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Windrush landing cards destruction: did the Home Office meet its data obligations?

Posted on 15 December 2020

On 14 December the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and Bishop Derek Webley, announced that the Windrush Compensation Scheme was being overhauled, to speed up and increase payments.  They said: "it is a tragedy that people who gave so much to Britain were ever made to feel like this country was not their home. But we are resolute that this can never happen again."

However, the data protection issues regarding the destruction of official information in relation to the Windrush generation remain largely unexplored.

It is understood that, in 2010, the then UK Border Agency (an executive agency of the Home Office) destroyed landing cards for a large number of those who had come to this country. The effect of this was that many people were left lacking crucial evidence of their right to live in the UK, at a time when the government's "hostile environment" agenda was potentially being applied to their cases.

It has previously been reported that the UK Border Agency destroyed the landing cards in order to comply with data protection law (in 2018 The Guardian quoted a Home Office spokesperson as saying that "keeping these records would have represented a potential breach of [the data protection] principles"). There may be an argument, though, that, far from complying with data protection law, the Home Office, through its executive agency, actually infringed its obligations to ensure that personal data was "adequate" for the purposes for which it was processed. It does not appear that the Information Commissioner's Office (which is tasked with monitoring and enforcing the application of data protection law, and with conducting investigations on its application) has ever investigated the matter (if it has investigated it, it does not appear ever to have made a public announcement).

Information evidencing someone's right to continue lawfully to live in the country which has been their home for decades is squarely within the ambit of data protection law. Without a full investigation of how this information came to be destroyed, one fears that similar scandals could happen in the future.

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