Windrush scandal showed dangers of bad data, says watchdog

NAO criticises government for tolerating and working around poor data

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The National Audit Office has argued that the Windrush scandal showed the consequences of relying on poor data, showing why departments need to improve their handling of information.

In a report examining the challenges in using data across government, the NAO said that the Home Office developed its policy on building a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants “without understanding the limitations of the data it depended on”.

The Windrush scandal affected individuals who had legally moved to the UK many years previously, on whom the Home Office held incorrect data on their immigration status. In many cases this had not caused problems until the department started sharing this data with other parts of government, leading to people wrongly being denied services, and using it to detain and target people for deportation.


The exposure of the scandal led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as home secretary and the suspension of some data-sharing. In a report published in December 2018, the NAO listed poor use of data among a number of criticisms of the Home Office, including poorly-considered policies, bad implementation and a failure to listen to external concerns.

The new NAO report noted that the government is working on a national data strategy for 2020 which aims to position the UK as a global leader in the field. But it found that at present, most departments fail to treat data as a strategic asset and that the quality of data is often inadequate, with a lack of standards meaning that the same information is often recorded inconsistently.

It recommended that government and departments adopt clear strategies with leadership and funding to improve use of data; develop infrastructure that encourages the use of high-quality data, implements data standards and allows systems and tools to talk to each other; and that work continues to safeguard data and win public trust, including legislation and training.

“Government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data, and individual departments have not made enough effort to manage and improve the data they hold. This can reduce public confidence in government’s ability to collect and use people’s data effectively,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO. “The right processes, systems and conditions must now be put in place, otherwise the new data strategy will become yet another missed opportunity.”

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