Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 8 July 2003
[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]
Draft Immigration (Provision of Physical Data) Regulations 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Provision of Physical Data) Regulations 2003.
It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Butterfill, especially as this is my first opportunity in such a Committee. I look forward to debating the regulations.
This statutory instrument is made in exercise of the powers conferred on the Secretary of State by section 126 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. That section enables the Secretary of State, by regulation, to require that an immigration application be accompanied by physical data of an external characteristic. The regulations require those applying for entry clearance in Sri Lanka to provide a record of their fingerprints. The requirement will be underpinned in practice by the collection of fingerprint data in Sri Lanka.
It is right that we examine the benefits that can be derived from the collection of physical data from individuals who apply for entry clearance. To do that, we propose to run a pilot scheme in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during which all entry clearance applications will have to be accompanied by a record of the fingerprints of the person making the application. That requirement will be fulfilled by the applicant having fingerprints taken by a member of staff at the British mission in Colombo. Only fingerprints taken at the British mission will be acceptable. Otherwise, it will not be possible to verify that the fingerprints provided are those of the applicant. Once the fingerprints have been collected, they will be given a unique serial number, which will be inserted on the visa application form so as to form a record of the fingerprints on the application. The record will allow copies of the applicant's fingerprints to be accessed easily at a later date if necessary.
The pilot will initially run for six months, during which people applying for entry clearance, regardless of nationality, will be expected to provide the required fingerprint data.
In common with many other Governments, we consider that physical data, including fingerprints, iris or facial recognition, provide the only certain way to confirm a person's identity. The collection of fingerprints allows people to be linked to their identities once their details have been registered. That will aid us in our efforts to prevent document and identity fraud in the immigration field. It is essential that we embrace that technology and use it to
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ensure that those who are entitled to enter this country can do so without hindrance, but those who seek to circumvent our controls are identified and prevented from doing so.
We have built into the regulations safeguards—equivalent to those that apply when taking fingerprints in the UK—for any applicant who is under 16 years of age. In all cases in which a person aged under 16 years seeks to make an application, fingerprints will be taken only in the presence of a responsible adult who is over 18 years of age and not employed by the Government.
It is intended that the fingerprint records collected in Colombo will be added to the immigration and asylum fingerprint system database. That will allow for the identification of any visa applicant who subsequently makes either an asylum or an immigration application in a different identity. That, in turn, will help to establish the nationality of those who no longer have a basis on which to remain in the UK, and so aid in securing their removal. In common with other fingerprints collected in respect of immigration and asylum applications, data will be shared with the police and other law enforcement agencies for the prevention or investigation of crime. All such exchanges will be in compliance with the relevant data protection provisions.
The regulation provides that any application not accompanied by the required data may be treated as invalid without a right of appeal. It is anticipated that the majority of applications that are not accompanied by a record of fingerprints will be treated as invalid. However, there will inevitably be exceptions, including applicants who, because of a physical disability or injury, cannot provide fingerprints. The system will be operated reasonably to limit the impact on applicants—I know that you were concerned about that, Mr. Butterfill.
We decided to base the pilot in Sri Lanka because Sri Lankan nationals continue to make a significant number of unfounded asylum applications and to use false identities in the process. From a practical perspective, we also have a substantial visa-issuing post in Colombo, which is able to accommodate the not-inconsiderable upheaval that the pilot will inevitably involve. Last, but not least, we have excellent relations with the Sri Lankan Government, who have been co-operative and supportive as we develop this imaginative initiative.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Butterfill. I also welcome the Minister, who told us that it is her first statutory instrument occasion. I offer her a warm welcome, not only from myself, but from my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who are knowledgeable about the field.
The regulations were debated in the other place on Friday. Mercifully, the debate was quite brief and I shall be fairly brief this afternoon. I want to say straight away that the Opposition support the regulations, although we have a few queries and observations.
