Watchdog calls for transparency on government’s ‘cryptic’ visa algorithm

Written by Beckie Smith on 11 February 2020 in News
News

Independent inspector says Home Office approach will ‘fuel concerns about bias and poor practice’

Credit: PA

The Home Office should try to become more open and less “cryptic” about how it makes visa decisions to assuage the public’s concerns about the risk of “bias and poor practice”, a watchdog has said. 

Independent chief inspector of borders and immigration David Bolt has released a report in which he urged the Home Office to publish more information about the so-called "streaming tool" UK Visas and Immigration uses to assess risk attached to particular visa applications, as part of wider need to "demystify" visa decision-making for the public.

Although limited information has been made available, the tool is understood to use algorithms to assess data related to applicants’ risk levels, and then grade their applications accordingly.

“Some stakeholders remain deeply suspicious of the streaming tool, believing that it unfairly discriminates against particular applicants, resulting in high levels of refusals,” he said.


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But while the Home Office shared some information about the types of data used by the tool, it argued that providing more detailed information could help “unscrupulous parties to actively manipulate the immigration system”.

“Whilst UKVI recognises the desire for transparency, this must be balanced with the integrity of immigration control; we do not intend to release further information about the methodology and data into the public domain,” it said.

Publishing the information could also impair some of the UK’s relationships with other countries and international engagement “in the sensitive issues surrounding migration and border security”, it added. Making public the datasets behind the tool “would compromise that integrity and the effectiveness of immigration control”, it said.

Commenting on the response, Bolt questioned whether the Home Office had "got the balance right" between transparency and security, "given that the vast majority of visa applicants are not looking to manipulate the system but simply to understand how to make a successful application".

“The more cryptic the Home Office is seen to be about the way visa decisions are made, the more it will fuel concerns about bias and poor practice,” he said. “The department’s reputation and the staff who work in this area would be better served if its first instinct were to be open and engaging rather than seemingly reluctant to reveal more than it absolutely has to.”

Bolt’s report was published, along with the Home Office’s response to the report, last week – around four and a half months after Bolt submitted it to the home secretary on 23 September.

The publication falls well outside the department’s own target to publish and lay ICIBI reports before parliament within eight weeks of receiving them.

Last month, it was revealed that the Home Office had failed to publish a single one of the 14 reports Bolt submitted in 2019 within its own eight-week target. Five reports are still yet to be published.

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.

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