The Windrush scandal has opened a can of worms for both the Home Office and Theresa May amid claims of hostile, xenophobic policy-making and a complete disregard for data held by government departments. In the midst of the scandal, the Home Office is set to be granted sweeping data protection exemptions that will prohibit anyone seeking information on their own immigration status in years to come.
Changes due to be introduced via the Data Protection Bill will prevent applicants from gaining access to files through subject access requests; where individuals can request copies of the information held on them by the Home Office. In addition to these obstructive measures being introduced by the Home Office, they also intend to lower the standards of data protection maintained within this part of the government so it is no longer obliged to handle data in a transparent, lawful manner.
Are these latest exemptions indicative of the government’s overall attitude toward data privacy rights?
This scandal has highlighted the dark underbelly of the government’s view on immigration. Hard working, honest men and women deported from the United Kingdom, often over a lack of clear-cut information on their status as residents – many of whom have lived in the UK for decades. Throughout the last several years the tone surrounding the immigration debate has soured.
During the Prime Minister’s term as Home Secretary, the ‘hostile environment’ policy was carried out to the letter; systematically degrading the image of immigrants and immigration itself while diminishing the legitimacy of people’s right to live and – crucially – work in the UK. The Government has denied that their intention was to scaremonger and push people out of Britain. Additionally, claims of foul-play over the disposing of crucial documents have also been denied.
However, an expose by The Guardian appears to have caught Theresa May off-guard. In a letter from a Home Office minister dated May 2016, it is suggested that the government has known for years about the real impact of its “hostile environment” policy on hundreds of thousands of people from the Windrush generation.
A senior Labour frontbencher has went so far as to accuse the Prime Minister of running an “institutionally racist” government. Dawn Butler, Shadow Equalities Secretary, told Sky News on Sunday that immigrants to the UK were being made to “relive” the trauma of the “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” days.
As pressure mounts on Theresa May and Amber Rudd (who has been repeatedly called upon to resign) the government doesn’t look to be stopping in its callous attempts to curtail immigration and push people out of the door – all in the name of appeasing demographics within their support and promoting a toxic agenda.
Yet More Exemptions
The Data Protection Bill is set to be introduced in 2018 and will coincide the implementation of EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May. In the run up to this legislation exemptions have already been granted. Last month Digit reported plans to allow political parties to disregard data privacy laws for the purpose of canvassing during elections.
Those exemptions were a blunder given the on-going climate surrounding data privacy, however make no mistake, the government appears to be taking every opportunity to wash its’ hands of legal obligations; highlighting a complete disregard for citizens’ data rights and a dangerous step toward a complete lock-out for citizens seeking transparency of government.
Speaking to the Guardian, Diane Abbott MP said: “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”
For many, that is what this simply comes down to; one set of rules for born and bred citizens and another for those who have (legally) moved to the UK.
A vocal critic of the government’s handling of the Windrush scandal, David Lammy MP, tweeted yesterday: “It would be a shocking response to the Windrush crisis if the government was to respond to these shocking miscarriages of justice by making the Home Office even less transparent and accountable to the people our immigration system purports to serve.”
It would be a shocking response to the Windrush crisis if the government was to respond to these shocking miscarriages of justice by making the Home Office even less transparent and accountable to the people our immigration system purports to serve. https://t.co/W1ZffVdYa0
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) April 23, 2018
Most concerning in these exemptions is the government’s apparent move to wash its’ hands of lawful compliance. In lowering data protection standards for the Home Office, campaigners claim that it no longer needs to handle data transparently, fairly and lawfully. A focal point of this scandal has been the destruction of critical paperwork pertaining to the immigration status of the Windrush generation. If the requested exemptions are granted, practices such as those could not be called into question from a legal perspective, they may simply become the norm for the Home Office.
Additionally, the sharing of data between public services such as the Home Office and NHS, for example, will be done in secret – So much for transparency.
NHS digital already has a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in place with the Home Office, through which patient data held by the NHS is shared with the Home Office for the purpose of monitoring the use of NHS services by immigrants.
In January the Chair of the Health Select Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, claimed NHS Digital had failed patients and to uphold fundamental principles of patient confidentiality. She called for the NHS to immediately withdraw from the deal with the Home Office.
Scrap The Exemption
A number of privacy and immigrant rights groups have called for these exemptions to be scrapped and demanding that the Home Office abide by the same rules other government departments must. The Information Commissioner has criticised the exemptions and explained that they could cause immense harm to those undergoing the asylum process, stating:
“If the exemption is applied, individuals will not be able to access their personal data to identify any factual inaccuracies and it will mean that the system lacks transparency and is fundamentally unfair.”
Often an outspoken critic of government, Big Brother Watch has slammed the proposed exemptions, claiming that “the immigration exemption would introduce a new and unprecedented removal of rights in the UK’s data protection framework. The breadth of data protection rights this exemption removes is completely unnecessary and disproportionate.”
The Deputy Counsel to the Joint Committee on Human Rights has also called into question the Home Office’s plans, asking why “immigration control requires exemptions from fundamental principles such as lawfulness, fairness and accuracy in order to maintain its’ effectiveness” – This is an extremely valid point raised.
If every day citizens were to abandon legal obligations in the workplace to maintain efficiency, then what chaotic society would we live in? If the Home Office needs to exempt itself from legal obligations to maintain efficiency then questions must be raised about the department from top to bottom, is reform needed?
The Deputy Counsel asserted that “it is arguably disproportionate to extend such restrictions to immigration control, particularly so in relation to lawful immigration.”