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Standing Committee Debates
Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 27 January 2004

(Morning)

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

New Clause 16

Information about passengers

    'In paragraph 27B of Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 (c.77) (control on entry: provision of information about passengers) after sub-paragraph (4) insert—

    ''(4A) The officer may ask the carrier to provide a copy of all or part of a document that relates to a passenger and contains passenger information.'''.—[Beverley Hughes.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

9.10 am

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause reintroduces an issue that the Committee discussed previously on Opposition amendments. It concerns the deliberate destruction or disposal of passports and travel documents, which frustrates immigration control and asylum processing. People who deliberately destroy or dispose of their documents do so to conceal their true identity, nationality and citizenship. That obviously makes processing difficult and, if claims fail, it frustrates the removal process.

The problem is significant and has been discussed before. We need effective ways to deter people from deliberately disposing of or destroying their documents. The power provided in the new clause to require carriers to copy passengers' documents before they embark for the United Kingdom would be such a deterrent, and I was pleased to note the broad support in principle for the idea during the debate on Opposition amendments to clause 2.

The new clause allows an immigration officer to require a carrier to provide either a full or partial copy of any documents relating to a passenger and containing passenger information, and that term is defined in section 27B of schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 and the Immigration (Passenger Information) Order 2000. I wrote to you, Mr. Taylor, and to Mrs. Roe with details of the way in which the new clause would operate, with copies to Committee members. I hope that that was helpful.

I made it clear in that letter that immigration officers would be able to make requests under the new power in respect of ships or aircraft expected to arrive in the UK. The request can relate either to particular ships or aircraft of the carrier, or to all a carrier's ships or aircraft. That request will have to be in writing and state the date on which it ceases to have effect, which

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may not be more than six months from the date on which the request is made. Only if a request is made under the new clause would a carrier be obliged to provide copies of the passenger's documents. There would be no blanket requirement imposed on all carriers to provide copies of all documents of all passengers they carry to the United Kingdom. We intend, if necessary, to use the statutory power. I hope that the voluntary schemes that I have identified will work, but if it is necessary to use the statutory power, we intend to do so in a very targeted and proportionate way.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The Minister referred to ships and aircraft, but not to Eurostar or other land-based vehicles.

Beverley Hughes: Yes, the provision will cover Eurostar trains coming into this country from another country.

If a carrier fails to comply with a request under the new power without reasonable excuse, the carrier would commit an offence under section 27B(4) of the Immigration Act 1971. That offence is punishable on summary conviction with a fine of not more than level five on the standard scale, which I understand is £5,000 maximum, or with imprisonment for not more than six months, or with both.

I believe that the whole Committee has acknowledged that the problem of asylum seekers destroying their documents to frustrate the process is real, immediate and significant. Although the voluntary co-operation of carriers may provide a solution, there can be no guarantee at this stage, while we are debating legislation, that it will be effective without some form of statutory back-up. As I said in my letter, we shall have two trials. They will be comprehensive, and the lessons we learn will be thoroughly evaluated. I hope that that will provide the basis for the continuation of a voluntary scheme. If not, we shall need the provision to address the matter if a voluntary scheme proves to be ineffective.

I also want to make it clear that carriers have existing responsibilities to ensure that the passengers whom they carry to the UK have proper documentation and that they should provide information on passengers to an immigration officer on request. The clause and any voluntary scheme will simply develop those existing responsibilities.

Some carriers already copy documents in certain circumstances, usually of their own volition, in order to minimise the chance of having a carriers' liability charge imposed. Some carriers have acknowledged that it is in their own business interest to copy documents. That does not apply to everyone, and there is a need to build on the current position so that we can obtain copies of documents in all cases in which intelligence tells us that document destruction or disposal is a significant problem.

As I said, the clause will not introduce a blanket requirement for all carriers, but one that is designed to be utilised in a targeted way on specific routes and at

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the specific request of an immigration officer. The provision will not prove to be an excessive burden on carriers.

On the subject of consultation, we are in discussion with the carriers about how such a provision would work in practice. We are working on two trial schemes, and I am sure that they will help us to resolve some of the technical and other issues to which we need solutions. They will also demonstrate the respective cost and time implications to the carriers. We shall not consider implementing the power, which would have to be made by a commencement order, unless the trial evaluation demonstrated that it was practical to gather the data at reasonable cost and that a voluntary scheme operated by the carriers proved not to be an effective proposition. Given my explanation, and the further details sent out in the letter, I hope that hon. Members are assured that the power is necessary.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): The Minister was right to say at the beginning of her remarks that destruction of documents by those who subsequently seek asylum is a serious matter. She was right to say that the Committee as a whole felt that that was the case. We support any measure to punish severely those who destroy their documents. It is a wicked thing to do. Arising out of that problem, the Minister moved on to the proper premise that copying of documents would improve the situation.

However, as I have said before, although we utterly support the principle of copying documents, there are logistical and cost issues from the carrier's point of view, which I hope the Government will address properly. Indeed, there is a better argument for putting the burden of the duty on the passengers themselves, and if the Government are determined that the carriers should carry out the task, there are strong arguments for saying that any costs should be borne by the Government.

I would like to say a few words on behalf of the carriers today, and I would be grateful if the Committee would take them on board. None of the carriers seeks to frustrate the object of the clause, but they have serious concerns on the Government's governance of the issue and the clarity of their thinking. I shall pose seven questions to the Minister, which I hope she will deal with fully. If she does not, perhaps she would be kind enough to write to the Committee covering those matters.

