Why Windrush scandal demonstrates the importance of technology to political decision-making

The Windrush scandal has revealed many disturbing things about government policy that have nothing to do with IT. But the issues raised amply demonstrate the importance of technology considerations in driving 21st century political decision-making.

Tony Smith, the interim director general of the UK Border Force between 2012 and 2013, told the BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4 this week that the major flaw in Theresa May’s “hostile environment” immigration policy as home secretary came down to one thing.

“You need an identity management strategy if you are going to have a hostile environment. You can’t have one without the other,” he said.

In the Brexit debate over immigration, one fact that has been often overlooked is that the European Union’s freedom of movement rules have an important exception. The European Parliament and Council Directive 2004/38/EC allows member states to deport EU nationals to their home country after three months if they have not found a job or cannot support themselves.

In order to do this, you simply need to know which EU citizens are in the UK, and whether they have found a job. To do that, you need exit checks at the borders to find out who has left the country and when – the UK knows who comes in, but never knew who subsequently went back out.

Why didn’t we have exit checks? Well, they were scrapped by Tony Blair in 1998, and – in theory – reintroduced in 2015, although a report last month by the chief inspector of borders and immigration said the exit check programme was not delivering what was promised.

Without exit checks, an identity management system for immigration is worthless, so the government never bothered with one – although Labour wasted millions on its identity card programme which was scrapped in 2010 as soon as David Cameron became prime minister.

“It is about getting the balance right between national security and civil liberties,” home secretary Theresa May said at the time.

Today, we have the troubled Gov.uk Verify identity management programme, which continues to under-perform and under-deliver, despite lofty ambitions to have 25 million users by 2020. But even if Verify works, it’s not linked to exit checks, and its federated design means it can’t be used to prove UK residence in support of immigration issues.

If the UK had a working identity management system in place – with suitable privacy and data protection controls, of course – that proved who you are and your right to be in the country, how different might the policy landscape be today?

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