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

[back to previous text]

Meg Hillier: A number of interesting questions have been raised by hon. Members. I am delighted to have the support of the hon. Member for Ashford for the scheme and that he has put on the record his support for our desire to control immigration. I call his “middle way” a long way towards Government policy. Securing the integrity of our borders by collecting the fingerprints of foreign nationals through visas and, from November, through ID cards is an important step forward.
I had intended to mention the distribution of documents, and I will look into that matter. Clearly, the documents left the Home Office and something may have happened along the line, which meant that they did not get to people properly. We need to ensure seamless distribution from the Home Office to the House, and from House authorities to Members.
I want to correct one point that the hon. Member for Ashford raised about all the information collected for identity cards being put on one database. I remind him that we are talking about three databases: one for fingerprints, one for the biographical data—
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): And one disc.
Meg Hillier: No discs. Any information ever downloaded on to a disc will be minimal and will relate to particular concerns raised in relation to proof by the police and other agencies in respect of a small number of individuals. There will not be routine large downloads of personal data. It is important to stress that security measure at the beginning.
The hon. Member for Ashford raised the issue of other foreign nationals being subject to controls. We will be rolling out cards to other categories of people from April 2009, and over three years all new entrants staying for more than six months, other than EU nationals, will get an identity card. When someone renews their stay, they will also get an identity card and the costs will be included in their normal visa application.
Damian Green: To clarify further, that will not apply to EU citizens. What percentage of foreign nationals in the country will it apply to? The Government continue to talk about “all foreign nationals”. If the measure does not apply to EU nationals, what percentage does it apply to?
Meg Hillier: Here and now, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that percentage. I can say, however, that EEA nationals will qualify for residents’ cards in due course. With British citizens who have the option of having a card and foreign nationals coming from outside Europe who have to have one, we will see a high number of people with identity cards. Looking at the comparator for British passport holders, 80 per cent. of British citizens have a British passport. Even without a scramble of people keen to have a card in 2011, we expect 80 per cent. penetration among British citizens when the cards are rolled out to the general population.
At that point, EEA nationals will also want to have a card because it will be a useful way to access certain services and improve their rights. We will start issuing those identity cards to EEA nationals, as well as British citizens, in the second half of 2009, starting with people working airside in airports. I have just been at a meeting discussing exactly how we are going to ensure that we do that as effectively as possible.
On universities, in the first instance they will use visual checks for the cards. The automated check will come down the line, when universities need it. As it is, they check passports visually, and they will do the same with the cards, checking with a hotline that a card has been issued validly. In time, they will be able to put the card in a machine and read it against the register to check that it is a real card. That will automate the check, saving time and money for universities and employers.
We are also looking to enhance guidance through our website and helplines to guide sponsors and employers, and we have regular contact, through UKBA officials, with universities and umbrella groups to ensure that information is disseminated. I am always happy to take suggestions from and to converse with hon. Members who pick up suggestions in their constituencies or who have any concerns in order to ensure that we are reaching the right people. There is much dialogue with universities and that will continue.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ashford welcomes the safeguards included in the code of practice, and I hope that I have reassured him about how the code will be well and widely understood through normal dissemination. As to the cost issue, there will be a balance for those organisations determined to play by the rules. They may decide that they want to keep people on to do manual checks or that it is more cost-effective to invest in technology—which we hope will, in time, be relatively cheap, as it rolls out and as more people have it—to do the check automatically. They will need to make that cost-benefit analysis for themselves. Many employers spend a lot of money on manual checks and they may decide that it is better in the long run to invest in technology. I should stress that the code went through a proper public consultation process and, as a result, we adjusted it. We are listening to people.
The process notices going out within 32 days and the staffing issues that the hon. Gentleman raised are comparable with similar penalty schemes operated by the UKBA. We will be looking at the staff resources required. We are in the pilot stage. From that alone, we are gaining useful information, and we will be able to extrapolate from that to ensure that by next April, when we have a wider roll-out, we are well placed to meet the requirements that we have set ourselves.
