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Frontline workers urged to help stop automating data slurps for immigration checks

'Shadowy' data-sharing deals undermine public trust, says pressure group

Frontline public sector workers have been urged to fight against backroom data-sharing deals as campaigners warn the British government wants to build a massive data set for automating immigration checks.

Speaking at an event today, Gracie-Mae Bradley, policy and campaigns manager at civil rights group Liberty, called for a crackdown on cross-government data slurps, with a particular focus on those used in immigration enforcement.

The event was the Parliamentary launch of Liberty's report (PDF) into the way public and private sector organisations are co-opted into passing information to the Home Office – regardless of the impact it will have on migrants or wider trust in public services.

The "shadowy data-sharing deals", as Bradley described them, often only come to light through Freedom of Information requests. Broadly, they are part of the Conservative government's "hostile environment" policy, which it recently tried to rebrand to the "compliant" environment after the Windrush scandal led to public outcry.

The Home Office has agreements in place with schools, the pensions department, healthcare providers and police, with data handed over including care-seekers' outstanding debts and the addresses of patients, children and victims of crime.

However, a January report from the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration raised concerns that there was "no evidence" of an overarching strategy for such work, no central list of current collaborations and no way of assessing the value it gained from them.

Over the past few years, many of these deals have been challenged, with opponents arguing they could dissuade both undocumented migrants and those unsure of their status from reporting crime, seeking medical attention or ensuring the education of children.

Bradley also sought to emphasise that the concerns went beyond the impact on migrants and their possible exclusion from services, but to the government's respect of fundamental data protection principles.

Moreover, setting up badly-handled agreements now risked undermining other kinds of information sharing that could be beneficial, to the wider public, such as in healthcare, and risked diminishing public trust.

Although some data-sharing deals have been put on "indefinite pause", Bradley argued that the government was not considering the short or long-term impacts: "The government's trajectory is not towards learning... it's very much towards further entrenching [these policies]."

Instead, she said, officials want to create "a massive hostile environment database that will make data sharing and status checking between Home Office and central public services even faster and easier".

She urged frontline workers, for instance in GPs or schools – some of whom say they are uncomfortable with the fact data they collect on a day-to-day basis will be used in this way – to take action now.

"We're headed [to] a point where status checks are digitised," she said, by which time the staffers won't be in the position to object to automated processes that they have little control over. "This is a small window." ®

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