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Grand Committee

Thursday, 5 July 2007.

The Committee met at two o'clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon) in the Chair.]

UK Borders Bill

(Second Day)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon): If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 5 [Registration regulations]:

Lord Avebury moved Amendment No. 13ZA:

The noble Lord said: Since this is the first amendment to the clauses dealing with biometrics, I begin by drawing the Committee’s attention to the fact that the general heading for Clauses 5 to 15 is “Biometric registration”. Similarly, the heading for Clause 5 is “registration regulations”. However, the term “registration” does not appear in any of the clauses. I consulted the Public Bill Office about this and was told that the Grand Committee has no power to change those words. If the Government can do so—I assume that they may want to—I suggest to the Minister that the general heading should be “Biometric information” and the clause heading should be “Biometric immigration document”. In both cases, that would be a more accurate description of what the clause—or clauses, as the case may be—are about.

The only reference to age in Clauses 5 to 15 is in Clause 6(3), which provides that, where under-16s are to provide biometric information, the relevant regulations must be,

which deal with procedures for fingerprinting under-16s. This matter was debated in another place. The Minister there said that,

The Public Bill Committee was given evidence by Professor Ross Anderson and others, which showed that collecting biometric data from children is difficult and can produce false results. An EU presidency document of June 2006, on setting a minimum age for recording and storing facial images and fingerprints, reported a study by the Netherlands ministry of the interior, which came to the following conclusion:

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The document goes on to state that,

In relation to fingerprints, it concluded:

The Netherlands authority continues:

Professor Ross Anderson told the Public Bill Committee that,

He went on to say that,

On the specific problems of measuring biometric data of children, Professor Anderson answered a question by saying,

When we were discussing the Identity Cards Bill the Minister—the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal—said that the Government,

It would also be expensive and time consuming for children to travel, with their parent or guardian, to the data collection point, and disruptive to their education. The Refugee Children's Consortium is concerned that the practicalities of taking biometrics from children have not been properly considered.

Will the Minister tell the Committee what information the Government have about the costs of the software to calculate age-related changes in biometric information and how this will be funded? At what intervals do they envisage taking biometrics from a child under the age of 16? I remind the Minister, while I am in question mode, that he owes me answers to a good many questions from Monday, on which I very much hope officials are working. I trust that we shall not have to wait until the end of the Grand Committee stage before we know the answers to some of the puzzles that we have already given the Minister.

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The regulatory impact assessment accompanying the Bill states that one of the key benefits of the compulsory recording of the biometric details of third country nationals is,

The Identity Cards Act 2006 applies to UK nationals aged 16 and over, but the Government intend the BIDs of foreign nationals to be issued to children who are aged somewhere between five and 16, presumably depending on what is decided at EU level. I would be grateful if we could have an assurance from the Minister that we will not go ahead with any scheme for taking biometrics from under-16s until there is a common EU position on the matter. It would obviously be very inconvenient if we had a different age from the rest of Europe.

In another place, the Minister implied that the difference between the Identity Cards Act 2006 and this Bill is that here we must extend the collection of biometrics to all those subject to immigration control, but the BIDs will not be designated as ID cards for under-16s.

The Refugee Children's Consortium believes that children seeking asylum must be treated as children first and foremost, and that provisions such as the introduction of biometric identity cards for asylum-seeking children must be aligned with provisions that already exist for biometric identification for children in the UK. This would avoid potential stigma. The issue is not whether the biometric immigration documents will be designated as ID cards but that biometric data will be taken from asylum-seeking children under the age of 16, when that is not the policy for UK nationals under the national identity card scheme because of the costs and instability of data.

The Refugee Children's Consortium is concerned generally about extending any provisions for biometric registration documents to under-18s. It points out that Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provide children with the right to respect for their private and family life without unlawful interference. Without full details of how the Government plan to use such a registration scheme, it is not possible to determine in Committee whether its application to under-18s would be in accordance with their rights. If the registration scheme is to be used to regulate access to public services, additional UNCRC rights, such as that defined in Article 24, which grants the right to access healthcare services, would also be engaged.

Finally, the Refugee Children’s Consortium is very concerned about the use of biometric immigration documents in order to provide access to public services of all kinds. In the case of children, their welfare needs and entitlement to basic human rights such as food, shelter, education and healthcare must always come before their immigration status. As noted above, children’s biometric data are unstable and will have to be checked through complex and costly computer software that makes allowances for age-related changes. We would be concerned if difficulties in any technological process denied children the right of access to essential services. I beg to move.

