Politics

This Is the Next Windrush-Style Scandal Waiting to Happen

The Home Office is trying to get out of having to share data with migrants about their immigration status.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is under intense pressure following the Windrush Scandal (Malcolm Park editorial / Alamy Stock Photo)

As the Windrush scandal continues with no sign of abating, a new facet of Theresa May’s "hostile environment" for immigrants is revealing itself in the form of an insidious new data protection law.

New powers being given to the Home Office will provide the government with sweeping data protection law exemptions; the Data Protection Bill contains a small but significant "immigration exemption" clause that will prevent migrants or "suspected" migrants from seeking information on their immigration status. This new law would give the Home Office the power to destroy personal records on the pretext of data protection, in addition to removing the rights of people subject to immigration procedures to know what information public authorities have about them.

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The law essentially gives the government the right to breach data protection rights of migrants, allow evidence to be destroyed and make it impossible to challenge government decisions, with no right of appeal. Additionally, it will make it easier for migrant data to be shared between public services, for example between the NHS and the Home Office.

Given the already questionable immigration practices of this government, fears are rising about effectively giving the government licence to systematically strip migrants of their rights to challenge immigration decisions, leading to miscarriages of justice by removing the requirement to handle data "lawfully, fairly and in a transparent way". The danger is that in situations where the Home Office makes mistakes in applications, those affected will be unable to access information using subject access requests on how this wrong decision was reached, effectively leaving them powerless to challenge government decisions.

With these new powers, the stage will be set for even greater miscarriages of justice than the Windrush scandal, providing a mechanism for the government to both cover up its mistakes and conceal the existence of them entirely.

This could lead to many more situations similar those in the Windrush scandal arising, and allow the deportation of British citizens. This could have a catastrophic effect on, among others, lawful migrants from South Asia, and also the millions of EU citizens who will be required to register residence in the UK after Brexit.

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This legislation has received a barrage of criticism from MPs, human rights advocates and lawyers. Liberal Democrats are attempting to delete the clause in entirety. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, who has been at the forefront of the movement against the Windrush scandal, said, "[The] latest data protection bill shows that the Windrush scandal is not a mistake. The bill exempts immigration matters from data protection. This can be for anyone who is a migrant, or suspected of being one, as in the Windrush cases. They should amend this bill. It is unacceptable that the government should be pressing ahead with legislation that allows agencies to breach data protection rights for anyone who is suspected of being a migrant. Otherwise they will show they have learned nothing and are determined to maintain the hostile environment at whatever human cost."

Gracie Bradley of human rights organisation Liberty said: "If the data protection bill's 'immigration exemption' becomes law, it will be near-impossible to challenge poor decision-making in immigration cases, or prevent the Home Office destroying evidence that could help people prove their right to be here. And immigration enforcement teams will find it even easier to secretly access confidential information collected by trusted public services like schools and hospitals."

Joe Egan, president of the Law Society, said: "With serious flaws in the immigration system being exposed on a daily basis, there is deep concern about the potential for miscarriages of justice if the proposed exemptions were to be included in the final bill."

Fascinatingly, at the very same time as this law is due to be enacted, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has just announced that Windrush migrants are to be given citizenship at no extra cost, and that the citizenship test will be waived. She also said there will be independently-run compensation schemes to ensure fair assessments of claims. Regarding criticisms against these data protection exemptions, a Home Office spokesperson said, "It is wrong to say that the proposed narrow exemption in the Data Protection bill is an attempt to deny people access to their data. People will still be able to request data as they can now, and will be met in all cases, except where to do so could undermine our immigration control. They will have the right to complain to the information commissioner if they disagree with any use of the immigration exemption, and we would always want to assist those whose claims are in question."

This is the usual Tory lip-service. The fact that the government is, on the face of it, attempting to redress the harm done to the Windrush generation, and simultaneously equipping the Home Office with the power to do even greater harm, reveals how disingenuous their humanitarian posturing is. The government's actions here are both hypocritical and deliberate, and the latest in a long list of cruelties, masquerading as pragmatism, towards the most vulnerable members of society.