THE Home Office would appear to have won the latest stage in a long-running freedom of information (FOI) battle with The National over the number of asylum seekers removed from the UK because of “human error”.
It has been a year since we asked the department under FOI legislation how many asylum seekers had been removed between February 2018 and February last year using the classification.
We have since approached them several times, offering to modify our FOI request, which they refused on the grounds that it would cost too much.
However, our emails went unanswered, as did similar communications from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
The ICO had to chase up the Home Office twice and now the commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has backed them – despite their refusing to explain what was meant by their term “human error”.
Our FOI request followed the case of a 29-year-old lesbian asylum seeker from Namibia – Isabella Katjiparatijivi – who had been locked up in the detention centre at Dungavel (below) and booked on a flight back to her home country, where she feared persecution because of her sexuality.
The Home Office had denied that removal instructions had been issued – despite the fact that The National had seen them.
They eventually said the bid to remove her was a result of “human error”, which prompted us to ask how many others had been similarly threatened, or removed.
However, the Home Office said a manual search of 3500 records would have to be carried out and, at three minutes per search, the cost would be more than the limit of £600 per FOI request for central government departments.
The ICO decision letter said: “The Home Office also said it had invited UKVI [UK Visas and Immigration] to consider whether a sampling exercise would assist but they did not take this up.
“However … a manual search of individual records would be required as there was no shortcut or software solution.
“The Home Office said that its estimate of three minutes per file was a conservative one based on its experience of searching individual case records for information in similar contexts.
“On this basis it would be not be practical. For that reason, it said a sampling exercise would be ‘otiose’.”
On several occasions we told the ICO and the Home Office that in this digital world, there had to be an automated solution. Our own inquiries revealed that writing a program to conduct a search for “human error” could cost as little as £150 and take a few hours to write and test.
The ICO said: “However, before obtaining an estimate he said he would need the Home Office to explain its ‘human error’ classification … The commissioner contacted the Home Office on November 18, December 16, 2019, and January 9 and 27, 2020 to request clarification of its ‘human error’ classification, but at the date of this Decision Notice no response has been received.”
“Human error” was not a term dreamt up by The National – it was the Home Office’s reason for lying about the existence of removal directions for Katjiparatijivi, and possibly many others.
The ICO also drew the Home Office’s attention to the time taken to respond to our FOI: “The Commissioner would like to take this opportunity to remind the Home Office of the Section 45 Code of Practice in relation to the timely handling of internal review requests.”
Katjiparatijivi’s lawyer, Usman Aslam, said last night: “It’s harrowing to know that the Secretary of State at that time lied about there being no removal directions. One would think that it is in the public interest to know what went wrong, as this ‘human error’ could have resulted in an asylum seeker being sent to persecution.”
The National is now considering the option of appealing to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights).