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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Clive Betts
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Caborn, Mr. Richard (Sheffield, Central) (Lab)
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth) (Con)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Harris, Mr. Tom (Glasgow, South) (Lab)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Laxton, Mr. Bob (Derby, North) (Lab)
McCabe, Steve (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Mates, Mr. Michael (East Hampshire) (Con)
Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
Soames, Mr. Nicholas (Mid-Sussex) (Con)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for Borders and Immigration)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Twelfth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 18 March 2009

[Mr. Clive Betts in the Chair]

Draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment) Regulations 2009
2.30 pm
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in a Committee dealing with such important regulations, Mr. Betts.
The policy that we are pursuing to secure the UK’s border, improve immigration control and reduce identity abuse leads us to the regulations. As part of that, we are introducing a national identity scheme for registering and verifying identity, which will eventually cover all citizens legally resident in the UK. To achieve that, we introduced biometric registration powers under the UK Borders Act 2007, which has allowed the Secretary of State to issue secure, reliable biometric documents to foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control. The first identity cards were issued at the end of November 2008. By doing so, we also complied with amended European regulations on uniform residence permits, which will require the UK—with our agreement—to issue an identity card whenever we grant leave to remain to a foreign national. The regulations before us form part of the Government’s commitment to secure the border. Technically, they amend the Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008, which Parliament approved last July and which came into force on 25 November 2008.
For those in the Committee who have not seen the card, it is a credit card-sized plastic card that contains the holder’s unique biometric data samples, some of which—that is, two fingerprint samples—are contained in a secure embedded chip. Other information, such as the facial image or photograph, appears on the front of the card and in the embedded chip. The card also includes biographical information such as the name, status, nationality, date and place of birth, and gender.
The purpose of issuing the identity card to foreign nationals is as part of our general roll-out. We are focusing on foreign nationals 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 the person’s immigration status. At present, there are around 50 different documents issued to foreign nationals granted leave in the UK, which makes it extremely difficult for employers and service providers to check whether a person is entitled to work here before they give them a job or allow them to access public services and funds. British citizens tend to produce a more limited, recognisable range of documents to show that they are entitled to work, such as their passport, birth certificate, national insurance number or driving licence.
The identity cards are designed to be a more secure means of demonstrating a person’s entitlement to work and live in our country. Increasing document security is a key contributor to tackling illegal working. Our intention is to significantly reduce the number of acceptable immigration documents issued by the UK Border Agency to a small number of identity cards and visas. We believe that foreign nationals who are in the country legally will—I believe that there is already evidence to back this up—find it easier to demonstrate whether they are entitled to work and access benefits.
The introduction of foreign national identity cards is also improving our ability to identify children who may have been trafficked in the ordinary migration process, as well as the specialised units that we have in the asylum screening unit. The new roll-out categories were referred to during the debate on the 2007 Act, and we stated that we will roll out the identity cards for foreign nationals on an incremental basis. As I mentioned, on 25 November last year we started rolling out cards to some categories of students and marriage and partnership applicants.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I just want to flag up the difficulty with the specified category known as a tier 4 general student. Is the Minister aware that some students—for example, medical students and some students of dentistry—cannot finish their first degrees in the time for which the cards are available? Will he consider that problem?
Mr. Woolas: Yes, we are aware of that problem and we have addressed it in two ways. I have written to Universities UK and to the House to explain the policy, which is that a student visa will now be issued for the length of the course. We can do that because we have the points-based system and sponsorship arrangements with the colleges and universities. I would like to thank on the record my hon. Friend’s own university, which was previously the Bolton Institute of Higher Education. I think that it is a university in large part because of him. A common-sense measure is possible because we have the sponsorship arrangements and the requirement for the universities to provide valid information that the student is attending the course. Student abuse of the immigration system has been one of our biggest problems, with students getting access to our country and then either never attending a course or leaving in the middle of it and disappearing into the wider population. We have tied together the FNID card policy with that common-sense measure, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I do not think that he expected such a positive reply. I can assure the Committee that that was not a planted question—he has been pushing it for ages—but I am glad to say that we have delivered.
That brings me nicely to the roll-out categories. They include the existing marriage and partnership applications to extend leave, updated student categories, and a number of smaller categories that currently fall outside the points-based system. Postgraduate doctors and dentists, who fall within the category mentioned earlier, are not currently required to enrol biometrics, but that route will be deleted at the end of March as we introduce tier 4—the student tier—of the points-based system. From 31 March, postgraduate doctors and dentists will be required to apply for leave to enter or to remain under tier 4 of the PBS and will therefore be required to apply for an identity card.
Another category is academic visitors granted leave for a period exceeding six months. Normally such visitors issued with visas are granted sufficient leave to cover the whole of their stay in the UK. However, if they are already in the country and need to extend their leave beyond six months, they will need to apply for an ID for foreign nationals as part of our obligation to comply with the EU regulation that I mentioned. The next category is visitors for private medical treatment. People who need to extend their stay in the UK to complete their treatment will also need to apply for an identity card.
