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UK eyes "all-digital" borders by 2024, "rich" integrated new immigration database

New "accurate and rich" operational database planned.

The UK hopes to achieve an ambition of all-digital borders by 2024, with travellers’ immigration permissions "checked electronically by carriers, rather than through immigration documents" and the Home Office to build a digital hub that allows other government departments to check the visa status of all visitors.

That's according to a new strategy paper from the Home Office today (May 24), which detailed plans for a mandatory new "right to travel" Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme, that "will allow security checks to be conducted and more informed decisions, as to whether individuals should be granted permission to travel to the UK, to be taken at an earlier stage in advance of travel."

"The accuracy and richness of operational data captured with the new model for digitising the border will enable greater certainty on whether a person is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the UK at any given point in time," it notes.

"The use of automation to generate, or update, a digital status from a border crossing outcome event will enable the ability to accurately calculate and share a person’s status with third parties and other Government departments that give access to benefits, services and work to those who are eligible. It will also deny them to those here illegally or without the necessary entitlements, reducing the major pull factors for illegal migration."

(There is no widely accepted estimate of the size of the immigrant population in the UK without visas. The Home Office last estimated this population in 2005, using data from the 2001 census, arriving at a figure of circa 430,000 people in the country without leave to remain, according to the National Audit Office.)

The plans for "a fully end-to-end digital customer experience" will also see a new integrated Home Office database that other government departments will be able to access and help it "remove the use of physical documents to demonstrate status." In time this may allow it to get rid of the need for Biometric Residence Permits, it claimed, with the Home Office touting "system-to-system services that will allow other Government departments and public bodies to check immigration status information direct with the Home Office, instead of the individual having to prove these rights via the online service when accessing public services."

The UK's new "universal permission to travel" requirement meanwhile will mean everyone wishing to travel to the UK (except British and Irish citizens) will need to seek permission in advance of travel. This will push back security checks to outside the UK: "Moreover, as part of our ambition to introduce a fully digital end-to-end customer journey, we will aim to replace the vignette which is currently manually inserted into passports or travel documents with a digital status record," the Home Office added.

The paper (which features the words "streamlined", "simplified", and "seamless" heavily) details numerous other extensive changes to the UK's visa regime post-Brexit, claims the UK will harness a range of new technological innovations.

These, it suggests, will "speed up end-to-end processing, from applying for a sponsor license to a worker or student being approved for a visa... [including by] expanding the use of its ChipChecker service for checking identity "so that more applicants can apply for a visa using a mobile device to scan their passport and capture their facial image without the need to attend in-person appointments.

A June 2020 National Audit Office report into immigration enforcement in the UK pointed to "inefficiency in all seven business areas that we visited, which included rework, duplication and work which otherwise does not add value".

The report also pointed to "systems and technology not working effectively, causing operational difficulties. Staff in some business areas did not have immediate access to the information they needed to do their jobs. We heard how documents, such as warrants or travel documentation, sometimes could not be obtained in time to enable action to betaken."

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