New migrants to be tracked by digital IDs post-Brexit, leaked Home Office documents reveal

Rowland Manthorpe, technology correspondent

New migrants moving to the UK to work after Brexit will be given unique digital identities and have their visa applications filtered by "automated checks", according to a leaked Home Office presentation seen by Sky News.

Each migrant will be given an "individual immigration status" from the moment they apply for permission to travel to the UK, which the presentation says will be "digitally 'stamped' as they cross the border".

The individual immigration status, which will replace the current biometric residence permits, will be "checked by employers and public service providers to establish rights to work and access services and benefits in the UK".

People who have seen the 16-slide presentation, which lays out the Home Office's plan for dealing with the extra work created by the end of free movement with the European Union, say the system resembles a "digital ID card".

"It's digital identity right now for Europeans but you'll see it much more for other people coming to live here," says Ian Robinson, who worked for the Home Office for eight years before becoming a partner at law firm Fragomen, where he leads on UK immigration and government strategies.

MPs and campaign groups warned it could be used for government surveillance.

"Digital ID cards have been rejected by the people of this country," Labour MP Chi Onwurah told Sky News. "You have opportunities for monitoring, for tracking, for people hacking it - but then you also have issues with the data that's being used to create that and whether it's biased."

"It looks like the Home Office dumped the idea of a physical ID card, but retained the giant database behind it," said Phil Booth, who led NO2ID, the campaign group formed in 2004 to protest the government's plans to introduce UK ID cards.

"Given landlords and employers face stiff penalties for renting to or hiring 'the wrong person', how long before everyone is forced onto the system if they want to rent or buy a house, or apply for a job?"

The measure is part of a sweeping technological reform of the immigration system, designed to ease the huge workload created for the Home Office by the end of freedom of movement from the European Union.

Key to this shift is what the leaked Home Office presentation calls "automated checks of government data". That is, algorithms filtering visa applications.

According to Mr Robinson, the checks will use applicants' data to assess applications automatically.

"It will focus on particular biographical features of visa applicants: their age, nationality, whether or not they are working and the type of work they are doing and the salary they are paid," he told Sky News.

"If you had a visitor from a less economically developed country but were themselves a very economically established, so a businessman from China or India, they would probably flag for an extra check but as soon as [the Home Office] could see that they are working, they have a home life, they have a family, that person wouldn't be an issue.

"If you were looking at a single man from an entirely undeveloped economies or less developed economies that's when a flag would be raised."

According to the presentation, this system will factor in trade deals struck by the UK after Brexit. As a slide titled "Key Principles" puts it: "Not all nationalities will be treated the same. As now, we will differentiate on risk and/or trade deals."

The checks will also use government data on tax and benefits to check whether the applicant meets the criteria for remaining in the UK - such as the requirement that skilled migrants earn over £30,000 a year.

According to the presentation, these changes will help reduce the time it takes to process "the majority of skilled work applications" for visas from six months to two-three weeks, a huge boost for a department expecting to deal with millions of additional visa applications once the UK leaves the European Union.

"That is a huge weight on their shoulders, so they are using technology to fix this," says Mr Robinson.

Last month, the Financial Times revealed that the Home Office was secretly processing visa applications using a streaming algorithm, which grades visa applications red, amber or green according to their level of risk. This result is then forwarded to an immigration caseworker.

The new scheme is expected to be a more sophisticated version of the same system, raising concerns it could bias visa decisions against some applicants based on nationality or race.

"I think it's absolutely horrifying," said Ms Onwurah, who is chair of the all-party group for Africa.

"The algorithms will be automating all the biases that are packed into the data that's being used. People can make judgements about the validity of data, algorithms can't and that is the key difference."

Yesterday, the all-party group for Africa warned that the UK visitor visa system is "broken", saying it was "widely perceived as biased or even discriminating against Africans".

Speaking in Parliament, Minister for Immigration Caroline Nokes said the streaming algorithm was "used only to allocate applications, not to decide them," describing it as "an automated flowchart".

The presentation is based on the Immigration White Paper, which was published at the end of 2018. It is expected to be put before Parliament in early 2020, so that the new visa system can go into force on 1 January 2021.

"This is an old version of a presentation being given as part of our year-long engagement programme around the future immigration and border system," the Home Office said in a statement.

"So far, we have engaged with more than 1,500 stakeholders at over 100 events across the UK and will continue this work before we finalise the system next year."