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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Civil Penalty Code of Practice) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Illsley
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Hillier, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington) (Lab)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield, North) (Lab)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Stringer, Graham (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 1 July 2008

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Civil Penalty Code of Practice) Order 2008

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) (Civil Penalty Code of Practice) Order 2008.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008.
Meg Hillier: As you know, Mr. Illsley, the Government remain committed to securing the UK’s borders, improving immigration control and reducing the number of people who take false identities to try to enter the UK. To achieve that, we introduced registration powers in the UK Borders Act 2007 to allow the Secretary of State to issue to foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control secure, reliable documents that include people’s biometrics—that is, in this case, fingerprints.
By doing that we will comply, of course, with amended European regulations on uniform residents’ permits, which will require the UK to issue an identity card whenever it grants leave to remain to a foreign national.
The regulations and the order form part of the Government’s commitment to securing the country’s border and they are designed to enable the issue of the first identity cards to foreign nationals staying in the UK in November of this year. These measures are intended to replace the Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Pilot) Regulations 2008, which Parliament approved in April, when a number of us on the Committee were also present.
I have arranged for a draft information leaflet and other information to be made available to Members. I understand that not all Members have received this, so I will look into the matter and find out why. I should stress that the information, which some Members have received and others not, is only a draft and may be subject to change. I felt it would be helpful for Members to see what was available in order better to explain what we are trying to do.
The identity card will be credit-card sized. It will contain the holder’s unique biometric data samples, which will include two fingerprint samples and the face, and will be embedded in a highly secure chip. The facial image will also appear on the face of the card and the card will include biographical information similar to that on a passport page with the photograph on. That will include the holder’s name, immigration status, nationality, date and place of birth, and gender. As we are in Committee, I will not show people now, but I have a dummy card on me if any Members are keen to see it after the debate.
The introduction of identity cards to foreign nationals is a key part of the Government’s strategy to combat illegal working and other abuses of immigration rules. We are focusing on foreign nationals in the first instance, before British citizens, because of the difficulties that employers experience in deciding whether foreign nationals are entitled to work in the UK and because of the importance of issuing a secure and reliable document as proof of a person’s immigration status.
To draw a contrast with the current situation, there are about 50 different documents issued to foreign nationals who are granted leave in the UK, which makes it complex for employers and service providers to check whether a person has entitlement to work and a job or to access to public funds.
As I think I said the last time that we debated these matters, I visited a bus company in my constituency that employs expert people to check documents. The identity card will speed up those checks and reduce the need for skilled staff to spend time and company money on them. The identity cards will be a more secure means of demonstrating a person’s entitlement to work and to live in the UK. Given our crackdown on illegal working and immigration fraud, we consider it a high priority to issue identity cards to foreign nationals subject to immigration control.
Our long-term intention is significantly to reduce the number of acceptable immigration documents issued by the UK Border Agency to a smaller number of identity cards and visas. That will make things much simpler, as opposed to the current plethora of information. The UKBA website shows examples of the many different documents that people can provide. While that website provides some guidance, having the card will make life a lot easier.
Foreign nationals who are legally in the country will be easily able to prove their entitlement to work and benefits. There are also important spin-off measures enabling us to increase our ability to identify children who may have been trafficked, and work with units such as our asylum screening unit and the wider e-borders programme to spot and tackle people who have caused problems.
In relation to the enrolment pilot, which we have been conducting in Croydon and which I visited this morning, I discovered that last Friday and yesterday there were arrests of two individuals who had previously tried to enter the UK and had tried to apply again to enter. Their fingerprinting alone helped to catch them. They have been arrested and will be dealt with accordingly.
The card will be rolled out incrementally, as the Home Secretary announced in March, and our strategy is to minimise risk and maximise efficiency. We are prioritising two groups in the first instance. As in the pilot, these are people who apply to enter as a spouse, partner or civil partner and people who are coming to study. We identified those as risk groups because, unfortunately, a number of people who have leave in that category go on to breach immigration laws. We have based this on risk analysis.
There is a higher penalty for people who do not apply properly or make an error in application than for those who make errors in maintenance. Where a person is applying for leave and is required to apply for an identity card, we will normally disregard or refuse their immigration application unless they comply with the requirement to apply for an identity card.
The order represents an important step as the UK moves, in time, towards introducing identity cards for British citizens. We are starting with foreign nationals in November. That is an essential part of our strategy for combating irregular migration and the associated abuses. I hope that hon. Members will join me in supporting these important measures, which will make our country more secure.
4.37 pm
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks about the distribution—or non-distribution—of the various documents that are essential for scrutiny of these measures. As she knows, I have not received some of them and I discover that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate received them only this morning. I am sure that she, and you Mr. Illsley, would accept that timing of that kind does not allow for proper scrutiny. I hope an investigation can be made of the distribution of documents to the Committee.
To move to the substance of what is before us, as the Minister knows, we on the Conservative Benches have no objection in principle to the issuing of biometric immigration documents to foreign nationals when that is useful. As I understand it—we have been round this course before—the Government want to collect biometric data on everyone, foreigners and British nationals alike. Given the history, those data will be assembled on one database, which will then be lost or mislaid. The Liberal Democrats’ position is that they do not want to collect biometric data from anybody.