Domestic workers in a private household are few in number, but you will remember, Mr. Betts, the stories of exploitation of such people that led to the current system. The regulations apply to overseas domestic workers who have accompanied a person entitled to live in the UK and, based on their employment, are applying to extend their permission to stay. This group are particularly vulnerable to abuse, and enrolling their biometric features and fixing their identities will make it easier to track their movements and to protect them from exploitation and, as we have seen in the past, from trafficking.
Perhaps the UK ancestry category will be of most interest to the Committee. This covers people who are Commonwealth citizens and have a British grandparent and can demonstrate a link with the UK. We do not anticipate that large numbers of foreign nationals will be affected by the requirement, as the majority of them will have visas with leave to enter. However, those who do need an extension will need to apply for an identity card for foreign nationals, as part of our obligations.
The category of “retired persons of independent means, and their partners and children” is no longer open to new applicants, but when a person is already in the United Kingdom under that category, they may extend their leave on the same basis. That applies to persons aged over 60 years old with substantial means to support themselves. The “sole representatives” category comprises overseas employees recruited by an overseas company to act as their sole representative in the UK. The requirement to apply for an ID card will apply to those seeking to extend their stay under that category.
In addition, we will roll out ID cards to those with existing limited leave who are applying to transfer their immigration documents into a new travel document or passport. That will enable holders of less secure documents to upgrade them to the identity card. That category was included in the roll-out plan published in the document, “Introducing compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals”, in March 2008. Those applications are usually made when a person with leave has to replace an old passport or when, when they originally applied for leave, they did not have a travel document into which their vignette could be placed and received their status document attached to a letter, which was clearly inadequate. Those applying to transfer their conditions of leave will have their biometric features enrolled and will be issued with a secure ID card, which will include details of their status and entitlements.
I shall explain the regulations. Regulations 1 and 2 set out the name of the regulations, how they will be commenced and the fact that they amend the definitions under the Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008. Regulations 3 and 4 update the immigration categories required to apply for an identity card. Those are postgraduate doctors and dentists; academic visitors staying in the country for more than six months; visitors for private medical treatment; domestic workers in private households; those with UK ancestry, as I defined earlier; retired persons of independent means and their dependants; and sole representatives. The regulations will continue to apply to those covered by existing regulations. The student categories have been updated to reflect the launch of tier 4 of the points- based system at the end of this month. In addition to the new immigration categories, the regulations apply to those who are replacing their passports or other documents that contain a stamp or a sticker that showed that they have limited leave to enter or remain in the UK.
Regulation 5 amends regulation 13 of the 2008 regulations to lower the age that determines the date on which a biometric immigration document ceases to have effect. That is now in line with UK passports, so that when a card is issued to a person aged 16 or over, its validity period will be no longer than 10 years. Regulation 6 provides two additional requirements on when the Secretary of State may require the surrender of an ID card. The first is intended to be used when the foreign national who enters the UK produces an ID card, but not their passport. Although the UK Border Agency may be satisfied that the cardholder is entitled to be in the UK, it requires the passport to evidence when the person enters the country. Other Departments and service providers may make use of such information when assessing a foreign national’s entitlement.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): What the hon. Gentleman says is very enlightening. He has just told us that the ID card is of little use to the person holding it because in those circumstances they would have to have a passport anyway. Any foreign national coming to this country must have a passport anyway, so he has just blown a hole in one of the central features of the argument that the things will be in any way beneficial.
Mr. Woolas: That is one way of looking at matters. I said that a passport will be required in order to enter the country. The ID card is not a replacement for the passport, but clearly service providers who provide access to services to ID card holders have the right to know that that person has entered the country legally. We believe that the requirement to produce a passport with the accredited visa, when appropriate, is necessary in that respect. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his concentration and attention, but I disagree with him. I shall not waste the Committee’s time by explaining why I disagree with him from his own point of view as well as mine, but I hope that I have satisfied him. The second requirement relates to when a cardholder has demonstrated that they are a British citizen and are no longer entitled to have an identity card for foreign nationals.
The amendments in regulation 7 affect the circumstances in which an ID card may be cancelled, in order to reflect the additional powers to require the surrender of an identity card when a person is found to be a British citizen. Regulation 8 tidies up the existing regulation 19, so that persons whose cards are cancelled as a consequence of their being British citizens are not subsequently required to apply for an ID card for foreign nationals. Regulation 9 is a saving regulation, to ensure that any identity cards for foreign nationals issued under the previous regulations are not affected by the amendment made by regulation 5.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Before the Minister sits down, could he remind the Committee of how much it would cost the individual to apply for an ID card? I guess that that information is in another regulation, but he is clearly expanding the number of people who may have to pay a fee. It is relevant to a number of policy issues how much they are paying for the “service”—I put that in quotes.
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