Thursday 19 April 2018

Windrush: Violating data protection law under the guise of protecting it

Matthew White, PhD candidate Sheffield Hallam University.


There have been numerous reports of Windrush Generation Commonwealth citizens being denied health care, detained, losing jobs and threats of deportation. Nick Nason describes the Windrush Generation as Commonwealth citizens from the West Indies who were invited to the UK after WWII to address the shortage of workers at the time. There was a time when West Indians enjoyed total freedom of movement. Nason notes that s.2(2)(b) of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 exempted from immigration controls those who arrived with their parents and were under 16. And this is still true for children who arrived prior to 1 January 1973, as Nason puts it, they are ‘in the UK legally.’   

The issue for the Windrush Generation arises due to successive immigrations laws, the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. Both are designed to create a ‘hostile environment’ to ‘to make life so difficult for individuals without permission to remain that they will not seek to enter the UK to begin with or if already present will leave voluntarily.’ These new Acts required proof of one’s right to be in the UK, and would be denied access to key services (see above) if there was no evidence of this. It is this denial of access to services that has brought this shameful chapter in British history to light to the point where the Prime Minister, Theresa May had to apologise to Caribbean leaders. The sincerity of said apology is open to question given that vital protections for the Windrush Generation were removed from the 2014 Act and were warned about the implications of Act in question.

Destroying personal data on data protection grounds

The Home Office then relied upon data protection law to justify deletion by arguing that keeping personal data for longer than necessary was in breach of data protection principles. More specifically, Robert Peston tweeted that the Home Office relied upon the Fourth and Fifth data protection Principles found in Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA 1998).

The actions of the Home Office in relation to the destruction of personal data does not just have implications with regards to the DPA 1998 but also under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), particularly Article 8 which provides that:

1.      Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2.      There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

According to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Grand Chamber (GC) in S and Marper (ECHR, 4 December 2008) the ‘protection of personal data is of fundamental importance to a person’s enjoyment of his or her right to respect for private and family life, as guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention’ [103]. The mere storage of personal data interferes with Article 8 [67]. The GC continued that ‘domestic law must afford appropriate safeguards to prevent any such use of personal data as may be inconsistent’ with Article 8 [103]. The Home Office’s position on not storing personal data for longer than is necessary is consistent with the ECtHR’s approach [ibid], but this would be classed as subsequent [67, 121] use and thus is still an Article 8 issue.

The first requirement under Article 8 is whether the deletion of personal data was ‘in accordance with the law.’ This requires there to be some basis in domestic law [193]. One could argue the DPA 1998 itself provides the domestic law basis for deletion, but the ECtHR has previously held that it does not have to assess ‘the quality of the applicable data protection framework in the abstract and must rather confine itself as far as possible to examining the particular consequences of application of its provisions in the case before it’ [81]. This is due to the fact that reliance on the DPA 1998 does not guarantee an action to be ‘in accordance with the law’ [207]. The ECtHR has stressed that applicable laws must provide:

[C]lear, detailed rules governing the scope and application of the relevant measures; as well as minimum safeguards concerning, inter alia, duration, storage, usage, access of third parties, procedures for preserving the integrity and confidentiality of data and procedures for their destruction, thus providing sufficient guarantees against the risk of abuse and arbitrariness at each stage of its processing [75].

Therefore, the legal basis for the destruction of personal data in the context to which the Home Office relies becomes severely weakened. The DPA 1998 does not define the scope and application with clear, detailed rules as to when the Home Office is entitled to delete personal data, nor does it provide procedures for said destruction. The arbitrariness of the measure is apparent when it is clear that the Home Office deleted all said personal data en masse.

