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Home Office faces criticism over visa algorithm

New reports suggest the Home Office has been using a secret visa algorithm to process visa applications, with experts warning this could be discriminating against some applicants based on their age or nationality. 

The algorithm is used for all study, work and visitor visa requests and grades applications as either green, amber or red depending on the perceived level of risk. Fearing that any details about the algorithm could encourage fraudulent applications, the Home Office has refused to comment on how often the algorithm is updated as well as the factors used to determine risk. 

It’s believed the algorithm has only come to the attention of immigration professionals recently after a group of lawyers streamed the process during a visit to Sheffield’s visa processing centre. 

Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society, said the algorithm “may well disadvantage certain groups of people based on generic markers such as age, country of origin or whether they have travelled before.”

Visa algorithm: The digitisation of the visa process

Although it refuses to answer any questions on how the algorithm operates, the Home Office has confirmed it was implemented to speed up the application process and make it as efficient as possible. A spokesperson also said caseworkers still check the applications to ensure they meet immigration rules. 

However, UK immigration professionals are urging the Home Office to provide more details about how it reviews applications to avoid further accusations. 

Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary for Labour, said: “Every system is only as good as the inputs used to create it. If there is bias, or they incorporate the prejudices prevalent in society, then those outputs will be similarly tainted.”

The Home Office has been warned before

In light of these findings, it has emerged that the chief inspector of borders and immigration warned against the use of the algorithm in 2017, believing it would become a de facto decision-making tool. In particular, the inspector was critical of the Home Office’s failure to account for the fact a caseworker could unintentionally dismiss information which counters the algorithm’s findings.


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