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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Pilot) Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Gummer, Mr. John (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con)
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells) (Con)
Hillier, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 21 April 2008

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Pilot) Regulations 2008

The Chairman: Before we begin, I wish to say for the help and benefit of the Committee that I am a great believer in saying what we are discussing and what we are not discussing. Our proceedings are not an excuse for a general run around the course of immigration, nor are they grounds for a discussion about whether we should or should not take such action, but are only a discussion about how we do it.
4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Biometric Registration)(Pilot) Regulations 2008.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. The powers are based on how we comply with the forthcoming European regulation that will require the United Kingdom to issue a biometric card whenever it grants leave to remain to a foreign national. In time, all foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control of a certain length will be issued with an identity card under the UK Borders Act 2007.
The Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Pilot) Regulations 2008 are the first set of regulations to be made under the powers in the UK Borders Act, and their purpose is simple: it is to enable us to operate a pilot from next Monday, 28 April 2008, which is designed to test some of the processes and the technology for enrolling fingerprints and photographs of foreign nationals in advance of the main roll-out of identity cards for foreign nationals later this year. The pilot will apply to a small group of foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control and who apply for leave to remain in the United Kingdom. As the focus of the pilot is to test the technology of enrolment, individuals will not be issued with a biometric card before the main scheme starts, but a vignette or sticker with their picture will continue to be issued to those who fall within the pilot.
From next week, the UK Border Agency will commence the pilot to enrol about 10,000 foreign nationals making applications for leave to remain as a student or based on marriage, civil partnership and long-term unmarried partnership. It will apply to all applicants who apply in person at the Croydon inquiry office or, if applying by post, to those who live in one of the London postcode areas that are identified in the schedule to the regulations. The pilot will require those selected to register at the Croydon office and have their facial image and fingerprints taken for the purposes of immigration control.
The pilot will have the benefit of fixing those who apply for further leave to remain to one identity. That will help tackle abuses, such as illegal working, multiple applications for leave to stay in the United Kingdom in different identities, and fraudulent access to public funds. It will give reassurance to legal migrants, many of whom live in my constituency and are pleased to be able to prove that they are who they say they are so they can receive their entitlements. If we consider the parallel issue of visas for which we have successfully enrolled fingerprints and facial images, we have discovered 150 duplicate identities a month as a result of taking fingerprints. The biometric immigration document that will be issued as part of the main roll-out from November 2008 will be the biometric identity card for foreign nationals.
4.33 pm
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): As ever, Mr. Wilshire, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I take to heart your injunction about not turning the sitting into a general debate. In fact, the position is simple: the Government wish everyone in Britain, whether British citizens or foreign nationals, to give huge amounts of biometric information to the state, which, given past performance, it will then lose. The Liberal Democrat position is that nobody should have to give biometric information to the state, whether they are British or foreign. The Conservative party has a sensible middle view. If people want to undertake international travel, biometric documents should be required if they contribute to security. That has always been our position and it has been stated repeatedly by the Leader of the Opposition on the regular occasions at Prime Minister’s questions when the Prime Minister has tried to ask him about the issue. However, we do not think that this measure should be extended to all British nationals in all circumstances, which is what the Government want.
The Minister gave a very helpful introduction, and I should be grateful if she clarified some specific points about the pilot. May I say at the outset that the choice of London as a pilot area is sensible, because it is likely to have reasonably high volumes of all the categories of people whom the Government have selected? How many people is the pilot intended to capture? Is the Minister satisfied that the three-month period is satisfactory to deal with problems and iron out the gremlins that will no doubt occur if all experience of Government IT schemes holds true in this case?
The Minister has gone quite a long way, but I would like her to confirm that this is simply a dry run for the technology. According to the Government, during the passage of the UK Borders Bill, it was decided that the underlying purpose of the technology—and therefore of the pilot—was to minimise illegal working. However, there are no references to employers or universities in the statutory instrument. The explanatory notes specifically state:
“A Regulatory Impact Assessment has not been prepared for this instrument as it has no impact on business”.
On the surface, that is slightly strange, because the purpose of the technology that we are discussing is to make it more difficult for businesses to employ illegal workers. Will the Minister tell us what the pilot will achieve? It may well show that the computer system works, but a more effective pilot would test the whole scheme to see if it helped the authorities to catch employers who used illegal workers. We all wish to see that practice stamped out.
The instrument will give an “authorised person” the right to require someone to provide biometric information. Will the Minister tell us who those authorised people will be? I assume that they will be from the UK Border Agency. Given that they will collect, keep and collate extremely sensitive personal data, will the Minister enlighten us on how they will be vetted and trained? We welcome the safeguards for under-16s, but the instrument will allow children to be fingerprinted and photographed in the presence of
“a person who for the time being takes responsibility for the child.”
That could be very widely interpreted and I am sure that the Committee would welcome some clarification.
4.37 pm
Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire.
