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Windrush scandal will happen again if government persists with immigration plans, lawyers warn

MPs will be ‘complicit in future injustices’ – unless they block proposals to deny people access to files about themselves for ‘immigration control’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 24 April 2018 09:09 BST
Lawyer Barry O'Leary warns Windrush scandal will happen again if government persists with immigration plans

The Windrush scandal will be repeated unless the Home Office drops plans that would prevent other immigrants proving their right to be in the UK, lawyers are warning.

Controversial new data protection laws will deny people access to their personal information the government holds, if it would “undermine immigration control”.

The Law Society has warned the exemption would lead to people being wrongly deported or denied health treatment – in a mirror image of the treatment of the Windrush generation.

Unless Amber Rudd drops the proposal, her promise to “show they have learned the lessons from Windrush” would be hollow, said Barry O’Leary, a member of its immigration law committee.

Urging MPs to rebel, he said: “If they let it go through in its current format, then I’m afraid they are complicit in future injustices.”

The home secretary is certain to be challenged on the latest controversy when she appears before the home affairs committee on Wednesday, to be interrogated about the Windrush debacle.

'They were going to send me back to Jamaica. I’ve never been to Jamaica': Son of Windrush immigrant threatened with deportation

The Independent revealed last October that the exemption in the data protection bill would remove data privacy rights for immigration investigations.

Now the Law Society, which represents solicitors, and the Bar Council, which represents barristers, has raised the alarm over the way it will prevent people obtaining files about themselves through “subject access requests”.

Mr O’Leary, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said they were a crucial tool because the Home Office “frequently makes mistakes”.

“Individuals use this frequently, as do lawyers on their behalf, because we can show – through these requests – that they actually have status, even if the Home Office says otherwise,” he said.

Mr O’Leary gave the example of a man detained and threatened with deportation to Somalia, despite his protests that he was British.

“Through doing one of these requests, the lawyer could show that on his own Home Office file it could be proved that he was British.

“If it is the Home Office that is making the mistake, we can’t allow them to stop the individual showing that they’ve made the mistake.”

The new law would allow appeal to the information commissioner, but Mr O’Leary added: “I’m afraid that the individual might then be on the other side of the world, because the Home Office has deported them.”

The civil rights group Liberty has warned that millions of migrants could have their personal information “corrected or erased” without knowing it is happening.

Gracie Bradley, Liberty’s advocacy officer, said: “It will be near-impossible to challenge poor decision-making in immigration cases, or prevent the Home Office destroying evidence that could help people prove their right to be here.

“And immigration enforcement teams will find it even easier to secretly access confidential information collected by trusted public services like schools and hospitals.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is wrong to say that the proposed narrow exemption in the data protection bill is an attempt to deny people access to their data.

“People will still be able to request data as they can now and will be met in all cases except where to do so could undermine our immigration control.

“They will have the right to complain to the information commissioner if they disagree with any use of the immigration exemption and we would always want to assist those whose claims are in question.”

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