Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 5th March 2019.
Let me say at the outset that I am stepping somewhat outside my comfort zone in discussing automated data checks, so I am grateful for the assistance provided by the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Open Rights Group.
The settled status scheme relies heavily on automatic data checks. Input of a national insurance number triggers the automatic transfer of certain data from HMRC and the DWP to the Home Office. That data is subjected to algorithmic machine analysis according to a Home Office business logic, details of which have not been made public. Result outputs of pass, partial pass and fail are issued to a Home Office caseworker. Once the output is received, the raw data apparently disappears. Applicants who pass the data check are deemed to have fulfilled the residence requirement for the purposes of settled status. Applicants who do not pass are invited by caseworkers to upload documents for manual checking. Applicants who cannot evidence five years’ continuous residence generally receive pre-settled status.
Campaign organisations, including ILPA and the Open Rights Group, rightly believe that the Home Office has three specific legal duties—to give reasons for data check outcomes, to ensure that its caseworkers have meaningful oversight of the checks, and to provide public information about the scheme. The new clauses identify actions that the Home Office should take to comply with those three duties. They seek more information about the data checks and they would increase transparency.
Let me briefly take each of the three duties in turn. The first is the duty to give reasons for the outcome of a data check. The Home Office is under a common law duty to give reasons for its decisions to grant or refuse settled status. The data checks are a mandatory step in the scheme and they are integral to decision making. The duty to give reasons therefore includes a duty to explain why the data checks gave the result they did. Reasons should detail what data was analysed and how the business logic was applied. That information would enable applicants to appreciate whether decisions were open to challenge for irrationality or were made on the basis of inaccurate information.
If the Home Office accepts that it has a duty to give reasons, at least in some cases, how will it approach the need to retain records to supply such reasons? What data about applicants is retained by the Home Office as a result of the data checks? For what reason, and for how long, is that data retained? Which persons does the Home Office envisage will have a genuine business need to see that data?
The second duty is the duty to inform the public about the logic of the data checks. The EU General Data Protection Regulation of 2018 requires the Home Office to process data in a transparent manner. It would be consistent with such duties of transparency and openness if the Home Office provided meaningful public information about its business logic that enabled applicants to understand how it will apply in their case. Will the Home Office provide full details of, or sufficient information about, its business logic to allow its application to all types of individuals to be understood and to allow for independent review? What steps is the Home Office taking to limit and rectify business logic operational errors?
The third duty is the duty to exercise supervisory control over data checks. Making decisions by relying on output from automated data checks without scrutinising these is likely to constitute unlawful delegation of powers. To prevent this, a manual check for system errors should be conducted when applicants challenge refusal of settled status.
Proper oversight, safeguards and transparency are essential when dealing with complex decisions and people in vulnerable situations. It is important for EU nationals to know whether they are eligible for settled status, and if they are not eligible, the future date on which they are likely to become eligible. At the outcome of the data check, the Home Office should inform non-passing applicants which years the checks accepted covered, and which not. This would also improve system efficiency by reducing unnecessary challenges.
Some final questions: on the basis that residence is not contingent on income or contribution, why does it appear that different weighting is applied to data from the Department for Work and Pensions and from HMRC? Why is HMRC requested to provide data first, and not DWP? Will the Home Office add functionality in the scheme to enable applicants to easily request and obtain the information that HMRC and/or DWP have supplied about them? What steps is the Home Office taking to address the particular challenges faced by vulnerable groups such as children in care, persons in abusive or coercive relationships, victims of labour exploitation and trafficking and people who cannot provide documentary evidence, notably children, pensioners, non-working dependants, homeless persons, casual workers and victims of domestic abuse?