The Home Office is planning to phase out physical immigration documents entirely and transition to a digital-only system, CSW can reveal, despite warnings that its refusal to give EU nationals paperwork to prove their settled status could lead to a repeat of problems encountered in the Windrush scandal.
The move to a “digital by default” system will see all immigration documents phased out over the next few years. People will instead be given a digital code to prove their immigration status.
The department told CSW that the EU settlement scheme – which has been widely criticised for relying on digital codes – is the first phase of an “ongoing project” to digitise all immigration documents. Physical documents issued at the moment include biometric resident permits for students, workers and their dependents, and right to abode certificates stuck in people’s passports.
A Home Office spokesperson said digital codes would “future proof” people's immigration status and would be more secure than certificates or cards that expire and can be lost, stolen or tampered with.
“Digital status also means that when people go to access government services, including the NHS, they will not have to keep proving their eligibility,” they added. Digital checking services will enable landlords, employers and government authorities to check whether someone has right to live, work and access public services in the UK.
Some of these services are already in place, and the Home Office already issues digital codes alongside visa paperwork for workers, students and their dependents.
The move goes against warnings that the digital-only EU settlement scheme could lead to people being wrongly denied access to housing, work or services, as members of the Windrush generation were when they could not produce documents proving their right to live in the UK.
Multiple human rights groups and politicians have urged the Home Office to rethink its approach to the scheme and issue documents alongside the digital proof of status.
Last year Baroness Helena Kennedy, then chair of the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, wrote to then-home secretary Sajid Javid warning the settlement scheme had “clear parallels with lack of documents contributing to the Windrush scandal” and could leave people “in limbo” in a cyberattack.
Kennedy told CSW she was “very concerned” about the move to abolish paper records.
“The Windrush scandal should have taught us something about the ways in which officialdom can lose records or algorithms can screw up,” she said. “We know that computer systems are not failsafe and we also know that cyberattack against government can bring a whole computer system down. It is recognised that this is one of the great modern risks.
“People want official documents in addition to any digital status. They want to be sure they can establish their rights.”
Zoe Gardner, policy adviser for the Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants, said the Home Office must address data protection, privacy and cybersecurity concerns before rolling out the digital-only system further. “Physical documentation must remain in place until the government can demonstrate how people’s rights will be protected and the hostile environment is scrapped,” she said.
EU nationals who had obtained settled status were “deeply concerned about a lack of physical documentation”, she added.
Earlier this month, immigration minister Kevin Foster alluded to plans for a “digital identity system” that he said “would enable people to prove their identity easily and securely, without the need to provide physical documents, and to meet the demands of the digital age”.
Businesses can now use an online service to check prospective employees' immigration status, and the Home Office has said a similar system for landlords will be up and running later this year.
And in little-publicised response to a report by the immigration watchdog on failed right of abode applications last week, the Home Office said it was planning to digitise right of abode certificates – which some Commonwealth citizens and British subjects can use to prove their right to be in the UK.
However, the department said it would first need to amend secondary legislation that requires the certificates to be stuck into passports.
“There are several factors that will need to be considered and addressed before full roll out to replace the current approach,” it added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are designing our immigration status to be future-proof. Digital by default is the way forward to ensure the security of the UK and guarantee the status of individuals. The UK is world leading in this area."