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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Christopher Chope

†Balls, Ed (Normanton) (Lab)
†Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
†Blizzard, Mr. Bob (Waveney) (Lab)
Browne, Mr. Jeremy (Taunton) (LD)
†Clegg, Mr. Nick (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
†Etherington, Bill (Sunderland, North) (Lab)
†Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
†Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
†Howells, Dr. Kim (Minister for the Middle East)
Mackay, Mr. Andrew (Bracknell) (Con)
Maples, Mr. John (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Simpson, Mr. Keith (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)
Stanley, Sir John (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
Nerys Welfoot, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Monday 11 July 2005

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Draft Consular Fees Act 1980 (Fees)
Order 2005

4.30 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Consular Fees Act 1980 (Fees) Order 2005.

It is, as ever, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I say “as ever”, but I believe that this is the first time I have been on a Committee that you have chaired. Usually, you give me a bad time from the Opposition Benches, so it is a pleasant surprise to see you in the Chair today.

Last Thursday, Britain found itself the target of terrorism. In recent years the global threat from terrorism has increased and our response has taken various forms. Especially since 9/11, there has been greater international co-operation, including on passport security. More secure travel documents are required to minimise the risk of identity fraud and to facilitate safer travel. Such efforts have been developed in several forums, one of which involved the International Civil Aviation Organisation setting technical standards for biometrics in passports.

Biometrics are unique personal features that help to link a document to the holder. The three most common biometric identifiers are facial recognition—what the rest of us call photos—which I shall say more about later, fingerprints and iris recognition. The ICAO technical standard for first-phase biometrics is facial recognition as the single biometric identifier. The UK Passport Service and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have no difficulty recognising the benefits of adopting the standard and have been at the forefront of efforts to implement it. We continue to work with European Union member states to tackle identity fraud in order to combat illegal immigration, organised crime and identity theft, which is a rapidly growing crime. To do that effectively, the security features in EU passports must be of a high standard and contain standardised security features so that each member state can read and rely on the biometric data contained in passports issued by the other 24 member states. The deadline for achieving that goal is 20 August 2006. My Department and the UK Passport Service will meet that deadline.

The United States Government have issued a visa waiver programme under which citizens from 27 countries including the UK can visit the US for certain purposes without a visa—for example, for tourism. Countries that wish to continue to benefit from the US visa waiver programme will be required to begin using biometric passports by 26 October 2006; that deadline
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was recently extended from 26 October this year. Again, my Department and the Passport Service will meet that deadline. To be clear, the US biometric requirement applies only to passports issued on or after the October 2006 deadline. Travellers to the US with passports issued before that date will not need a visa, nor will they need to renew their passports early.

The UK continues to play an important role in developing new standards and introducing new technology for biometric passports. We need to be among the leading nations in this area because our citizens are among the world’s great travellers. More than 61 million journeys were made in 2003–04, and I expect that there have been even more in the past 12 months. More than 13 million British nationals live and work overseas—I admit to the Committee that I did not know that; it is an astonishing number—for whom 500,000 passports are issued each year at our embassies and high commissions. That is what the draft order is about.

The biometric passport that is the subject of the draft order incorporates 77 security features, including those associated with the chip. Although we should not be specific about those features for obvious reasons, some examples are: micro-printing, ultraviolet inks, specialist fonts, digitally signed biometric information held on microchip—meaning that interference with the information on the chip can be detected—and laser perforation. If I may, Mr. Chope, I will hand examples of the new passport to members of the Committee, so that they can examine some of the features that I have just mentioned.

Inevitably, all those features come with a price tag. We have adopted a value-for-money approach by upgrading our existing passport system overseas rather than going for an entirely new system. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office now needs to set fees for the new passports, but to do that we need the Committee to approve an order made under section 102 of the Finance (No. 2) Act 1987. That is because under Treasury accounting guidelines Government fees must be set to recover the cost of each separate service on an annual basis. However, the roll-out of biometric passports will take place over two financial years—the latter part of 2005–06 and the early part of 2006–07. The costs of setting up the programme will be significantly higher in 2006–07 than in 2005–06—the reasons for that are set out in more detail in the explanatory memorandum provided to members of the Committee.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would like to set an average price for the two financial years. The advantage of doing so is that it will provide customers with greater clarity and a degree of consistency during the roll-out period, because it will avoid the need to have a price change only a few months after the introduction of the service. However, an average fee will mean setting fees to cover more than the full cost in 2005–06 and less than the full cost in 2006–07, breaking even by March 2007. As that is not compatible with Treasury accounting guidelines on
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annuality, a section 102 order is necessary. The element of subsidy in the fee is such that customers will pay £2.50 more in 2005–06 and 59p less in 2006–07.

The section 102 order relates to fees for biometric passports only. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has separately introduced new passport fees for non-biometric passports with effect from 1 July 2005. As any FCO post will be issuing only biometric or non-biometric passports at any one time, it will be relatively straightforward to operate the two pricing systems.

4.38 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): May I, too, say what a pleasure it is to serve under your gimlet eye, Mr. Chope? Those of us who were lucky enough to survive the meltdown of 1997, when you were again returned to Parliament, sat behind you in Committees such as this and learned the subtle art of keeping a Minister here for two or three hours. I am happy to say that that will not be necessary today.

We did not think a week ago that we would be discussing the draft order against the background of the terrorist attacks on London last Thursday. As the Minister has acknowledged, by themselves technological advances are not sufficient to deter or catch terrorists. Such measures are part of a wider, in-depth defence and are intended not only to make terrorism more difficult, but to keep track of those who might want the privilege of using a passport.

