rent a property, or get a driver’s license.

But campaigners say that the move could discriminate against some innocent black customers and leave more recent arrivals to the UK who will be forced to rely on cash more open to exploitation.

Satbir Singh from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said that when an inspection of the government’s proposed ‘hostile environment’ measures relating to bank accounts was carried out between January to July 2016 10 per cent of people targeted should never have been listed as ‘disqualified persons’ or should have been removed from the list, because nine had leave to remain, six had an outstanding application for further leave; and a further two had an outstanding appeal.

Singh told The Voice: “Banks have to check the immigration status of names that are flagged up by the government, but this is a very complex matter. The immigration trail of some individuals is very difficult for governments to understand and this is even more challenging for banks.

“Within the banking system there are hundreds of thousands of staff who have a limited amount of time to become proficient on this issue. He continued: “I believe the African Caribbean community will be particularly affected by the new directive.

“Although they will be given allowance individuals with large expenditures because of education, travel or who are in the process of appealing their immigration status are going to find it very difficult. If the financial assets of individuals are frozen they will go through a complex and time-consuming process with the Home Office.”

Singh said that concerns that the new bank checks could be discriminatory against innocent black customers were also based on the recent experience of government measures to stop immigrants from renting property.

According to a JCWI survey 27 per cent of landlords questioned were reluctant to open discussions with potential tenants who had a black sounding name. Singh, said: “It is only a matter of time before a family is forced into destitution, unable to open a bank account, to pay rent, to accept a job because an unknown bureaucrat at the Home Office has mistakenly blacklisted one of the parents.

"Even a valid British passport will no longer be enough to support their application to open an account. This is deeply sinister and must be a concern for everyone, including those who do hold British passport.”

Other campaigners echoed fears that the move could lead to new arrivals to the UK being exploited. His concerns were echoed by Philip Augar, a former TSB board member. Last week he told the BBC:

“This is in the hands of the Home Office and the banks, neither of which are exactly known for flawless execution. What happens when something goes wrong, if a bank account is frozen and the owner is entirely legal or if they’ve simply got the wrong name?

“Resolving those situations will be, in some cases smoothly done, but I can imagine it being an absolutely nightmare for some poor individuals.”

Writing in Red Pepper magazine Zoe Gardner, Communications Officer at Asylum Aid said: "Hostile environment’ policies are fantastic news for those who seek to control and abuse vulnerable migrants. Being unable to open a bank account means migrants are forced to rely on cash, or on lodging money with others, which obviously leaves them at risk of financial exploitation.

“This government’s obsession with cutting immigration yet further is fuelling more policies that lead directly to increases in this type of exploitation.”

Omar Khan of the race equality think tank the Runneymede Trust told The Voice: “Without a bank account people can't participate in our economy or society. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous landlords and employers and as the government rolls out universal credit it should be protecting everyone living in Britain from financial abuse and encouraging financial inclusion for all.”

A Home Office spokesperson defended the introduction of the checks. He said: “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.”

He said that the new moves were part of the government’s “ongoing work to tackle illegal migration. People who are here legally will be unaffected.”

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