I think that there is a sensible middle way: we should collect biometric data when that contributes towards the primary objective of these measures, which is to secure the integrity and security of our borders. That is our position, but our support for the collection and use of biometric data does not extend to the full ambitions of the Minister.
The Minister has confirmed that the Government have selected students and spouses to be the first foreign nationals to be required to produce ID cards because, as the Government put it, those categories are susceptible to those who seek to abuse immigration controls. Will she clarify when other foreign nationals will be subject to those controls? There have been differing messages from the Government about that. Will she also explain the explanatory notes, which say that a roll-out of the cards to all foreign nationals is being undertaken on an incremental basis. Can that be right? All foreign nationals in this country? European economic area citizens? Are they all going to have to provide biometric details? If so, over what period?
Will the Minister also confirm that she expects ID cards, as she calls them, for foreign nationals to save £29.8 million over 10 years through reduced fraud and crime? This—I suspect spuriously—exact figure suggests a rather modest saving. Given the huge expense of the system, it seems that ministerial rhetoric to the effect that these cards will bring about an end to fraud and criminality among those who have to carry them is not being borne out by the Government’s own statistics.
What have the Government been doing to alert employers and universities to the roll-out of these cards? Will the Minister give us an assessment of whether universities and employers are ready for their implementation? How many private bodies—universities or employers—will be required to purchase equipment to allow them to read the biometric information in these documents? Will she give us an idea of the cost to industry and to universities of the purchase of those pieces of equipment?
We broadly welcome the introduction of the civil penalty code of practice, as it is helpful in setting out what is expected of the authorities and of individuals, and indeed what they can expect of each other. In particular, we welcome the safeguards that have been put in place for vulnerable people and the distinction in severity between application and maintenance requirements.
The Minister will remember that during the passage of the UK Borders Bill we pressed the Government for a public consultation, which has now happened. However, the code of practice is precisely that—a code, not a legal requirement. What measures will she take to ensure that it is widely and well understood? I am sure she agrees that it would be unacceptable for the code simply to be sent out and forgotten. How will she ensure that her Department, the UK Border Agency and HM Courts Service are properly advised of what the code requires of them?
The code states that if, having sent someone a warning letter that a civil penalty will be issued, the Secretary of State fails to issue the penalty within 32 working days, no further action will be taken with respect to that particular non-compliance. Given the history, is the Minister entirely confident that the Home Office will be able to process all such notices within 32 working days? Does she expect any breaches? More particularly, how many staff at the Home Office will have to deal with the extra work that the code will produce? Will the regime set out in the code and the ensuing penalties be broadly self-financing or will they entail extra cost to the taxpayer?
The code states that there is no direct appeal against a decision of the Home Secretary not to issue an ID card. Will the Minister clarify what indirect routes of appeal people will have in the event of an administrative mistake by the Home Office that causes them to fail to get an ID card to which they may be entitled?
In setting out the penalties that can be imposed on persons other than the holder of the document, the code includes
“a person who acquires an identity card without the consent of the Secretary of State”.
There will be people out there who gain these cards, which everyone is going to rely on completely, even if they are not entitled to them. I hope that the Minister can enlighten us as to the circumstances in which she thinks that will happen.
On the narrow issue of the code of practice, we welcome many things in it, but overall Ministers are going to be hugely disappointed if they think that what they are doing is a step towards a national, all-purpose identity card scheme. As the Minister is well aware, she is progressively losing that wider argument and, frankly, as I have said before, the sooner the overall national identity card scheme is buried, the better for everyone.
4.46 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, and I thank the Minister for her brief explanation of the draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008. I have a few questions for her.
The Minister will be aware that in the cost-benefit analysis the net benefit of the implementation of identity cards for in-country students and marriage applicants is costed at minus £10.5 million. When does she expect a positive as opposed to a negative benefit? The benefits listed in that analysis and evidence on page 6 of the explanatory notes are reduction in benefit fraud, crime reduction, reduction in fraudulent appeals and fewer removals due to travel deterrent. Will she say a little more about how those figures have been arrived at, what degree of certainty there is about the way they are calculated and how subject they might be to variation?
The Minister has explained the decision taken in relation to the roll-out strategy. Geographical, nationality and category options were considered and the Government went for the category option, which, as she acknowledges, or the documentation acknowledges, still ends up in some ways focusing on a small number of countries from which a large number of students will be affected—China, Pakistan and India in particular.
What discussions, if any, has the Minister had with representatives of those countries and, indeed, organisations that represent foreign students? What preparations are being made and what information will be made available about this, so that students do not fall foul of the rules unnecessarily?
On that point, section 4 of the draft code of practice, “Process Before Issuing A Sanction”, states:
“Where the Secretary of State is satisfied that the person has failed to comply with an application or maintenance compliance requirement... without a reasonable explanation”.
Will the Minister set out what a reasonable explanation might be for not complying with the requirement and whether, if a reasonable explanation is given, there is still a possibility that charges, or fines, will be levied, notwithstanding the fact that perhaps a reasonable explanation has been deployed?
Finally, will the Minister give us an update on how reliable or otherwise the technology is that the Government will be relying upon, and therefore what rough-and-ready calculation Members might make on the number of people who might fall foul of these measures simply because the technology did not work?
4.49 pm
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Prepared 2 July 2008