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Digitalisation trends in the immigration context

07 December 2021

In this article, we look at some examples of the UK’s immigration and nationality digitalisation programme, focusing on the implications for migrant workers, their sponsors, and business visitors.

The Home Office’s immigration and nationality services – digital by design

The Home Office’s Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) team is responsible for improving the overall business efficiency of the department through the development of digital technologies. It was set up in 2016 and currently has 3,800 staff associated with it across the UK. 

Under the current DDaT strategy, the Home Office aims to ‘become digital by design’ in everything it does to deliver its policies. This includes using automation, investing in cyber capabilities and focusing on data to manage the department both strategically and operationally.

Digitalisation has been actively pursued the immigration and nationality sphere in recent years,  ahead of other areas of the department. This is set to continue across the Home Office according to the following principles:

1. Converging technologies where possible

2. Creating shared technology products

3. Being product-centric over programme-centric

4. Becoming data-driven to improve the Home Office’s decisions

5. Delivering effectively at scale

6. Embracing innovation

These principles can be seen in action in the Home Office’s recent and planned innovations for how migrants make applications and have them assessed, and how they prove their status once granted.

Making and assessing applications

The digitalisation of immigration and nationality application processes is creating significant change in terms of data access, security and privacy. As a general trend, it should improve user experience. It will also provide the Home Office with a huge pool of data to store and analyse.

Applying to enter the UK

Currently visitors to the UK (including business visitors) must make a formal visa application abroad if they are a visa national, or seek entry at the border if they are a non-visa national. Certain non-visa nationals are eligible to use eGates and are not routinely formally examined by a Border Force official.

The Home Office plans to implement Electronic Travel Authorisations (ETAs) for all non-visa nationals visiting or transiting the UK as an additional pre-arrival security measure, as well as replacing physical visitor visas with a digital status record, or ‘e-visa’. Visa nationals who are currently eligible to obtain an Electronic Visa Waiver (EVW) will continue to be able to use an EVW. British and Irish nationals, as well as those who have British citizenship in the Crown Dependencies or British Overseas Territories will remain outside the scope of pre-arrival arrangements.

To make these changes effective, substantial systems development work still needs to be undertaken. This will need to cover the ETA application process, as well as replacing or upgrading two old systems that flag individuals of interest for security reasons and that analyse passenger information from a security perspective. Some of this work falls under the Digital Services at the Border programme, which is due to be delivered by the end of March 2022. Communications and training will also be necessary for air, maritime and rail carriers, as they will need to administer pre-departure checks. The new arrangements will be trialled ahead of a full rollout, with initial testing scheduled to take place by autumn 2021.

Anticipated implications of these changes include:

  • More security and less likelihood of delays or refusal of entry for visitors at the border (although there will still be checks on visitors’ intentions);
  • Additional administration and small fee charges for those who need to use the ETA system; and
  • The need for assurances on security of data and privacy, with the UK government collecting and retaining data for a much larger cohort of people than currently.

Online immigration and nationality application forms and sponsorship system

Online application forms have been a feature of UK immigration and nationality applications for some years now, however the post-Brexit immigration system is intended to become fully digital. This will include a roadmap to transform the Home Office IT systems used by sponsors of workers and students.

The Home Office is in the process of decommissioning legacy case working and other systems and is working on a shared form-building and hosting solution that it may produce within the department rather than through using an external provider. This latter change should enable the Home Office to design, prototype and deploy forms that meet their Accessibility Standard more quickly and cost-effectively than currently. Taking this work in-house would also allow small, iterative improvements to be made quickly to address identified issues.

Possible implications of having a fully digital application form set and IT system for sponsors include:

  • Pressure to minimise the number of Statements of Changes in Immigration Rules brought forward each year, as this will in turn minimise the cost of rework to online application forms and associated guidance;
  • The need to develop worldwide functionality, including mobile device-enabled functionality, to allow applicants to upload supporting information and documents securely and transparently (including eliminating the need to send supplementary documents by unsecured email);
  •  Further movement towards verifying information relied on by applicants and sponsors using self-certification, direct verification with third parties (e.g. employers), and checking data from previous applications, data shared between government departments and data exchanged across governments;
  • Permanent movement away from submitting paper supporting documents (eg for sponsor licence applications);
  • The availability of a quicker, more environmentally-friendly system through avoiding the use of paper, and removing the need to submit applications by physically travelling or using couriers or postal services;
  • Better access for applicants to their data, through subject access requests that are generated through drawing on integrated case working systems and are not reliant on the retrieval of paper-based archived files;
  • The need to properly engage with and address issues such as digital poverty, lack of digital skills and language barriers through measures such as appropriate and easily-accessible assisted digital support worldwide (this is currently only available on a limited basis in the UK).

