Documents reveal controversial Immigration Exemption used in 70% of access requests to Home Office

Documents released today by the digital rights organisation Open Rights Group show that a controversial exemption in data protection law in the United Kingdom was used in over 70% of data access requests to the Home Office in 2020. 

The group argues that this practice raises questions about the adequacy of data protection standards in the United Kingdom. The EU will decide whether data can flow freely between the EU and UK by July this year.

The Immigration Exemption in the Data Protection Act 2018 allows government to restrict access to personal information releasing it would “prejudice effective immigration control”. This includes the right of access to personal data, and the right to know who your data has been shared with.

Between January and December 2020 there were 19,305 Subject Access Requests (SARs) dispatched by the Home Office, and of those 14,027 (72.6%) had the Immigration Exemption applied. 

No information on appeals was available from the Home Office.

The Information Comissioner has confirmed that between May 2018 and May 2020 there were only 3 appeals made against the use of the Immigration Exemption by the Home Office. This raises questions about the transparency and notification to individuals when the exemption is used.

These documents have been shared with the European Commission and the European Data Protection Board as part of their adequacy assessment process for the United Kingdom. 

Matthew Rice, Scotland Director at the Open Rights Group and author of the analysis said:

“The Immigration Exemption is a blunt instrument, allowing for restrictions to personal records at a time when that data is key for ensuring potentially thousands of mistakes about residency and the right to remain in the UK are caught and corrected. These numbers show that the Exemption is being used in the vast majority of requests to the Home Office.

“We are also concerned that the Exemption is being used without proper safeguards, such as notifying an individual. The high number of application compared to the tiny number of appeals needs to be investigated.

“Data protection is more than just the law on the page, it is about practice. We are raising these issues with the European Commission and the European Data Protection Board to demand the removal of the exemption or at the very least to set out clear amendments that need to be made. It is vital to make sure that UK data protection practice meets the standards required for Europe to grant adequacy and allow data flows to continue.”


The Home Office statistics are available here:

The analysis sent to the European Data Protection Board and the European Commission is available here:

Open Rights Group are part of a judicial review against the Immigration Exemption with organisations the3million. Their case was heard by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 February. The decision is pending.