Why were the affected operators given only six working days to respond to the Home Office's initial proposal, including a request to calculate compliance costs? Given that the Bill has been some time in the planning, why was the 12-week consultation norm set out in the code of practice on written consultation flouted so badly? Given that our airlines have facilities at some 200 airports around the world, each with different check-in and terminal configurations, how could the Minister expect that a proper assessment of proportionality of costs and benefits could be carried out in that time?

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Why has a detailed regulatory impact assessment not been prepared covering all the copying options that might be considered? Surely the House and the Committee should not agree to the new clause until the Cabinet Office requirement has been met, and there has been an opportunity to scrutinise the costs involved. In any event, how could such a regulatory impact assessment be prepared, given that the Home Office has been given costs only for copying and that carriers have not been consulted on estimates of the financial and operational impact of other copying options?

The carriers find it difficult to accept the Minister's assurance that an assessment will be produced before the reserve power is exercised, as Parliament will have had to agree to the power before then. Furthermore, although the Minister told the Committee on 13 January that the power would be switched on through secondary legislation, which would also have required an assessment, new clause 16 does not contain any order-making power. The Minister seems to be saying, ''We're not quite sure what we want to do, how much it will cost or how burdensome it will be, but take us on trust and give us the power to do it anyway.''

Will the Minister set out the workable copying options? It is understood that three airlines will be conducting a pilot at Johannesburg airport, but what will they be piloting? If it is not shown to be operationally and financially feasible, what other means of copying would be required? It is clear that photocopying at check-in desks is unrealistic. Airlines have calculated that copying every passport would add 5.6 hours to the check-in time of a 767 flight, to which should be added the cost of providing copiers at thousands of desks around the world, assuming that they could be accommodated in the confined space available.

On other options, few of the thousands of desks around the world are equipped with optical readers, and the bulk of passports held by potential asylum seekers or illegal immigrants are probably not readable. On-board document copying was considered by the Home Office, but it cannot cover cases in which documents are destroyed between the gate and boarding the aircraft. It was suggested earlier that airports might provide a central facility for passengers to copy their papers. On 13 January, the Minister said that

    ''if the voluntary scheme does not work, we can switch on a statutory power''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 13 January 2004; c. 139.]

The carriers, and the Committee, need to know what will be required if the pilot does not succeed.

The Minister has been made aware that the Foreign Secretary recently wrote to the United States Secretary of State to highlight the fact that the systems to support a similar passenger information collection scheme planned by the US authorities are not capable of coping without severe disruption. After the Foreign Office raised concerns about a proposed US scheme, it is ironic that Home Office has proposed a procedure that will have a similar impact on airline operations.

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We understand that the domestic laws of a number of states prohibit the copying of overseas passports. Most passenger handling at overseas airports is contracted by UK airlines to national handling agents. How could a carrier make its agents comply with a requirement in breach of their own law? Will the Minister undertake that the power will not be activated until the Government have negotiated a satisfactory modus vivendi with the states concerned? Will she also undertake that the power will not be exercised until agreement has been reached with carriers that it is operationally and financially realistic for the requirement to be put in place at the airport or port in question?

Will the Minister follow the example of her colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and agree that the cost of installing any copying equipment will be borne by the Government? In a written statement in connection with the fitting of satellite tracking equipment to fishing vessels to comply with EU requirements, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said:

    ''Since such terminals may not be used by vessel owners or masters for business purposes . . . DEFRA has decided to meet the costs of fitting tamper proof terminals''.—[Official Report, 9 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 84WS.]

He added that it would go a significant way to removing an additional financial burden on the industry. Given that carriers will be required to collect information on behalf of the immigration and nationality directorate but will derive no security or commercial benefit from give it, the carriers hope that the Minister will give a commitment to adopt the DEFRA precedent.

I recall our debate on this matter on 13 January. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) spoke about supermarkets collecting consumer information through loyalty cards and said that because of that, it should be possible and worth while for carriers to do the same. Any such argument is based on the slight misconception that as airlines profit from carrying passengers, they should bear the responsibility for recording the data. However, the data required by the immigration and nationality directorate is of no commercial value to carriers. If it were, they would no doubt enthusiastically invest in data capture, as the supermarkets have done through their loyalty cards. Therefore, there is a commercial advantage to the supermarkets, but not to the airlines. As the data would be collected by the carriers as an agent of the Government, it must surely be fair that the Government should bear the cost. Similarly, if airlines were responsible for data collection for IND, they should logically bear the cost of the Customs and other immigration facilities at an airport. Therefore, I hope that the carriers' point is deemed to be reasonable.

I appreciate that I have set out a number of queries for the Minister on behalf of the carriers. I am sure that she will do her best to answer as many as possible, but I end with this proposition. It is entirely right that we should try to address the mischief of people tearing up their documents, and one excellent way would be for copies of such documents to be made, but are we not

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rushing matters? Is there not a good case for expecting passengers to copy their documents before they get to an airport or at an airport? It would not be a burden for the normal traveller. On the other hand, if the Government are to say that the carriers have to have a role, is there not a good argument for the Government reimbursing the cost? Indeed, there is a precedent.

I and the carriers are concerned that the Government are rushing through proposals that could not only be commercially very damaging and unfair to the carriers, but could prove difficult to operate efficiently in practice without causing chaos and problems for our airports.

 
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Prepared 27 January 2004