The UK immigration regime is set for major changes, as the UK leaves the EU. The new Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill adopted by Parliament this week brings the end to free movement. This means EU citizens living in the UK will be subject to the system of immigration controls and enforcement in place for people from outside of the EU – the same system that engineered and oversaw the Windrush scandal. The Bill also paves the way for a new points-based immigration system that will require people to be able to earn over £25,600 a year to qualify for a work visa. A salary most of the workers deemed as “key” during the Covid-19 crisis do not receive.
Bringing European citizens into the existing system without reform could be very controversial with our neighbours. European states have an expectation that their citizens will be treated fairly and with dignity, and therefore that privacy rights should be respected where possible.
From a privacy and digital rights point of view immigration is a space where policies which infringe on data protection and personal data are routinely rolled out. In 2010 the government brought in the hostile environment policy and with it data sharing for immigration enforcement between the Home Office and GPs, hospitals, schools, job centres and other public bodies. This was followed by the immigration exemption included in the Data Protection Act in 2018, which allows the government to restrict and deny access to their personal data to people who are subject to immigration enforcement. The exemption had not previously existed in UK law and ORG took the case to the High Court and is awaiting an appeal. Furthermore, last year when it brought in the Settled Status scheme the government also confirmed that personal data collected through this scheme will be shared with private and public bodies and also for the purpose of immigration enforcement. The Settled Status scheme is obligatory for over 3 million EU citizens if they want to remain in the UK after the end of the Brexit transition period.
These ongoing changes related to data protection in the area of immigration threaten the existing rights not only of immigrants. It is important to remember that the victims of the Windrush scandal were all people who had spent most of their adult lives here and had every legal right to be in the country. And yet they were denied their pensions, stopped from working, prevented from accessing life-saving healthcare, detained and deported by the Home Office and many are still awaiting compensation. It is too easy to become the victim of the Home Office immigration enforcement targets, threatening the fundamental rights to privacy of all UK residents, including British citizens.
The Bill comes also at a time when public attitudes to migration are changing. The Covid-19 pandemic has reframed the way society values different types of work and the people who do it. Delivery drivers, cleaners, hospital porters, carers, shelves stackers, cashiers, bin collectors have all become the key workers that keep our society functioning. These low paid and zero hour-contracted people are the real heroes of the moment. And a large number of them are migrants. As a result, new Yougov polling shows that 54% of people now support looser immigration controls for workers regarded as essential during the pandemic. This should be a moment to reset the values baked into the Home Office’s dangerous and discriminatory policies.
In the months to come, it is important to closely follow what the new immigration system would look like and what provisions it includes in terms of privacy rights. How it envisages the collection and sharing of personal data, the use of algorithmic decision making, as well as plans to bring in digital technologies such as facial recognition, tracing apps, monitoring of social media, etc.
The Government is taking a huge risk by bringing millions of European citizens into the Home Office’s intrusive data surveillance machine. The operation of UK immigration could easily become a major factor in the negotiations with the EU, with significant implications for business and law enforcement co-operation. The immigration exemption has already been identified by Europe as a matter of concern; so could the wider policies it is designed to enable.
The right approach would be for this immigration bill to be tied to a scaling back of the Home Office’s abuse of data protection and an end to the hostile environment. However, the government is silent on this, expecting to carry on as it has done until now. We are convinced it is time for a rethink.