Identity verification

In late 2018, an identity verification app was used for the first time as part of the rollout of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS). This enabled millions of EEA nationals and some of their non-EEA family members to enrol their biometric data using a smartphone rather than attending a government-authorised facility.

The availability of this technology assisted with re-starting in-country immigration application processing for routes other than EUSS, after biometric enrolment centres were forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A separate identity verification app was made available to support the implementation of the post-Brexit Points-Based Immigration system. It is currently available for use by a limited range of nationals and only in certain immigration routes, but the Home Office’s intention is to widen its use over time. Before 30 November 2021, individuals using the app could not access priority processing options, however this is now possible.

The Home Office is also considering how biometric data are enrolled and retained. The Identity section of the New plan for immigration: legal migration and border control strategy statement includes a proposal to require fingerprints to be captured once and then reused, with facial biometrics being recaptured periodically using an identity verification app. This potentially could mean applicants do not have to enrol their biometric data more than once, however longer data retention times raise potential data privacy concerns. Some of the concerns over data handling may be mitigated in the future through the Home Office using its own identity verification apps and controlling the data from the outset, rather than using third party commercial partners in visa application centres to collect and transfer it.

The net result of changes to identity verification is likely to be quicker application processing and movement through the border for migrant workers and business visitors. Other implications and outstanding issues to address include:

  • The need to consider how automated allocation of National Insurance numbers can be integrated into the process for work routes where an identity verification app is used;
  • Reduced need to use visa application centres and in-country biometric enrolment facilities;
  • Potential to link biometric records to processes required for immigration applications such as English language testing, verification of qualifications, health testing such as TB screening etc, which would reduce potential for impersonation and document fraud;
  • Increased need to ensure adequate governance around the collection, reuse and retention of biometric data (this may be addressed under planned reforms to the UK’s data protection regime); and
  • Less risk of misidentification of an individual when the Home Office is carrying out enforcement activities.

Proving status

The general direction of travel in this area is toward the exclusive use of digital status, with plans to make this a reality by the end of 2024.

The technology used for people to be able to verify their status under the EUSS (the View and Prove service) is now being expanded to other routes. Although the EUSS system has been hailed as a success, initial case inception and finalisation may have been prioritised, with other aspects of the system yet to have been properly developed. Current problems include the possibility of one individual having multiple live immigration records, and their current immigration status not being verifiable by default on the online right to work checking system when they have an extension or settlement application in process. This can be corrected, but only by the individual making a request to the Home Office.

The replacement of physical immigration documents with digital status has many benefits, including eliminating the logistical and security issues that currently are associated with entry clearance vignettes and biometric identity documents.

Also, the planned automated capability to update an individual’s digital status record every time they cross the UK the border will enable the Home Office to accurately pinpoint if they are inside or outside the UK and for how long (see para 66 of the Home Office’s strategy statement). This could streamline the assessment of residence for settlement and nationality purposes, as well as enabling the sharing of residence information with other government departments when they are considering eligibility for services and benefits. Digital status could also facilitate contactless border crossing.

Some broader implications and issues relating to the adoption of digital status include:

  • The need to have a communications and education strategy to ensure UK digital immigration status is easy to access and is accepted in all cases where proof of status is required (e.g. at present, some individuals are not confident with using online systems, and foreign governments will not accept UK digital status as sufficient proof when considering visa applications for their country);
  • The need to build in safeguards to ensure migrant records are not duplicated and individuals can easily access their immigration history and current immigration status in one place;
  • The need for reminder or other mechanisms to prompt migrants to update their digital status record when their circumstances have changed (e.g. when they obtain a new identity document);
  • The need for a clear and quick process for migrants to have data inaccuracies addressed (e.g. where their digital status record does not accurately record an individual’s work rights);
  • The need to ensure stability of the availability of information on digital status to minimise the risk that system crashes, data loss or corruption could result in real-world impacts on individuals’ access to their rights and services; and
  • The need for robust processes to re-establish immigration status where digital status data is lost, corrupted or requires updating.

The future of digitalisation in the immigration and nationality sphere

Digitalisation of the immigration and nationality system is not without controversy and significant work still needs to be done to ensure it operates smoothly, as the examples highlighted above demonstrate.

We can expect to see further evolution as the Home Office pursues successive iterations of the DDaT strategy, with a view to providing better services to both to direct and indirect users of the system.

No doubt new challenges and solutions will emerge as digitalised processes and products become more embedded as the norm. The Home Office is clear that it is now a ‘digital organisation’, so an exploration of, and reliance on, digital technology appears to be high priority for the foreseeable future.

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