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A Hostile Environment in Sheffield?

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Nicolo Canova

Sheffield City Council's near-death experiences continue, from the tree protests to the battle over the 'strong leader' model, which caused resignations at cabinet level last month and which has triggered an upcoming referendum on how the Council is run. They're amazing times we're living in, but we can't let bad news be buried as a result.

It has emerged that the Council has accepted funding from the government's Controlling Migration Fund (CMF) to investigate "private rented property linked to recent migration into the city," according to the Council's funding application. Private Housing Standards (PHS) officials will investigate households, with intelligence officers building a database of properties. Using the 'foot in the door' provided by recently implemented Selective Licensing schemes in the south and east of the city, one aim is to find bad landlords and address associated problems for the improvement of communities. To protect vulnerable tenants, a 'Tenancy Sustainment Officer' will accompany inspectors to 'build trust' while explaining rights and responsibilities. These officers will operate "under the umbrella of a community based regeneration organisation rather than be managed directly by the Council, in order to ensure they are seen as independent".

In addition, police and HMRC officials are brought into the team for full-spectrum powers, in the expectation of finding and disrupting organised crime. But it appears that the scope of this work could also include finding candidates for detention or deportation, when arrests of suspected 'illegal' migrants have already risen six-fold in recent years in Sheffield, from 67 in 2010 to 420 in 2013-14, according to South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG).

Why didn't we try this before?

Once 'hotspots' of criminality and neglect are under the caring, glaring spotlight of this multi-agency approach, the hoped-for result is harmonious communities. Why didn't we try this before?

Such grants give lightsaber powers, but they're a double-edged sword in the hands of the Council, because Her Majesty's ministers may want trial data to use elsewhere. The final report will go into the evidence base for central government's 'hostile environment' approach to people without leave to remain in the UK. According to the application, the programme involves the Council working with Border Agency Immigration Compliance Enforcement locally.

Sheffield City Council did not respond to an invitation to comment on its CMF funding, but SYMAAG researcher John Grayson told Now Then that after a protest held outside the Town Hall on 19 September, Councillor Paul Wood, Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Community Safety, apologised for the language used in the funding application and said he would take a recommendation to cabinet that Sheffield City Council joins 11 other Labour councils which have committed to not pass on the details of any individuals to the Home Office without their consent.

Let's hope this isn't a project that only works if everyone involved is well-meaning, because these areas will feel the spotlight of surveillance and it's already causing uneasy feelings. Absolute power to investigate can bring corruption, data theft and all sorts of misuse of information.

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Thu 24 Oct | 12-5pm | Hallam Union (HUBS)

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