Bankers should not become immigration officers


Author: Sarah Gogan


This article first appeared on The Times’ Brief Premium website on 19 September 2017, and is accessible online here.

Laws designed to prevent illegal migration could harm people legitimately working in the UK, argues Sarah Gogan

Theresa May’s aim of creating in Britain “a really hostile environment for illegal migration” is embodied in two pieces of legislation, both of which could have damaging consequences for many individuals and create a wider risk of discrimination against legal migrant workers.

The Immigration Act 2016 requires banks and building societies to check accounts and prevent continued access to banking for illegal migrants. The act also delegates to the Treasury the power to make regulations determining how the regime would work in practice.

The Immigration Act 2014 (Current Accounts) (Compliance) Regulations 2016 come into force on October 30. Considering how far reaching and draconian the regulations are, there has been little press comment over how they would affect not only ordinary individuals, but also those working in financial services, who will shortly be playing the role of immigration officers.

The requirements place additional obligations on banks and building societies to check for any existing accounts that should not be operated because of the account holder’s immigration status, in which case they are to notify the secretary of state. Subsequently an order may be obtained requiring the bank or building society either to freeze the account or close it.

From January 1, 2018, a bank or building society must carry out these checks during the successive quarter of each year. In practice this means carrying out checks on personal current accounts. The bank or building society must then be able to demonstrate to the secretary of state the steps that they have taken in order to comply with these requirements.

The legislation can be described as hostile not only to those who enter or stay in the UK illegally, but to those whose status might be irregular for a whole range of different reasons. It turns ordinary bankers into immigration officers who must then enforce government policy on pain of civil and criminal penalties.

These provisions are controversial, and there is an on-going debate between the finance sector on one side and the Financial Conduct Authority and the Treasury on the other about the practicalities.

There is also a fear that the finance sector may become overzealous and nervous of falling foul of their new requirements. The banks and building societies will have access to an immigration portal that will allow them to match account holders’ names against data held by the Home Office on illegal workers. This raises concerns about data being incorrect and the repercussions on ordinary citizens.

Minor omissions can transform a migrant into an “illegal migrant” and cast them out into the “hostile environment”. Freezing a migrant’s bank account will affect that person’s ability to pay a mortgage or receive a salary. This in turn can prevent individuals from accessing other products such credit cards, mortgages or mobile phone contracts.

These measures could create greater vulnerability for all migrants. They go further, however, by also penalising and criminalising private individuals and entities who fail to enforce immigration laws in their dealings with members of the public.

Sarah Gogan, Partner, Fladgate LLP (sgogan@fladgate.com)

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