I warn the Minister that the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the regulations, both on principle and for practical reasons, and I intend to push the measure to a Division. As the hon. Member for Ashford said, the Liberal Democrats are opposed in principle to biometric identity cards and that remains the case. For us, the measure is the thin end of the wedge. It is made very clear in the explanatory notes to the statutory instrument that the first stage is the rolling-out of the pilot, before the measure is extended to all foreign nationals, and then to all British nationals. Because we oppose that end objective, we oppose the measure, which is the start of the process.
John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I am surprised that the hon. Lady is completely opposed to the measure in principle. In my city of Leeds, Waterside court is a sub-branch of the asylum centre, and the Liberal Democrats there are arguing for exactly this kind of information, so that under-18s and underage children who apply can have a clear statement of their age and be treated properly. It therefore seems that not all Liberals are opposed to the measure.
Jenny Willott: I cannot possibly comment on individuals somewhere else in the country whom I do not know, but our party policy is opposed to identity cards.
I have a range of practical issues that I want to raise with the Minister, the first of which relates to racial profiling. As she will undoubtedly know, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has raised concerns about the discriminatory impact of introducing compulsory registration for identity cards for a specific section of non-nationals. Its chief concern was that the distinctive visual features of individuals in the pilot—their race and colour—could set them aside and that that could lead to de facto racial profiling.
There is a particular concern about the impact on ethic-minority British nationals who are trying to get work. The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 introduced a raft of measures relating to illegal employment which came into force in February. Many of those provisions are welcome and we completely support them, but there is considerable concern among employers about the workability of the measures. At the same time, the regulations will bring in a new layer of bureaucracy with which that employers will have to work. There is a danger that employers, by trying to obtain information to ensure that they do not employ someone illegally, will inadvertently break racial discrimination laws.
John Battle: What?
Jenny Willott: That point was made seriously by the Joint Committee on Human Rights which, as members of the Committee will know, is made up of respected Members of both Houses. That concern has been expressed , so I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to it and give some assurances.
The Home Office has produced a code of practice for employers to try to help employers deal with the 2006 Act, because it is accepted that it has made the situation more complicated for them. Can the Minister comment on how that will interact with the new biometric information documents? Committee Members will realise that that interaction is relevant, because students are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week, so there is an interaction in such cases between employers and the new measures.
The other issue that I want to raise relates to the cost of the process. The Government said during the report stage of the UK Borders Bill in the House of Lords, that the cost of implementing and running the measure until 2017 would be about £200 million. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is still the case. There are also concerns that the Government are changing the charging mechanism for immigration processes and applications, so that rather than just charging for the cost of processing and application, they have been able, since the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 came into force, to charge over and above that cost. During a debate on the UK Borders Bill in the House of Lords, Lord Bassam could not confirm how the charging structure would work for biometric information documents. Can the Minister tell us how much applicants will be charged and what the estimated cost is for each application for a BID?
The other concern that I want to raise relates to the integrity of the database that will hold the information. Recent research has focused on the fact that fingerprinting is not a foolproof method of identification, and a number of recent cases have shown that that is the case. There have also been some issues relating to the use of fingerprinting in the US immigration system. Will the Minister give us some reassurances about the quality of the technology that will be used and ensure that people are not put in a more difficult position through the use of outdated technology?
Given that it appears that the biometric information being gathered as part of the process will be stored on the same register as that which will be used later for ID cards, my concern is that an awful lot of information will be gathered in a relatively short period of time. If we do the sums, we can see that covering 10,000 people in the three month pilot, taking ten individual fingerprints and a photograph of each person will result in a large amount of data being gathered. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister reassured us that the technology is up and running and ready to go. I know that she said that it is part of the process and that that is the point of the pilot, but I would be grateful if she gave us an update, and told us how certain she is that it will not fail.
On the matter of timing, like the Minister’s constituents, many of my constituents are involved in the immigration system one way or another, not least because there are four universities in my constituency, which attract many international students. At the moment, many people experience severe delays when they apply for leave to remain in the UK. I would be grateful if the Minister told the Committee how much time it is estimated that the measure will add to the application process for those who have to go through this system.
Finally, on the retention and destruction of the data, the statutory instrument says that the Secretary of State will retain the information while she thinks that there is a need for it to be held. That is very vague, and such a requirement is not based on reasonable suspicion or anything similar. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified the grounds on which data would be retained, possibly beyond the length of time that someone is in this country or beyond the expiry of their leave, after which they may have a different visa or a different reason for being in the country. At the moment, the matter seems to be at the discretion of the Secretary of State. That is of concern to me, given the quantity of personal data that will be held.
The UK Council for International Student Affairs and the Royal College of Nursing have both raised concerns that their students will be the pilot’s first target. Both organisations take issue with the notion that the groups they represent are high-risk visa groups. Will the Minister explain why those groups are regarded as particularly high risk and why it has been decided that the pilot should focus on them? As I said, the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the provisions, so I would be grateful if the Minister answered those queries.