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The question of why Sri Lanka was chosen for the pilot scheme was raised in the other place. Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, speaking on behalf of the Government, implied that the two principal reasons were the wholehearted co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government and the quantity and quality of our existing staff in Sri Lanka. He also alluded to other reasons and, principally, to the evidence that Sri Lankan nationals tend to make a significant number of unfounded asylum applications. Will the Minister give us a little more detail about the situation in Sri Lanka, compared with the situation elsewhere, in terms of unfounded applications?
Sri Lanka has had its fair share of troubles over the past few years and asylum applications from that beautiful country were heavy in 2000, 2001 and 2002. There were well over 6,000 applications in 2000, more than 5,000 applications in 2001 and 3,180 applications in 2002. Numbers began to drop dramatically towards the end of 2002 and the first quarter of this year saw only about 300 applications. Of course, that was because the position had improved in relation to the peace talks between the Government and the Tamil Tigers and the ceasefire that followed. However, I understand that the talks have stalled. There is, of course, the risk of more trouble. Does the Minister think that the number of applications for entry clearance to this country, for asylum purposes or otherwise, will go up during the next six months? Are there sufficient staff to cope with a possible resurgence of heavy numbers?
The regulations state that when fingerprints are taken from someone under the age of 16 a parent or other suitable adult should be present. As we all know, determining the age of a child is not easy. Many debates on asylum during the past few years have touched on the point that for young asylum seekers there is often great difficulty in establishing the age of the child in question. Has the Minister considered that such difficulties could arise, and will she confirm that, if there is doubt about the age, the fingerprint will be taken only in the presence of an appropriate adult? I imagine that that will be the case. Will the Minister tell us what guidance will be issued to those who have to come to a reasonable belief that the applicant is 16 or over? Some form of good and expert guidance may be necessary.
There is also the question of the number of people who may have access to those fingerprints, and the use to which information on someone else's fingerprints may be put. To put it bluntly, there may be good reasons why the fingerprints should be supplied to those responsible for the enforcement of the criminal law. I do not think that many of us would have an issue with that. However, it would smack of an over-mighty and overbearing state if fingerprints were distributed too widely. There are civil liberties issues relating to that matter.
I hope that the Minister thinks that her judgment in the regulations—and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999—as to the distribution of the prints is a sound middle way. To see who may get hold of those prints and other information—whatever that may mean—one needs to examine section 21 of the 1999 Act, and I
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did that. Those prints can be properly supplied to chief officers of police, the director general of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and so on. However, as always with legislation, there is the little paragraph stating that it may be supplied to
''any specified person, for use for purposes specified in relation to that person.''
If one wants to become wise to what that means, one looks for the definition of ''specified'', which apparently means specified in an order made by the Secretary of State. I have a query about that. Will the Minister confirm that we need not be troubled on the issue of how widely the prints can be distributed, and the purposes for which they might be used?
I would like the Minister to tell us a bit more about the pilot project. When does she think that it will start? Will it start immediately? When does she think that it will stop? Will she let us know whether there are other countries where it may be tried? Does the Home Office have other pilot schemes in mind at the moment? Will the Minister return to the House of Commons before other pilot schemes are introduced? Would she want further pilot schemes, or would she want to roll this out—to use the modern phraseology—across the world? How would she deem the pilot scheme a success or a failure, and what criteria would bring her to such a view?
The Minister said in the other place that biometric data have great potential. No doubt that is true, but perhaps the Minister could tell the Committee at a later stage by letter the sorts of uses to which biometric data might be put in this important field in the future.
The Minister in the other place failed to deal with the following point on Friday. Before the pilot is repeated, and as soon as it is over, would the Minister kindly tell the House exactly what has happened during that pilot? Will she tell us how many prints have been taken, and how many unlawful activities have been discovered? What is the actual cost of it all? Will she give us her summary of the benefits of the pilot as well as the problems exposed by it? That can easily be done. If there is no time for a debate in the Chamber on these matters, I hope that at the end of the pilot the Minister finds it in her powers and in her wishes to write a letter to each Committee member, with a copy placed in the Library, to tell us how it has gone. With those words, I offer our support to the Government on this measure.