When the Minister commented on the use of photographs, I was reminded of an example of just how easy it is to think that one knows somebody when in fact that is not the case. I am thinking of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), the only bearded member of the parliamentary Conservative party, who a few months after winning a by-election in 1997 found himself in a friendly conversation with a senior Cabinet Minister who wanted to know all about him and how long he had been in Parliament. Finally, the Minister asked him which constituency he represented and the Member said “Uxbridge”. He said, “Good heavens! I hadn’t realised that we’d taken Uxbridge as well.” In 1997, the assumption was that a bearded Member must be a Labour Member. That is not the case now, but the case shows that it is all too easy to be taken in or to think what one wants to think.

I have two or three questions to put to the Minister about the draft order. As he said, it does two things, the first of which is to acknowledge that biometric passports will increasingly be the international norm. The Government have admitted that a key driver behind the timing of the introduction of biometric passports is the legislation passed by the United States in 2003, which will dramatically affect those people who wish to go to the United States of America with a visa.

The accompanying Foreign Office notes were compiled by Mr. David Popplestone of the consulate directorate, who is with us. I am pleased to see him in the body of the kirk. Often, on such occasions, the individual who compiled the notes is not present and
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some other poor individual has to take the flak. In the notes that Mr. Popplestone kindly supplied, paragraph 7.i mentions

    “The uncertainty of the precise timing of the rollout due to possible logistical difficulties and technical issues which may arise.”

Will the Minister tell us what those logistical difficulties and technical issues are? The paragraph goes on:

    “If the timing for rollout changes as a result of any of the aforementioned the problems the costs of issuing biometric passports during the 2005/06 rollout period may change.”

In what way would those costs change? Sub-paragraph ii states that

    “The average price (the price which takes into account the cost of issuing biometric passports in both financial years 2005/06 and 2006/07) will be used for a maximum of 4 months in 2005/06 (if Oslo is rolled out in December of this year), though in some Posts it may be used for a matter of days or weeks, and in others not at all.”

What are the issues reflected in that statement?

Secondly, the draft order reflects the Government’s view that those who benefit from consular and visa services should meet the cost of those services rather than the UK taxpayer doing so. As a member of the Conservative party, I am fully in agreement with that point of view. It seems that Her Majesty’s Treasury is still following good Thatcherite policies in certain areas. I commend that principle.

Will the Minister give some examples of increases as they are likely to affect the large number of overseas international students who come to this country? I understand that his Department was in negotiation with the education sector. What discussions has he had with UK education establishments on the impact that the new charges might have on those students, who directly and indirectly bring many benefits to our country?

Biometric technology is obviously evolving. Judging by what the Minister said, we are not only going to be introducing state-of-the-art biometric technology but doing so well in advance of the curve. My final question is this: if there are further developments in biometric technology, as appears likely, how easy will it be to update our passports? Will passports have to be physically altered, like the old digital technology in passports? Will those who wish to have passports face, in the next four, five, six, seven or eight years, further increases in the amount that they must pay? In other words, will we frequently find ourselves coming back to amend the consular orders?

4.44 pm

Dr. Howells: I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for his contribution and for those questions. I shall try to answer them as quickly as I can, but perhaps the Committee would like to see one reason why photographs are important. I was not entirely convinced when I saw the photographs for the first time, because I have colleagues and friends whose faces seem to have changed shape quite dramatically since I have known them. Apparently, however, the bone structure, which can be highlighted, as well as the irises and the distances between certain facial features
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remain constant. That information can be embodied in the chip, and that is why we shall continue to use photographs as an important element of future passports.

I worried a great deal about the impact on overseas students, because until May I was a Minister in the Department for Education and Skills with some responsibility for universities. We were worried about the effect on recruitment to universities of students from abroad of the increase in charges for visas and renewals. However, the draft order affects British nationals living abroad and students should not be affected by it. It is only for British nationals, and there is no visa requirement, so there is no increase in cost.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about delays. There was a delay in the delivery of equipment from Japan. I do not know whether it was photographic material, but I shall try to find out for him and ensure that he receives a detailed answer. Full roll-out will start in March instead of January, and the Paris pilot is on schedule for September.

On the question of the traveller pays principle, we have among us my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), who is probably the most famous advisor to the Treasury that I can remember in my 17 years in Parliament. I caught his wry smile when the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to the way in which the Labour Government were defending the principles of Thatcherite accounting. I took a great
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deal from that wry smile. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: we are determined to ensure that there is a transparent system of accounting and that the service should pay for itself. If it did not, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would, quite rightly, come down on us like a ton of bricks.

The hon. Gentleman asked about how biometrics might evolve. A study is under way of options for the future, which Ministers will consider in autumn. It is a good question to ask, because the events of the past week have worried us all a great deal. Many criticisms have already been aired of the present proposals worldwide for biometric identification, arguing that there are ways around it and so on. I am sure that the Committee agrees that that is often much more difficult to do than journalists sometimes assume, but I also have little doubt that criminals and terrorists will evolve ways to try to get around biometric tests. We shall have to be aware of that.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the categorical answer that we will never have to change again. I suspect that we will, which is why we need transparent pricing. Passports the world over are expensive objects and they are likely to become more desirable and more expensive. We must find some way of communicating that to the British public.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Consular Fees Act 1980 (Fees) Order 2005.

The Committee rose at ten minutes to Five o’clock.


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