Examination of Witnesses

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 12th February 2019.

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Gracie Bradley:

When it comes to data protection, many of you will be aware that the Data Protection Act 2018 includes a very broad exemption that allows a data controller to set aside somebody’s data protection rights when their data is being processed for the purposes of immigration control, essentially. Liberty notes from the White Paper that automated data processing is likely to be used increasingly in the context of enforcing the hostile environment, and Liberty has, for the last couple of years, been scrutinising what have been relatively secret bulk data-sharing agreements between the Home Office and other Departments, such as the Department for Education, and NHS Digital, as well as ad hoc data-sharing practices between individual police forces and the Home Office.

Essentially, what Liberty is concerned about is the fact that the Home Office is really quite a poor data controller, and yet automated data processing is increasingly going to be the linchpin of implementing the hostile environment. We see, in the most recent independent chief inspector of borders and immigration report, that actually the Home Office is developing a status-checking project that would essentially enable multiple controllers, such as landlords, employers, health services and law enforcement, to check a person’s immigration status in real time.

Liberty is concerned, first, that no mention was made of that project during the Data Protection Bill debates, despite Government being asked repeatedly what they wanted that exemption from data protection law for. Secondly, we are concerned, in the light of the Home Office’s track record on data protection, that this system is going to be implemented in such a way as to leave people without redress and without remedy when the Home Office makes mistakes.

Some of you will remember that, in 2012, Capita was contracted to text almost 40,000 people suspected of being in the UK illegally, telling them to leave the country. Those 40,000 texts were sent, and many people received the texts in error. Veteran anti-racism campaigners who had lawful status in the UK were sent texts telling them to go home. It is one thing to send somebody a text in 2012—I appreciate that will have been distressing for people—but it is entirely another thing for an error on someone’s record to mean that they cannot access housing, lawful work, free healthcare or education. The Data Protection Act immigration exemption stops people from being able to find out what information is held about them by a data processor, and stops them from having the right to know when information on them is shared between processors.

Our concern is that, in the context of the Home Office’s relatively poor track record on data processing, this digitised hostile environment will be enacted and people will be left without redress. Indeed, we see from the National Audit Office report on the Windrush scandal that the Home Office had been asked by the NAO and the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration to clean up its migrant refusal pool, and had resisted all requests to do so. We are concerned about the impact of error on people, but we are also concerned about the impact of being able, at the click of a button, to exclude people from essential goods and services that are necessary for the exercise of their fundamental rights. The hostile environment should be repealed, rather than entrenched using exemptions in data protection law.

You also asked me about legal aid. I do not have a huge amount to say about legal aid, except that for the most part, there is no legal aid for immigration claims. Again, we see from the Windrush scandal what happens when people do not have access to early, good-quality legal advice. There are people in the UK who are undocumented, not because they have intentionally tried to evade the rules, but because they have been unable to retain their status as a result of not being able to access good-quality legal advice—or, indeed, because they have been unable to make the necessary applications because they cannot afford to pay prohibitive application fees. Many of you will know that it costs more than £1,000 to register a child as a British citizen.

When it comes to safeguards, we would say: get rid of that exemption in the Data Protection Act—it is paragraph 4 of schedule 2—reinstate immigration legal aid, because it is a false economy not to give people access to it, and look again at your fees. It should not be the case that the Home Office is profiting from fees when people need to make applications to regularise their status in the UK, or to claim British citizenship—to which children should be entitled in any event. Those are the basic safeguards that need to be reinstated before millions more people are brought into the immigration system.