The Home Office is under pressure to scrap data-sharing deals set up as part of efforts to hit immigration targets as its governance of such transfers have been slammed by the UK’s spending watchdog.
Central to the government's immigration crackdown at the start of this decade – the so-called "hostile environment" – is the co-opting of other public bodies and agencies to cut off services from illegal migrants.
But errors in the data collected and shared by the government meant that some people with a right to be in the UK were impacted.
In a report published today, the National Audit Office said the Home Office was repeatedly told about such risks, but failed to heed these warnings.
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Overall, the NAO said, the government had failed to ensure there were proper checks and balances on the policy overall, and took particular issue with data management, governance and sharing.
Similar concerns are raised in a separate report published by civil rights group Liberty, which documents the full extent of hostile environment data sharing.
The group has called for a what it describes as a "firewall" between immigration control and other agencies, emphasising the damage these backroom deals do to trust in public services like healthcare or schools.
Home Office databases held incorrect info
The NAO report looks specifically at the way the Home Office handled the Windrush scandal, in which government-held landing records of citizens from Caribbean nations who arrived after the Second World War were destroyed.
These people were entitled to remain in the UK, but without the records many were unable to prove their status, and people were detained at the border or denied access to public services.
However, the problems exposed in the proactive data sharing by the Home Office and other departments will not be limited to just the Windrush generation.
In the name of immigration enforcement, the government shares data on people who have been removed from the UK, failed asylum seekers, and a "migration refusal pool".
This is shared with departments for them to take action to make it harder for migrants to remain in the UK. In 2017-18, some 107,201 records were shared with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, leading to 4,271 licences being revoked; 122,527 records were shared with HMRC and 621 benefits or credit were stopped.
As of September 2018, there were 126,000 records in this pool, which is supposed to contain people who have been denied immigration but are not recorded to have left the UK.
However, until March 2018, data on all negative decisions were automatically entered into this database – despite there being cases where the department made an incorrect decision or added data on the decision wrongly.
This meant the pool caught all cases, even those where the application was incomplete or incorrect, such as if someone paid the wrong fee – meaning these people were at risk of being denied services.
"The bodies that use immigration data to make decisions rely on it being correct," the NAO said. "Immigration Enforcement checks there are no legal barriers to removal... It does not, however, reassess the original refusal decision unless further evidence comes to light."
Moreover, the Home Office ignored repeat warnings about the risks associated with poor data management and quality. The NAO pointed to its own verdicts on the Home Office's data quality and IT systems, as well as reports from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in 2014 and 2016.
"The department declined to cleanse its database as recommended by the Inspectorate in its review of compliant environment measures on driving licences and bank accounts in 2016," the NAO said.
Since March, the Home Office has checked some records manually before adding them to the pool, and in July paused proactive data sharing on people over 30.
However, this pause is only temporary. There isn't a date for when it will recommence, but when asked about a date, a government spokesman said: "Information sharing between government departments is essential, not only for tackling illegal immigration, but also for safeguarding and for public protection."
The government is already working to draw up a new Memorandum of Understanding between NHS Digital and the Home Office after intense pressure from MPs and civil rights groups saw an initial deal the paused and then canned.
Data sharing damages trust
Liberty's report catalogues other data-sharing controversies that it argued damages the relationship between the public – not just migrants – and the organisations providing essential services.
"The negative impacts of its hostile environment data-sharing programme reach well beyond serious harm to undocumented migrants themselves, to affect migrants with regular status who live in a climate of uncertainty and fear," the report said.
"Data-sharing and entitlement checks also clearly have an insidious effect on frontline workers in our public services and their professional values."
The National Education Union, for one, has said that agreements between the Home Office and the Department for Education "threaten the trust" between schools and communities.
"Schools should not be seen as part of a system that's monitoring and checking up on people's immigration status," said assistant general secretary Amanda Brown, adding her support for the idea of an immigration "firewall".
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Similarly, the report criticised the collaboration between the police and the Home Office, saying the infrastructure used in police stations "undermines safe reporting of crime by undocumented victims and witnesses".
Liberty also pointed to the London Metropolitan Police's Gangs Violence Matrix – a database that ranks people's potential for gang violence and shares that information with organisations so they can target them in other ways, like through access to housing.
The use of the database and data sharing were both recently panned by the Information Commissioner's Office for breaking data protection laws in numerous ways.
The group used this as an example of the government's bid to extend its use of data, in spite of concerns about legality – and also noted repeated public statements about boosting the use of automated decision-making and other technologies like facial recognition.
Finally, the report repeated calls for the government to scrap the immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act 2018, which would prevent people from gaining the information they need to appeal government decisions on immigration status.
"Liberty is deeply concerned that the Government is deploying new technologies in the context of immigration enforcement... with almost total disregard for their impact on other important policy objectives, and fundamental human rights," it said. ®