UK MPs have been using an official tips line to report people for immigration enforcement in greater numbers than ever before.
More than 150 tip-offs were made to a Home Office immigration hotline by MPs since the start of the COVID pandemic, a freedom of information request by VICE World News showed.
The new figures prompt questions over whether MPs could be sharing information about their own constituents who may have asked for help over their immigration status. Charities say they are concerned that vulnerable constituents could be deterred from seeking help for fear of being detained.
“Immigration issues” are listed on parliament’s website on a list of matters about which MPs can be contacted for advice.
The Home Office has a dedicated webpage and phone number where immigration tip-offs can be made. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron said in a 2011 speech that he wanted "everyone in the country to help including by reporting suspected illegal immigrants". In August 2013, the Home Office introduced an online reporting form that allows reports to tip-offs to be routed automatically onto their information recording system.
The issue of MPs reporting constituents to the Home Office in this way was first revealed by Politics.co.uk in 2017 when the Home Office confirmed it had received 482 tip-offs between 2014 and 2016.
A cross-party group of more than 100 MPs signed a pledge in 2018 committing to not report constituents to the Home Office for immigration enforcement. However, the number of tip-offs from MPs has only increased since then.
Now VICE World News can reveal that in the ten months from March to December 2020, 151 tip-offs were made by MPs. This is a rise from the annual figures of 70 in 2017 and 101 in 2018.
Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, who signed the original pledge, expressed shock at the latest figures.
“My first response to this was shock and then despair,” he said.
“It makes me question how these MPs are perceiving people. It’s inhuman that during a pandemic when people are already in desperate situations that an MP could break their trust in this way. It calls into question whether members of parliament are buying into dehumanising rhetoric about immigrants.
“I class anyone who resides in my constituency as my constituent and I will fight for them in whatever way I can, but that isn’t the case for all politicians. There are clearly some who believe that some lives are more valuable than others.”
Joanna Cherry MP, the SNP’s former justice and home affairs spokesperson at Westminster, said that everybody should feel safe when they seek help from a MP.
“MPs are not border guards,” she said.
“Everyone should feel safe approaching their MP for help to regularise their immigration status. It is the job of MPs to help people, not to report them. The public should not be in fear of contacting their MP for support."
Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said everyone should have the right to seek safe and confidential help from their local MP.
“It is disgraceful that, during a pandemic, greater numbers of MPs have betrayed the trust of their constituents instead of helping them to get the support they need,” she said.
“This is an expansion of the Hostile Environment, which puts migrants who come forward at risk, and drives vulnerable people further underground and away from vital support services.
“It's this climate of hostility which was key to the Windrush scandal – it's about time MPs learnt the lessons from it, and ensured support is given to all who need it, regardless of their immigration status.”
Campaigners point to other areas of life where people have been deterred from seeking help from public services, for fear of having their immigration details passed on the Home Office. This includes sick patients and victims of crime.
The British Medical Journal found that the government’s Hostile Environment immigration policy prevents women from accessing maternal care, and in 2018 it was reported that an undocumented woman died because she was too frightened to access healthcare.
In 2017 a woman who reported being kidnapped and raped to the police was later detained for immigration reasons while inside a sexual assault clinic where she had been taken to be checked over.
Figures previously obtained by Labour MP David Lammy showed that a roughly equal number of MPs from the leading two parties used the hotline. In 2018, 34 calls were from Conservatives and 32 were from Labour MPs. There was also one from a Democratic Unionist party MP and one from a Liberal Democrat.
At the time, charities rallied MPs to signed a pledge stating they would “not report on anyone who seeks my advice to the Home Office for immigration enforcement”
“Everybody living in Britain should be represented by our political institutions”, Brian Dikoff, legal organiser at Migrants Organise commented. “If democracy means anything, it is that MPs work to serve and represent their constituents, not report migrants who seek their support into the Home Office for immigration enforcement.”
“I work with many families and individuals who, often in desperate need, contact their MPs for support. We know full well about the Home Office's dysfunctional practices, which led to the Windrush scandal and destroys thousands of lives. For those same MPs to betray this trust is shocking and unconscionable.
“This practice needs to end, as does the Hostile Environment in all areas of public life.”
VICE World News contacted a number of MPs looking for one who would defend the practice or offer an alternative view in light of the new figures, but none responded.
A number of Conservative MPs previously refused to sign the pledge promising not inform on constituents, saying in a joint statement that, “Like any member of the public, an MP may decide to contact the Home Office to report suspected immigration offences just as he or she would be expected by most constituents to report any suspected illegal activity, not least because that is an obligation we all have."
Tory MP Christopher Chope previously admitted to using the Home Office tip-off line, in order to report “cases of immigration crime on behalf of constituents who have felt their neighbours are engaged in illegal working when they shouldn’t have been in the country”. Speaking on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, Mr Chope said that, “Home Office policy is very much to ensure that, as far as possible, life is made uncomfortable for those one million illegals, so that they will be encouraged to go back to where they came from rather than be a burden on our public services here.”
The Home Office initially said these reports were not from MPs reporting on their own constituents but from them passing on concerns that have been flagged to them by other people. When asked to confirm how this was measured they did not provide an answer. However, a spokesperson said: “MPs commonly report concerns raised by their constituents with their consent and at their request, and like any member of the public an MP may decide to contact the Home Office to report suspected immigration offences.
“We are determined to stop people illegally entering the United Kingdom, or remaining where they have no right to do so. If an individual has entered illegally, they should expect to be removed, and if they have overstayed their visa they should urgently take steps to regularise their status.”