Moreover, even if one were to consider the DPA 1998 as the correct legal basis that is sufficient in ECHR terms, this does not answer the question as to why the Fourth Principle was used in this manner. The Home Office are essentially arguing that personal data held on Windrush Generation individuals were inaccurate, without actually taking reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of said data in contravention of Schedule 1, Part II (7)(a) of the DPA 1998. When the domestic authorities do not even observe their own law, this would also violate Article 8 [45-9]

The lawful basis in this context is strongly linked to whether a measure satisfies the ‘quality of the law’ in which a law should be accessible to the person concerned and foreseeable to its effects [50]. This is usually satisfied when a law is published [52-3]. However it has been argued that the vagueness of the DPA 1998 provides an insufficient legal basis for the destruction of personal data in this context. In arguing so, it cannot be said the law is accessible, because there is no law to access, which in and of itself would violate Article 8 [69-70].

Regarding foreseeability, this is described as formulating the law:

[W]ith sufficient precision to enable the individual – if need be with appropriate advice – to regulate his conduct. For domestic law to meet these requirements, it must afford adequate legal protection against arbitrariness and accordingly indicate with sufficient clarity the scope of discretion conferred on the competent authorities and the manner of its exercise [95].

The level of precision ‘depends to a considerable degree on the content of the instrument in question, the field it is designed to cover and the number and status of those to whom it is addressed’ [96]. The DPA 1998 was designed to cover the protection of (sensitive) personal data, but not specifically in the immigration context, thus its Principles are not precise [98]. The DPA 1998 would not indicate to any Windrush Generation individual as to when or under what circumstances their personal data may be deleted by the Home Office, thus not providing sufficient clarify on the scope of their discretion.

Again, the arbitrariness of the Home Office’s actions is apparent when it destroyed thousands of landing card slips in 2010. For example, when would it be necessary to delete landing card slips? Would it be when the Home Office could guarantee that an individual would no longer require it to demonstrate they came as a child before 1973? It would be contrary to the rule of law if the Home Office used its power in an unfettered manner [62]. The exercise of power by the Home Office ‘was arbitrary and was based on legal provisions which allowed an unfettered discretion to the executive and did not meet the required standards of clarity and foreseeability’ thus amounting to a violation [86, 89].

This discussion on the unlawfulness of the Home Office’s reliance could have stopped at the end of the last paragraph, but it is important to consider the case of Kurić and others v Slovenia (ECHR, 13 July 2010) as it shares similarities with the Windrush Generation scandal. The applicants in this case complained before the ECtHR that the erasure of their names from the Register of Permanent Residents made them aliens overnight which denied them ‘civil, political, social and economic rights’ [319].

The applicants had been living in Slovenia for years, and most of them decades, some were even born there [356]. The applicants did not enter Slovenia as immigrants but as settled citizens [357]. Moreover, the applicants had a stronger residence status than long-term migrants and those seeking to enter or remain [357]. Although not identical, the erasure of landing cards made it more difficult for Windrush Generation individuals to prove they had a right to live in the UK, and due to this lack of proof they could be denied healthcare, jobs, bank accounts etc.

In that case, the ECtHR reiterated previous case law in that Article 8 is interfered with when the ‘persons concerned possess strong personal or family ties in the host country which are liable to be seriously affected by application of the measure in question’ [351]. They continued that the right to establish and develop relationships, embracing social identity, having social ties with the community all fall within the meaning of Article 8 [352]. Moreover, Article 8 is interfered with when one faces expulsion and having their citizenship arbitrarily denied [352-3]. Finally, the UK Government has positive obligations to respect Article 8 [354].

Due to the cumulative failings of Slovenia, the ECtHR concluded there was a violation of Article 8 [376]. The ECtHR did not decide whether the Article 8 violation was due to the measures not being ‘in accordance with the law’ pursued a legitimate aim or was ‘necessary in a democratic society,’ so the same approach will be taken to argue that in the cumulative, Article 8 has been violated. When one considers that landing cards had been destroyed arbitrarily in 2010, the Home Office claimed these had no impact on the rights of the Windrush Generation. This claim is contested by two Home Office whistle blowers arguing that the landing cards had been a useful resource. The whistle blower’s account is supported by the Border Force where its notes state that ‘Information from a landing card may be used by an entry clearance officer in making a decision on a visa application.’ Destroying landing cards allowed Home Office staff to tell those concerned that they had no record of arrival dates which would lead to the denial of services and at worst, deportation.

