Home Office, Twitter and Immigration

Immigration is never far from the headlines in the UK and this has been true for a number of years.  On 1 August 2013 the Home Office conducted a high profile immigration operation around the UK which caused debate and discussion in the UK.  On that day in August 2013 the Home Office published a series of tweets which provided details of the number of persons that they had arrested during the day accompanied by the hashtag #immigrationoffenders and in some cases photographs.

In the days that followed there was national press coverage online on the BBC News website, the Guardian, the New Statesman and others as well as international, for example on the website of Le Parisen, a newspaper in France.  This operation came around a month or so after the mobile billboard campaign ran by the Home Office, which popularly became known as ‘the racist van’ – a campaign that was criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority when the partially upheld a complaint against the Home Office.  Much of the criticism of the 1 August 2013 operation, known as ‘Operation Compliance’ was around the operation itself and centred on concerns about racial profiling.  However, some people considered whether the Home Office was properly complying with the Data Protection Act 1998 and there was even some consideration as to whether the activities might be considered as prejudicing future criminal proceedings (if any).

After some consideration I made a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office in August 2013 concerning the events of 1 August 2013, a request that finally came to a conclusion on 3 September 2015.  The Home Office initially refused the request and largely upheld that position on internal review (which it took over 9 months to complete).  The Information Commissioner found in his decision notice that the Home Office were entitled to withhold some of the information that they had withheld, but not the rest (see the ICO’s decision here – which also sets out my request in full).  The Home Office then appealed this to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights).  The Tribunal dismissed the Home Office’s appeal (the Tribunal’s decision can be read here) after a hearing in late June 2015.  The information that was disclosed can be read here (this document does include some of the information that had been earlier disclosed, but the Home Office included it in the new disclosure for “consistency”).

What the information reveals is nothing sinister; it shows civil servants planning and executing a public relations campaign highlighting the work that the Home Office is undertaking.  My principal interest though was always around what consideration the Home Office had given to data protection implications, as well as concerns around prejudicing future criminal prosecutions and also compliance with civil service guidance (which someone else had written about following a tweet of a similar nature about a month earlier).

The information that has been disclosed reveals quite a lot by what it does not contain.  There appears to be no direct consideration of data protection or of prejudice to future criminal proceedings or civil service guidance.  Of course, these matters could have been considered and there simply exists no record of them having been considered (that, I suggest, would show a lack of proper and effective record keeping).  There is an indirect reference to the data protection and prejudice matters in the email extract dated 31/7.2013 at 16:42.

The information also shows that the Home Office changed the hashtag prior to the operation commencing.  It would appear from the information disclosed that they had initially intended to use #illegalworking.  It seems that they changed their mind because the 1 August 2013 operation was not solely targeting those working without the proper papers and permission and they feared criticism from using the #illegalworking hashtag.

Of course this information is not anywhere near as valuable as it might have been had it been released in August or September 2013, many people will have forgotten all about the 1 August 2013 operation (I suspect it will be etched in my mind for some time to come having lived it, studied it, discussed it and litigated it for over 2 years).  It has been a long road, but nonetheless the information that has been released is valuable:  it largely shows a measured discussion by civil servants who appear to be trying to demonstrate to the public in relevant and imaginative ways the work of one of the Departments of State; however, it does appear to highlight some weaknesses in the planning for such media operations and if anything, hopefully these matters will be considered in future operations.

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