We received a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the following:
Information and guidance in relation to the retention of visa case files and records, including any exceptional reasons for holding records beyond normal destruction period.
We released the following information on 21 April 2010.
Missions, at the discretion of the Regional Director, and on a risk-assessed basis, usually dispose of visa case files thirteen months after a decision - if the files cannot be stored securely. There is a critical shortage of space to store visa application documents securely at certain Missions. Insecure retention compromises personal data and is a breach of the Data Protection Act (DPA). UK Border Agency has recently allowed posts, at the discretion of the regional director (and on a risk assessed basis), to dispose of these case files after thirteen months, if they cannot store them securely.
We store vast quantities of case files across the global network - we estimate there are approximately 5 million such paper records in total. Each of these files contains extensive personal data on visa applicants and their families or sponsors, and their insecure storage leaves the Agency in breach of the DPA and increases the risk of the loss or theft of the documents.
Best practice is to ensure that all personal data is locked away securely overnight on secure premises. However, due to the large volumes of paper, and the current two year retention period (for most application types), some posts have run out of secure storage space.
Current retention periods are:
Issued visit applications and short term issues: 6 months - 2 years
Certificates of entitlement: 2 years
Non appealable visit refusals: 2 years
Family visit refusals: 2 years
Other appealable refusals: 2 years
Issued settlement and long term visas: 3 years
Authority has now been granted to allow individual posts, on a case-by-case basis, to reduce their retention periods to thirteen months if they no longer have space to store their documents securely. This decision is at the regional director’s discretion and must be based on a risk assessment submitted by the post, covering the storage space available, retrieval rates for older case files, projected trends in the application volumes, and the relevant legislation.The above option to reduce the retention period does not apply to all applications. Posts should already be separating out files that they need to keep for longer than the retention periods outlined. This includes high profile or complex cases, those cases subject to an outstanding appeal or other challenge, and cases where we have invoked the power to reject future applications under the provisions of paragraph 320 of the Immigration Rules. These case files should not be subject to any reduction in their retention period.
Where posts can store their documents securely for the current retention periods, they should continue to do so. Where the retention period is reduced for a certain post, and the situation changes - for example, there is a significant reduction in application volumes or a move to new premises with more secure storage space - the decision must be reviewed.
The retention periods which are implemented at posts must take into account the file sample requests by the UK Border Agency chief inspector (CI). In May 2010, the CI will request a file sample dating back to October 2008, and thereafter the file sample requests will be on an annual basis. Therefore, posts must not destroy any applications received from October 2008 onwards until they are specifically instructed that they may do so. Posts that are currently following the retention guidelines above may now reduce their retention period to thirteen months, in line with this guidance, until the destruction process reaches files from October 2008 when it must stop. After May 2010, they may resume their retention period of thirteen months if the requirement to do so still exists.
We are aware that some posts have previously received authorisation to reduce their retention periods to twelve months. Again, this may continue until the destruction process reaches October 2008 when it must stop. After May 2010 they may revert to a retention period of thirteen months if the requirement to do so still exists. Please note that the minimum retention period should be thirteen months going forward, to allow time for the CI to request annual file samples in future.
The regional director’s written authority to alter the retention period must be obtained by the post, and any such decisions communicated to the chief information officer prior to implementation. This includes any decisions to rescind a previous alteration due to a change in circumstances.
If a decision is made to reduce the retention period, this may necessitate a one-off large scale destruction of documents. Any destruction of documents must be undertaken using secure, approved means, for example using cross-cut shredders, or approved incineration processes, and should be in line with the relevant supervision.