Home Office to scrap ‘racist algorithm’ for UK visa applicants

A rare example of an ongoing judicial review changing government policy.

The Home Office is to scrap a controversial decision-making algorithm that migrants’ rights campaigners claim created a “hostile environment” for people applying for UK visas.

Henry McDonald www.theguardian.com

The “streaming algorithm”, which campaigners have described as racist, has been used since 2015 to process visa applications to the UK. It will be abandoned from Friday, according to a letter from Home Office solicitors seen by the Guardian.

The decision to scrap it comes ahead of a judicial review from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), which was to challenge the Home Office’s artificial intelligence system that filters UK visa applications.

Campaigners claim the Home Office decision to drop the algorithm ahead of the court case represents the UK’s first successful challenge to an AI decision-making system.

Chai Patel, JCWI’s legal policy director, said: “The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal found it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates.

“This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor such bias and to root it out.”

In their submission to the high court, JWCI and the technology justice campaign group Foxglove said the algorithm created three channels for applicants, including a so-called “fast lane” that would lead to “speedy boarding for white people” from the most favoured countries in the system.

In the Home Office letter, its solicitors confirm that the home secretary, Priti Patel, “has decided that she will discontinue the use of the streaming tool to assess visa applications, pending a substitute review of its operation”.

Referring to the redesign of a new streaming visa system, the letter continues: “In the course of that redesign, our client intends carefully to consider and assess the points you have raised in your claim including, issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality generally in the streaming tool.”

However, the Home Office solicitors add: “For clarity, the fact of the redesign does not mean that the secretary of state for the home department accepts the allegations in your claim form.”

Cori Crider, the founder and director of Foxglove, said: “What we need is democracy, not government by secret algorithm. Before any further systems get rolled out, let’s ask the public whether automation is appropriate at all, and make the systems transparent so biases can be spotted and dug out at the roots.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.

“We do not accept the allegations Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants made in their judicial review claim and whilst litigation is still ongoing it would not be appropriate for the department to comment any further.”