4.48 pm
Meg Hillier: A number of questions have been asked by hon. Members, and I will attempt to go through them in order. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Ashford has declared that his party is now taking a third way on identity cards. I suppose that any progress is welcome, wherever it takes place.
Getting down to specifics, the hon. Member for Ashford asked about the number of people who will be involved in the pilot. It will be about 10,000 people, of whom some 3,000 will arrive in person at the inquiry office in Croydon. Some 7,000 will send applications in by post, and subsequently attend the office. In other pilots of this nature, people who fear that that process might catch them out might not turn up in person. Therefore, we will be interested to see how the figures pan out, but we are aiming for, and we have the capacity to deal with, about 10,000.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of who an authorised person is in relation to young people. The definition is clear. The UK Borders Act defines someone who can request the information as an immigration officer, an officer of the Secretary of State, a police constable, a prison officer or a contractor running a removal centre. In practice, an immigration officer and officials of the Secretary of State in the UK Border Agency will be the authorised persons.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central made a number of points and I will attempt to deal with them. On the issue of fees, during the pilot, there will be no charge for issuing a biometric immigration document, but on 30 January, we announced in Parliament the proposed fee for an application, made separately from an immigration application, for a replacement biometric card. If someone applies through the normal immigration process they receive the card as part of that process, but a replacement card would cost around £30, which is the same as the proposed cost for the first British national identity cards.
Jenny Willott: Will the Minister clarify how that compares with the processing cost? Is it a like-for-like cost or does it include a mark-up?
Meg Hillier: The hon. Lady should be aware that Treasury rules make it clear that the cost of issuing cards as part of the immigration system has to be met end to end by fees. We therefore take into account overall fees. I can make a parallel with passport fees. We are introducing interviews for first-time passport applicants, and the interview process clearly costs more than the price charged to an individual renewing their passport without an interview. However, the fee for everyone is the same, to make sure that it is reasonable and to maintain the integrity of the system. We are undertaking a similar balancing act with regard to the cards.
The hon. Lady also raised the issue of where the biometric information would be stored. It would be stored initially on a UK Border Agency database, and of course on foreign national’s identity card. After the identity card is designated under the Identity Cards Act 2006, information on foreign nationals will be held on the national identity register. It will be held additionally on the card and on any UK Border Agency database as appropriate. A synergy will therefore emerge as we roll out our policy on identity cards across the piece.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central raised the issue of when we would destroy biometric information. That is at the discretion of the Home Secretary. She must destroy the information if she thinks that it is no longer likely to be of use for any of the purposes specified in regulation 10. In addition, if someone proves that they are a British or commonwealth citizen with a right of abode in the UK, any record of fingerprints or any photograph held by the Secretary of State must be destroyed as soon as is reasonably practicable. The Secretary of State must also take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure that biometric data held in an electronic form are destroyed, or that access to those data is blocked. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady, but perhaps she will never be reassured on some of the issues.
We selected student and married partnership applications for the pilot, on the basis that the evidence shows that there are issues with those groups applying for visas. Our investigations suggest that the most harm arises from fraudulent student marriage applications, and so it is on an evidence basis that we are piloting the measures with those groups and will introduce them for real for those groups from November.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of discrimination and racial profiling. I can reassure her that it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of race and, in fact, the cards will help to tackle prejudice. At present, employers need to check an individual’s identification document, which means that a British national would be expected to present their passport. Foreign nationals must present their papers, whether a foreign passport or other papers, such as those used in the EU accession countries. If the hon. Lady is interested in the issue, may I refer her to the UK Border Agency website, which provides good advice and guidance for employers. I have done some mystery shopping myself to see how easy it is to use. A biometric identity card for foreign nationals makes the system easier for employers. An employer can ring the Identity and Passport Service to check that the passport they have been shown is a genuine passport attached to that individual. They can do the same for asylum and registration documents, and they will be able to do so for foreign national identity cards. That will make it easier for employers, and will wipe out any prejudice, because every responsible employer will have to seek proper information.
We are in dialogue with employers on a regular basis. On costs, I refer the hon. Lady to the cost report on identity cards and the national identity scheme, which is due to be published in May. Every six months, we publish a report of the projected costs over the next 10 years, which is the most information that any such big Government project has ever published to the House. That report will, I am sure, include all the detail in which she is interested.
I think that I have addressed all the points that were made. I believe the regulations are an important step to test the technology for what is an important measure for tackling illegal immigration, making it clear that we welcome people who are here legally to contribute to this country, but that we will take a tough stance and deny access to those who are trying to fiddle the system. It also sets us on the road towards the roll-out of a national identity scheme, to which I look forward, so that we have greater protection for the public.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 1.
Division No. 1 ]
Battle, rh John
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Hillier, Meg
Lucas, Ian
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Wilson, Phil
Willott, Jenny
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Biometric Registration)(Pilot) Regulations 2008.
Committee rose at three minutes to Five o’clock.

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