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New data matching powers are a threat to migrant communities
Credit: Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash

New data matching powers are a threat to migrant communities

The government’s threat to increase its use of data matching is now becoming a reality with plans to expand the National Fraud Initiative (NFI). If implemented, the proposals would extend data matching powers from their current use in tackling fraud to cover other criminal activity, as well as debt recovery and data quality.

What is data matching?

Data matching, as described by the Information Commissioner’s Office, involves “combining, comparing or matching personal data obtained from multiple sources”.

Currently, the NFI collects more than 20 data types over 8,000 datasets from 1,300 participant organisations — over 300 million data records in total. Examples of datasets collected include: public sector payroll, housing benefit, social housing waiting lists, parking permits, council tax, local authority pension payments, electoral register, right to buy and public sector housing.

Information law specialist Chris Pounder’s detailed analysis gives an example of how migrants’ details are already mixed up in the NFI: “Electoral Roll, Housing Benefit, Council Tax, Payroll, Housing Tenancy and waiting lists, Right to Buy, and Licencing databases [have been] cross matched with Immigration records”.

Why does this matter for migrants’ rights?

Data from other organisations is already shared with the Home Office. As highlighted on BBC Newsnight this week, hundreds of highly skilled migrants have been denied indefinite leave to remain due to minor tax discrepancies and clerical errors; the information used in these cases came from HM Revenue and Customs. Expanding this regime will mean a lot more data being shared about migrants and new opportunities for abusive behaviour from authorities.

The proposals to dramatically extend data matching powers do not mention safeguards or restrictions regarding police access. This is deeply concerning.

The consultation document partly justifies these new powers by reference to the expected levels of debt owed to government “due to COVID fiscal stimulus packages and other emergency response measures… and… the number of vulnerable people interacting with government debt recovery processes”. But extending data matching to assist in the recovery of debt owed to public bodies may not be appropriate when the inequalities present before the pandemic have both increased and widened. Migrants in particular are facing desperate situations leaving some with little to no income. In a letter to Sir Patrick Vallance earlier this year, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants wrote that:

the majority of migrants in the UK have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’… Long before the pandemic, NPRF restrictions have been pushing working families into abject poverty, forcing them into unsustainable debt… Since the Covid-19 outbreak, this situation has considerably worsened.

As data matching is a type of large-scale profiling of individuals with legal effects and “likely to result in high risk“, it has the potential to be harmful to migrant communities. Therefore careful attention needs to be applied and continuous monitoring carried out.

Open Rights Group campaigning

We have been raising awareness amongst migrants’ rights groups about the NFI proposals. We’ve also been supporting them to understand how the proposals are likely to impact migrants — and how they might challenge them. Earlier this month, we submitted our response to the consultation and launched our Don’t let the Government create a digital Police state campaign.

We believe that the proposals should concern anyone worried about due process and potentially excessive police powers. For this reason, we need to contact and meet with MPs to ensure that there is political pressure to introduce restraints and safeguards, or drop the proposals altogether. If you work closely with any MPs that would be interested, please get in touch to arrange an in-person briefing.

Sahdya Darr is Immigration Policy Manager at Open Rights Group.

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