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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Immigration (Supply of Information to the Secretary of State for Immigration Purposes) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Blunkett, Mr. David (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab)
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Hillier, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Maclean, David (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Morley, Mr. Elliot (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 15 July 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Immigration (Supply of Information to the Secretary of State for Immigration Purposes) Order 2008

10.30 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Supply of Information to the Secretary of State for Immigration Purposes) Order 2008.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Bercow. Section 20 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 enabled the police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and those accommodating UK Border Agency-supported asylum seekers to supply information to the Home Office for specified immigration purposes. Further to improve the sharing of information among Departments and the UK Border Agency, we want to include the Secretary of State for Transport in respect of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the chief constable of the British Transport police force in respect of social security information.
The order provides that certain information held by those Departments and organisations may be supplied to the Secretary of State for the Home Department for “immigration purposes”, as defined under section 20(3) of the Act. It also extends the definition of immigration purposes to cover two additional UK Border Agency functions relating to individuals in receipt of asylum support under section 4 of the Act, and those who may have civil penalties imposed under section 15 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006.
The order is necessary because currently there are no statutory powers for the Department for Work and Pensions, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or the British Transport police to supply information that they hold to the UK Border Agency for immigration purposes. Those Departments rely on common-law powers to share such information with the UK Border Agency to exercise immigration functions and to investigate criminal activity. We believe that it is right that staff working in the Departments should be clear about the limits of their administrative powers under the law and the extent to which information-sharing with other Departments is permitted.
Given the increasing importance of the information that those bodies supply for immigration purposes, we felt it prudent and timely—we are all aware of other debates going on within Government—to make an order setting out a clear legislative basis for the supply of such information. The information will be used by the UK Border Agency to locate and remove immigration offenders, to ensure compliance with existing immigration laws, including the checking of applications under the new points-based system, and to prevent abuse of the asylum support benefit system.
The UK Border Agency is forging closer partnerships with Government agencies and Departments as part of its enforcement strategy “Enforcing the Deal”, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published earlier this year on 19 June. The order is crucial to enabling that work to proceed. It is worth my mentioning that we are fully complying with the data protection rules. The new power does not remove the need to comply with those important safeguards under both the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998.
Data security is also worth a particular mention. The Government take the protection of personal information very seriously and the Departments involved in the order have all reviewed the handling of personal data and have implemented enhanced procedures, following publication of the Cabinet Office interim report on the data handling review in December 2007. Those Departments as well as the Home Office have continued to make improvements and are committed to implementing the Cabinet Office mandatory requirements that were published in March of this year, and to which reference is made in the final report.
I trust that members of the Committee will join me in supporting the order, which the Government believe is necessary to assist the UK Border Agency in carrying out its functions. The information will be used to locate and remove immigration offenders, ensure compliance with existing immigration laws and prevent abuse of the system. I cannot believe that any hon. Member disagrees with those important principles.
10.34 am
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): It is a particular pleasure to serve under your firm but fair chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation of the order. However, I have a few questions and a warning for her. We have no objection in principle to the Secretary of State being given as much information as is legally held and used that might help her in the role of ensuring that the immigration laws are upheld and enforced. We can clearly envisage circumstances in which it is right for the agencies to be added to the list of those that can share information with the Secretary of State for immigration purposes. However, there are some questions that the Minister could help the Committee with. First, how many immigration offenders currently apply for driving licences or benefits under their own name, allowing them to be caught by this procedure? In other words, how widespread is the problem and how many illegal immigrants do the Government expect to detect and—one hopes—remove as a result of these measures?
In a recent written parliamentary answer to me, the Home Secretary admitted that one third of asylum backlog cases—the so-called “legacy cases”—had been closed because of “administrative errors and duplication.” Will the Minister give some indication of how many more such administrative errors she expects to find, if and when the new powers are granted?
As the Minister alluded to in her speech, there are two sentences in the explanatory notes that will give the Committee particular cause for concern. The first refers to
“the increase in volume of information UKBA requires, and in some contexts, the decision to move to bulk disclosure of information via electronic format”.
The notes go on to state:
“All information will be shared in a secure manner in line with Cabinet Office guidelines.”
Given the recent history of the bulk movement of information electronically, and given last year’s catastrophic breach of Cabinet Office guidelines—or any other sensible guidelines—when the details of half the population of this country were lost by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, people will be rightly nervous that we are adding to the list of agencies that can transfer large amounts of personal information electronically around Government systems. Will the Minister tell us exactly which details, and whose details, will be passed on? For example, will DVLA information be passed over wholesale? Will information be obtained for specific individuals, or will there be mass transference of records? Will the details of all foreign nationals who hold driving licences be passed on, or will the Home Office simply be asking for cross-references with individuals whom it suspects of having committed an immigration offence?
I hope that the Minister can reassure us on those vital points. Given the history of data transfer over the past 12 months, words may provide no more than minimal reassurance, but that would be better than nothing.
10.38 am
Meg Hillier: I welcome the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party for the order in principle. He raises some valid points. Regarding the number of immigration offenders that we can identify by this route, I do not want to give a definitive number, but it is important to point out our current position and where we believe we will be in future, partly through the use of this order. The Department for Work and Pensions currently deals with approximately 700 requests a month from the UK Border Agency, mainly relating to checking immigration applications. In April this year there were 505 requests, in May there were 639 and in June there were 938. If the hon. Gentleman would like me to write to him in more detail on that, I am happy to do so, although I have now put those figures on the record.
The DVLA shares information on applications that it receives for driving licences where the identity of an individual cannot be established, where there are doubts about an individual’s immigration status or where there is suspected benefit fraud or illegal working. We estimate that over time, the UK Border Agency will be making approximately 3,000 requests a month to the DWP. Clearly, we envisage that there could also be increases in requests to the DVLA. Until we actually start using the process, it is be difficult to be precise regarding the figures.
The purpose of the order is to strengthen our ability to tackle fraud. The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of data security. As a Minister, that issue exercises me a great deal, especially given my responsibilities at the Home Office. It is worth highlighting that Departments, as I mentioned in my opening comments, have all reviewed the handling of personal data and implemented enhanced procedures to protect personal data.
I keep a close eye on issues associated with potential data loss and data security. The Home Office has adopted some new guidelines: a senior information risk owner is to be appointed; only encrypted laptops and removable media may be taken outside secure premises in which there are personal data; non-encrypted personal information may not be sent beyond the secure boundary of Government IT networks; a new centralised encryption service has been established, along with a new system for reporting security instances—the data loss at HMRC was down to individual error, and imposing a system of reporting will make individuals think twice—and the publication of an information charter.
Whether we deal with transfers on a bulk or a case-by-case basis will be judged by the UK Border Agency and the relevant Department; they will decide which is most appropriate. The transfer is for specified purposes. For example, for the Department for Work and Pensions it is for social security purposes, and for the Department for Transport it is for DVLA purposes.
We want to allow the UK Border Agency to carry out more effective checks for the DWP. When a person is subject to the requirement that they do not claim benefit as a condition of entering and remaining here, the agency will be able to check with the DWP whether they have been truthful in their application. It is important that we have such checks across Government. Many people expect that we do anyway, but this measure puts it on a proper statutory footing.
We know that, for many people, a driving licence is seen as a useful form of identity. It is important that such a prized identity document be issued only to the right people. We want to work with the Department for Transport and the DVLA to see how we can tighten up further the already stringent checks that we carry out on applicants. For the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the British Transport police, this order and the change of information are included for law enforcement purposes.
I hope that that clarifies matters regarding the comments made and points raised by the hon. Gentleman, and that all hon. Members agree that we should introduce this order.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at eighteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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