Moreover, citing data protection law as a reason for the destruction of personal data appears cynical due to the amount of personal data that is kept anyway and the fact that the same Government is seeking to create an immigration exemption in the new Data Protection Bill (Schedule 2, Part 1, (4). The Home Office also explained that it considers alternative evidence such as tax records, utility bills and tenancy agreements as evidence of ongoing residency. However, if one can be denied work, have bank accounts frozen and be denied tenancy, then this evidence could also be difficult to provide. The cumulative effect of denial of services to the threat of (or actual) deportation, the deletion of flying cards and the spurious reasoning behind it would amount to a violation of Article 8.

The racist elephant in the room

Nason asked whether the overt racism from the 1960s-80s has simply been replaced ‘by a more insidious, state-endorsed hostility in the name of immigration control.’ A group of NGOs published a report on the ‘hostile environment’ noting that its very nature is discriminatory and thus encourages discriminatory or even racist behaviour. Former Home Office employees detail how the ‘hostile environment’ changed the attitude of staff to the point where they enjoyed catching out Windrush individuals without evidence. James Moore argues that this is what happens when you let dog-whistle racism go mainstream.

Article 14 of the ECHR details how the enjoyment of rights contained in the ECHR must be protected in a non-discriminatory manner. The grounds for discrimination are non-exhaustive but include race, colour, national or social origin and birth. Any one of these can be relevant to the Windrush Generation. Article 14 only works in combination with another substantive Convention Right, in this instance Article 8 [84]. Article 14 requires a difference in treatment to those in an analogous or similar situation [66]. The ECtHR have maintained that:

[A] difference in treatment may take the form of disproportionately prejudicial effects of a general policy or measure which, though couched in neutral terms, discriminates against a group…may amount to “indirect discrimination”, which does not necessarily require a discriminatory intent [184].

The Windrush Generation have as much right to be here as any other UK citizen, yet they are the ones that a targeted under the ‘hostile environment.’ Given that the Home Office destroyed landing cards, removed key protections that could have avoided this. One could argue the actions of the UK Government are more than just indirect discrimination because the discriminatory intent arises for the poor reasoning for destruction of flying cards to the lack of reasoning for removing key protections. The Government has no objective reasonable justification for this difference in treatment and thus amounts to discrimination [196]. Moreover, the Windrush Generation are being treated as though they are immigrants. This engages a different type of discrimination issue under Article 14, a Thlimennos discrimination which notes that:

The right not to be discriminated against in the enjoyment of the rights guaranteed under the Convention is also violated when States without an objective and reasonable justification fail to treat differently persons whose situations are significantly different [44].

There is no objective reasonable justification on any of the discriminatory grounds and thus amounts to a violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 8 [208-210]. Thus, under the ECHR, the racist and discriminatory elephant in the room is glared upon with distain.


This post has highlighted that the dubious reasoning as to why the Home Office destroyed crucial information that could have helped prevent some of the tragedies of the Windrush Generation is flawed, logically and legally. Not only is it flawed, reliance on data protection grounds in ECHR terms would amount to using Article 8 as a shield, and for the UK Government to do so would raise serious questions regarding Article 17 (the abuse of rights). Not only is the Home Office’s actions and reasoning in violation of Article 8, it violates Article 8 on the ground of defending it. There is a bigger issue which highlights the resurfacing of racism and discrimination in a new form which violates Article 8 in conjunction with Article 14. The ‘hostile environment’ has provided a platform and has legalised discrimination and racism, the destruction of landing cards in 2010 can be seen as the first steps towards this, and the removal of key protections for the Windrush Generation in the 2014 Act  is no accident either. The ‘hostile environment’ is the problem and the recent outrages shows that there are ‘resources of hope, but time is running out – we are at five minutes to midnight.’

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