The Home Office has agreed to scrap a decision-making algorithm used to decide visa applications following allegations that it contained “entrenched racism”.
The digital “streaming tool”, which has been used to determine the outcome of visa applications for everyone applying to enter the UK since 2015, will be suspended from Friday “pending a redesign of the process”, Priti Patel’s department said.
The decision comes ahead of a legal challenge over the Home Office’s use of the algorithm by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), in which the charity was to argue that it amounted to racial discrimination in a breach of the Equality Act 2010.
JCWI had asked the court to declare the streaming algorithm unlawful and to order a halt to its use to assess visa applications, pending a review.
The algorithm, which assigns a red, amber or green risk rating to applicants, has played a major role in determining the outcome of visa applications, and meant people with “suspect” nationalities received intensive scrutiny by Home Office officials and were much more likely to be refused, according to JCWI.
The charity said it contributed to the disproportionate rate of refusals for visa applicants from African countries. According to research last year by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for Africa, African people are more than twice as likely to be refused a UK visa as applicants from other parts of the world.
Following the decision to scrap the algorithm, Chai Patel, legal policy director of the JCWI, said: “The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal found that 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 for such bias and to root it out.”
Cori Crider, founder and director of Foxglove, a tech-justice group which launched the legal action alongside JCWI, described the algorithm tool as “speedy boarding for white people”.
She added: “What we need is democracy, not government by algorithm. Before any further systems get rolled out, let’s ask experts and the public whether automation is appropriate at all, and how historic 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 JCWI made in their judicial review claim and whilst litigation is still ongoing it would not be appropriate for the department to comment any further.”