The figure of £29 million in savings over 10 years is an initial estimate based on economic evidence. We will look to increase that figure as the evidence base grows, and to introduce it to other groups. That brings me on to another point about cost, which was raised by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. He asked about the reliability of technology.
Tom Brake: The point I was making was that over the first 10-year period the net benefit is identified as minus £10.5 million. At what point will it become positive? I also asked the Minister whether she can elaborate on the reliability or otherwise of the identified benefits and the calculations made to arrive at a figure of £29.8 million through reduction in benefit fraud, crime and fraudulent appeal.
Meg Hillier: I have explained the £29 million figure. We hope that the other figure will go into the positive. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not want to commit to a time frame at the moment, but the aim is clearly in that direction.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of administrative mistakes and how to rectify them. That is something we are still working through. It is important that we ensure that any error at any point is picked up quickly. We have many processes in place for that in respect of passports, visas and Criminal Records Bureau checks, all of which I am responsible for. There is practice around the Home Office agencies. We have well-trodden paths and we need to ensure that the process is as simple and easy as possible for identity cards as well.
With regard to people who may have a problem and why that is acknowledged, it is important that the code includes a belt-and-braces approach. If the law did not embrace every possible situation and a situation arose, we would not be well placed to deal with it. The issue will apply to very few people and we have already closed loopholes—for instance, the case of “The Day of the Jackal”, whereby people used passports of people who had died and then tried to claim their identities. If someone has lived under an assumed identity in such a way for a long time, it may be difficult to disprove, although someone real may turn up with that identity. We are talking about a small number of people, but it is important that we have procedures in the code as a belt-and-braces approach.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the roll-out and the category option, and rightly said that a small number of countries will be more affected because of their propensity to provide foreign students to the UK. He mentioned China and Pakistan in particular. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration has been out to China and to Pakistan in recent months, and I am pretty sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has likewise been there.
We are talking to those countries about those issues as part of the general discussion on our approach to immigration and visas. It is important that we say, “If you come to the UK to study, you are very welcome, but it has to be the person who has acquired the place at university who comes, not someone else.” I have no problem in defending our approach to ensuring that we have strong borders, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree on that matter.
Tom Brake: The Minister may be about to respond to this, but have there been discussions about those changes with organisations such as the UK Council for International Student Affairs, which represents students who get into particular difficulties with immigration issues?
Meg Hillier: I can write to the hon. Gentleman with details of that contact. He also raised the issue of the reliability of technology, and asked whether I could provide rough and ready information. As a Minister, I hesitate to do anything in a rough and ready fashion. I have to deal with facts and reality. The Liberal Democrats may have a different approach to policy-making, but I do not want to get into rough and ready figures in any sense.
This morning, I went to Croydon and I invite other hon. Members to visit, if they so wish, to see the technology in action. It has deliberately been kept simple and is similar to what we use to fingerprint people for visas. It is not massively complicated, partly because it is important to get it right and to get the systems up and running. In time, we will have the opportunity to upgrade, including perhaps looking at alternative biometrics.
My final point—I am sorry, I forgot to mention this—is on the reasonable explanation and why a fine might not be levied. An unforeseen circumstance might include things that we consider in other parts of government—for example, someone suddenly going into hospital or being bereaved and having to travel out of the country. Those would be reasons not to proceed.
Tom Brake: Will the Minister clarify, therefore, whether there will be no automatic trigger for a fine if such a reasonable explanation is given? For instance, if medical reasons are involved, people may not have to pay the fine.
Meg Hillier: Absolutely. There is a degree of discretion in this. We want people to comply. The penalties regime is not a money-making exercise; it is about ensuring that people play by the rules. Clearly, if people flagrantly flout the rules we will take action and fine them, but if there is a reasonable explanation we will take a reasonable approach.
We have had a good debate and I am delighted that there seems to be general support for the introduction of the first stage of identity cards in the UK, albeit through this card for foreign nationals.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Civil Penalty Code of Practice) Order 2008.

Draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008

That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008.—[Meg Hillier.]
Committee rose at two minutes past Five o’clock.
Previous Contents
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 2 July 2008