Healthcare workers among thousands wrongly stripped of work and benefits while waiting on visas, High Court hears

Healthcare workers and severely disabled people are among thousands being wrongly stripped of work and benefits, forcing them to use food banks and borrow money to power critical medical equipment because the Home Office refuses to provide them with documents to prove their legal status, a court has heard.

In a scandal with echoes of Windrush, where hundreds of Caribbean immigrants working and living in the UK were wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement, High Court lawyers have argued that thousands of people have become “the unintended victims of the hostile environment because they do not have a documentary form of their lawful immigration status”.

The claim came to light in a court case in which lawyers for a charity are trying to force the Home Office to provide the documentation needed for claimants, including the severely disabled, to show that they are in Britain legally in order to receive benefits and to work.

Foreign nationals on “leave to remain” have to renew their status every few years, and while they wait for a decision, they are put on “3C leave”.

This is meant to protect the rights they have to work, study or claim benefits, but it leaves them without a physical document confirming their status – something many employers insist on seeing.

Although the Home Office does not publish figures for the number of people on “3C leave”, freedom of information data shows that at least 370,000 had this status in 2019.

Now the High Court has heard how people on 3C leave have been stripped of their employment without notice and plunged into destitution. Others have been unable to take up university offers because they can’t get student finance, and some have had their benefits suddenly removed.

Lawyers on behalf of charity Ramfel and a Ghanaian national, Cecelia Adjei, are trying to force the Home Office to provide physical documentary proof for people on 3C leave. The Home Office told the High Court in a hearing this week that “it is not possible” to provide such a document for these people, because of their uncertain status.

Government lawyers also said there was “no evidence” to suggest that a lack of documentation was having a “seriously harmful impact” on these foreign nationals.

Lunar House in Croydon, south London, which houses the headquarters of UK Visas and Immigration, a division of the Home Office (PA)
Lunar House in Croydon, south London, which houses the headquarters of UK Visas and Immigration, a division of the Home Office (PA)

Ms Adjei, who has been living in the UK since 2000, told the court how she had been suspended from work twice because she was unable to physically prove her immigration status while on 3C leave.

She was working as a healthcare support worker at the Whittington Hospital in north London on a shift-by-shift basis, and recalled how one day in October 2021 she logged on to the hospital system to book more work and the “screen was just blank”.

“I had been taken out of the system. I had no idea that this would happen so I was very shocked,” she explained. The company that she was working for told her that her right to work had expired so they couldn’t offer her any more work. While her leave to remain had expired, she had applied for an in-time renewal, so her right to work was in fact protected while she waited for a new visa.

In a witness statement, Ms Adjei said: “I had no warning that I would be suspended from work. I had therefore not planned for the sudden drop in my income. It was a real struggle to keep the bills paid and the children fed. Things got so bad that I had to use a food bank at one point ... In the half-term break [my children] got a voucher instead of school meals that we could use in the supermarket. I used that to bulk buy things like large bags of rice and long-life milk to keep us going ... I had to borrow money from friends and church members to see me through.”

She was finally able to return to work after about four weeks, but it meant a £500-600 drop in income “which is a large sum for us as a family”, she said.

In May 2022, she was suddenly suspended from work again for the same reason. “I was again plunged into a financial crisis situation which I had no opportunity to plan for,” she told the court.

She added: “I had no choice but to pay the rent and our bills first, so that we were not at risk of eviction or in arrears with electricity, water and gas. But that meant that there was a significantly reduced sum of money left over to meet basic food and other needs. At one point, my bank balance almost reached zero.”

Her leave to remain was finally extended in October 2022, but she is scared that she will face the same problems when she has to renew her visa again.

One highly vulnerable disabled woman, who is partially blind, severely arthritic and asthmatic, and requires daily healthcare support, had her personal independent payment, a form of disability benefit, stopped out of the blue. Her PIP payments constituted over 50 per cent of her income, and they were suspended without notice in July 2023 because she was on 3C leave.

Nick Beales, from Ramfel, detailed her case in his submission to the court, saying: “She was left without food and had to borrow money from her carer to put onto her electricity meter, which powers the lifesaving breathing equipment she requires at night, as well as various pieces of mobility equipment that enable her to wash and get in and out of bed.”

Ramfel has previously estimated that over 27,000 people could have been subjected to serious detriment as a result of their 3C leave status.

One woman, a mother of a British teenage son, had her jobseeker’s allowance suspended without notice just before Christmas in 2021. In a separate case, a single mother of four children had an offer of a teaching job at Lambeth College withdrawn because she was on 3C leave.

In another case, a man known as ST was suspended from work without notice or pay after he applied to renew his leave to remain in the UK. His employer told him that he had one month to provide evidence that his visa had been renewed, when renewals can take 12 months on average to process.

After Ramfel intervened, ST was able to return to work, but the few days when he was suspended caused him significant distress, the charity explained.

“Any loss of income is particularly problematic, as his son relies on it to meet his basic needs. Our client was so distressed that he had stopped eating and became physically unwell,” Mr Beales said.

Radha Ruskin from Women’s Aid said that she had come across workers at women’s refuges who had evicted victims of domestic violence because they mistakenly believed they weren’t entitled to a place while on 3C leave. Without a physical form of documentation showing that they are entitled to benefits, she said, they are vulnerable to such misunderstandings.

“Services are often very disinclined to offer women accommodation if they do not hold a valid biometric residence permit, as they remain unconvinced regarding the woman’s eligibility to access welfare benefits,” said Ms Ruskin.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Individuals who have submitted an application for further leave in the UK before their existing leave has expired must not be discriminated against. There are a range of channels by which a person’s entitlement to employment, study and other benefits can be confirmed, and we expect employers and others who need to check immigration status to use them.

“We do not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”

Judgment on the judicial review case was reserved.