Hostile environment data-sharing

Data watchdog slams DfE for mishandling children’s data after Liberty legal action

Posted on 13 Nov 2019

The Department for Education has made schools unknowingly and unwittingly complicit in the Government’s hostile environment.

  • Department for Education shared children’s addresses with immigration enforcement under Government’s discredited hostile environment
  • Information Commissioner’s Office says DfE did not comply with data laws after legal action by Against Borders for Children and Liberty
  • Groups call for firewall between public services and immigration enforcement

The data watchdog has criticised the Department for Education (DfE) for secretly passing children’s personal data to the Home Office for immigration enforcement.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) made the criticism in response to a complaint by Against Borders for Children (ABC) – represented by Liberty, the human rights organisation.

The complaint argued the DfE had made schools complicit in the hostile environment by sharing children’s addresses with immigration enforcement.

Children’s data was collected by schools – but teachers, parents and children did not know children’s information could be shared with immigration enforcement and result in their families being deported.

The ICO upheld ABC and Liberty’s complaint that the DfE failed to comply with data protection laws because parents and children were not told what would be done with their data when it was collected.

The ICO is now considering whether to take further action against the DfE for the “wide ranging and serious concerns” raised in the complaint.

Against Borders for Children and Liberty warned the DfE’s actions had left many parents afraid to send their children to school.

The groups have called on the DfE to respond to the ICO’s concerns by deleting children’s nationality and country of birth data – and urged all political parties to include in their manifestos a commitment to implement a data firewall to permanently separate all public services from immigration enforcement.

Kojo Kyerewaa, Against Borders for Children co-ordinator, said: “The ICO decision has shown that the DfE cannot be trusted with children’s personal data. Without public debate or clear notification, schools have been covertly incorporated as part of Home Office immigration enforcement. These checks have put vulnerable children in further danger as parents are taken away via immigration detention and forced removals.

“The DfE should be ensuring every child access to education – not implementing policy to deter access to some of society’s most vulnerable children. The ICO’s decision should prompt swift action from Gavin Williamson to protect every child’s access to education. Millions of families haven’t consented to a pupil nationality database or to secret immigration checks. We call on the DfE to protect all children’s access to education without fear by deleting the pupil nationality database, repeal pupil nationality census legislation and stop immigration checks using pupils’ data.”

Lara ten Caten, Liberty lawyer, said: “It’s shameful that children’s data is being used to aide attempts to deport their parents. The Department for Education has made schools unknowingly and unwittingly complicit in the Government’s hostile environment.

“The Government must introduce a firewall so parents can send their children to school free from fear that they may face deportation as a result. Public services must be permanently separated from immigration enforcement which is why Liberty is demanding firewalls across not just the education system, but across all essential public services.

“Data sharing is just one part of the Government’s discredited hostile environment which has left people too afraid to do things like send their children to school, report crime or seek medical help. It’s time to redesign our immigration system so it respects people’s rights and treats everyone with dignity.

“The DfE must also delete all children’s nationality and country of birth data collected immediately.”


Under a memorandum of understanding signed in June 2015, the DfE agreed to give the personal details of up to 1,500 schoolchildren to the Home Office each month to “create a hostile environment” for migrants.

In 2016 the DfE required schools to start collecting children’s nationality and country of birth data – which resulted in a mass boycott by parents who refused to provide the data amid concerns it might be used for immigration enforcement.

In April 2018, following legal action brought by ABC represented by Liberty and a boycott in which 200,000 families took part, the DfE announced it would no longer ask schools to collect nationality and country of birth data through the school census.

But the Department has refused to delete nationality and country of birth information that has been collected on millions of children since September 2016.

The DfE continues to share children’s addresses with the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes without the informed consent of their parents or of the children themselves.

ABC made two complaints to the ICO. The first was against the DfE’s failure to delete nationality and country of birth data of millions of children, and the second against the data sharing of children’s addresses between the DfE and the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.

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