We need to talk about the Government’s secret hostile environment database

Posted by Gracie Bradley on 12 April 2019

In January this year, an inspection report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) revealed Home Office ambitions to:

“establish a system that obtains and shares an individual’s immigration status in real time with authorised users, providing proof of entitlement to a range of public and private services, such as work, rented accommodation, healthcare and benefits.”

It took this report to confirm that the Home Office is indeed building a massive hostile environment database, known internally as the “Status Checking Project”.

When, in autumn 2018, the Data Protection Bill included a sweeping immigration control exemption that would allow more or less any controller to set aside a person’s data protection rights for immigration control purposes, we were keen to find out exactly what the Government intended it to be used for. As we briefed at the time, referencing a draft policy document leaked to the Guardian:

“this exemption could ostensibly be used to facilitate the sharing of personal data of any individual interacting with public services … amounting in effect to a digital ID card.”

But Ministers remained curiously silent about the Status Checking Project. They insisted that the exemption would be used for tracing children of undocumented parents through their school records, or concealing the source of tip-offs to immigration enforcement (both things that can be done through existing crime-related exemptions to data protection law). The closest we had come before the ICIBI report to a public reference is a euphemistic mention of “new digital checking services” in the Immigration White Paper.

The report also suggests that the system will be available to police in the future, despite ongoing concerns that overlap between policing and immigration enforcement is undermining public safety.

Quietly entrenching the hostile environment

The secrecy surrounding the so-called Status Checking Project is astonishing given that it has potentially huge human rights implications, both if it works, and if it doesn’t.

It’s one thing to send a text to someone telling them to leave the country, as happened in 2012, when the Home Office contracted Capita to send 39,000 texts to apparently undocumented migrants, some of whom were not, leading to a deluge of complaints. It’s another thing entirely to communicate a person’s status to landlords, employers, NHS providers, banks, police, and who knows who else, locking them out of the goods and services essential to a dignified life and the exercise of their fundamental rights.

That’s what happens when the Home Office gets it ‘right’. And that in itself is a serious problem. But the Home Office is also very likely to get things wrong. Its hostile environment data-sharing schemes already run with an alarming error rate. Ten per cent of bank account refusals sampled during one inspection were found to have been made in error. In 2015, the DVLA was forced to reinstate more than 250 wrongly-revoked licences. And the Home Office has repeatedly refused to clean up its database on undocumented migrants, despite the National Audit Office and the ICIBI recommending that it does so.

We must learn from Windrush, even as the Home Office refuses to

The Windrush scandal exposed the devastating human impact of the hostile environment, as well as the Kafkaesque nightmare faced by people wrongly accused of being in the UK unlawfully. But it was not produced by a mere lack of documentation on the part of Commonwealth citizens. It was the product of a series of policy and legislative decisions that progressively stripped rights from a group of people who came to the UK as citizens and implemented a hostile environment despite warnings that those people might be locked out of essential services. In some cases, evidence that would have been useful to Windrush citizens was destroyed, and extensive evidence that they provided was ignored on the grounds that it did not cover a few years out of decades.

There is no one answer to Windrush, but part of it is simple: take border controls out of our hospitals, schools and police forces, and end the hostile environment. Migrants and citizens should not accept having to show biometric ID or the erection of a sprawling, leaky, data-sharing and matching architecture as the cost of going about our daily lives and accessing health or housing.

The Government has more than enough to do besides letting the Home Office run amok with yet another high-risk project, especially as millions more people come under our already complex and chaotic immigration system as Britain leaves the EU. It should concentrate on reinstating vital safeguards like legal aid and data protection rights, scrapping rip-off immigration and nationality fees, and implementing a firewall between essential services and immigration enforcement - not subjecting people to a database state in the name of immigration control.

We wrote to the Home Secretary and Immigration Minister last week asking for clarity on the existence, legal basis and proposed operation of this hostile environment database. We await their response with interest.

Gracie Bradley Liberty

Gracie Bradley

Liberty
Policy and Campaigns Manager