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The Earl of Listowel: As an aside and on what is perhaps tangential to the question before us—I also apologise if this anticipates later debates—there are concerns about getting the age assessments of children right. I would grateful if the Minister could explain either now or later today what progress has been made towards establishing age assessment panels and perhaps age assessment centres so that greater expertise is made available. At the moment, many age assessment decisions are appealed and then accepted. However, children are caused a lot of distress if they are judged to be adults when in fact they are still children. This point may well arise in a later debate, but clearly it is important to ensure the utmost professionalism in determining these important questions.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I have a great deal of sympathy with this amendment, which is hardly surprising since it is virtually the same as that tabled and spoken to by my honourable friend Damian Green in another place. As I explained to the Refugee Children’s Consortium, the reason I did not table an amendment myself is that when the matter was debated in Committee in another place, at the end of that debate my honourable friend made it clear that we accepted the Government’s explanations as far as they could go. He said that the Minister had,

So I am somewhat prevented from exploring the issues again. However, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is absolutely right to bring them to the attention of the Committee.

I agree that it is important for the Government to put on the record how they are going to cope with the science side of ensuring that biometric information taken from children is worth being used. It will be an intrusion into a child’s life and there is the separate issue, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, of whether it is right for children to be expected to provide information. I do not address that point now because other amendments look at it in more detail and in the broader sense of human rights. However, if one looks at the scientific issues themselves, there is no doubt that several research documents point to the unreliability of biometrics when taken from children, particularly in facial recognition procedures. I would be grateful if the Minister could refer in particular to those matters.

Noble Lords who took part in the debates on the Identity Cards Bill—I was glad to see that legislation move out of my life on 26 March last year; it finished its life in this House and I hope never to see its full implementation as regards a national identity register—will recall that we considered what kind of information should be covered by biometric registration. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, now the Attorney-General, told us that there would be reliability in the use of biometrics because they would come from three sources. She told us repeatedly that we could be reassured because there would be fingerprints, iris recognition and facial recognition. We looked in particular at the problems associated with taking fingerprints and how they may be damaged in children—that is less the case

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than in adults, but the risk is there; how with iris recognition there is always a certain failure rate; and how facial recognition for children does seem to present problems.

At the time I explained in detail my own difficulties when I became a volunteer guinea pig and had my own biometrics registered. The Home Office brought its van to Black Rod’s Garden, and we were able to visit it and get our own identity documents. I thought that I would put all my prejudices aside and undergo the process. Not only did the uplink keep failing but the facial recognition was a problem. For some reason I have a difficult bone structure; they called it bland. I have a bland face; that’s me. It is an absolute shame. They took several attempts before they managed to capture enough of a facial recognition. I put up with it because I was trying to prove a point one way or the other—and, boy, did I satisfy myself that there were problems. It comes back to the questions of how reliable this will be and what it will do to children to go through it. Will they have to go through the procedure repeatedly as their facial structure changes over the years? That is the kind of information on which we need reassurance from the Minister.

2.15 pm

Lord Hylton: When the Minister replies, I urge him to take full account of the report on the Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in particular pages 11, 12 and 13, where the bold print sets out very clearly what we need to know.

Lord Dholakia: I do not intend to disturb the Minister later, but my noble friend Lord Avebury raised very important issues. He mentioned that he was awaiting replies to questions he had posed previously. I raise this matter now for the simple reason that we are in Grand Committee where we have the disadvantage of not being able to divide on some of the issues that most concern us. If we do not get these replies on time, we intend to use the full force of Report and Third Reading to pursue the matter. The fact that we cannot do certain things in Committee is often resented. I put it on record that we may prolong this opinion-seeking approach right up to Third Reading.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall respond to the points made in this very important debate. I cannot resist commenting on the notion that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, should be considered bland in facial recognition terms. I have never thought that she was bland, and she certainly is not in personality. It would be a travesty if that was ever thought to be the case. I should apologise for the technology; it seems fairly disgraceful in those terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about the biometric information heading. It is an integral part of these provisions that a person subject to immigration control registers their biometrics. That is what frames the debate and the legislation.

Amendment No. 13ZA would prevent the Secretary of State from requiring a person subject to immigration control who is under 16 to apply for a biometric immigration document. When a person is granted

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leave to enter or remain in the UK, whether a child or an adult, they are currently issued with an immigration document which demonstrates their right to be in the United Kingdom. The intention behind the biometric immigration document is to phase out the less secure forms of documents to replace them with a reliable biometric document.

This amendment would mean that the documents provided to children would be less secure and hence less trusted. In the near future it will also be contrary to our European obligations if a biometric card is not issued to those under 16 years of age who are granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom, as EC law will require this.

In our view taking biometrics from children is a positive factor in combating their trafficking and exploitation through making identification more certain and secure. We need to be able to fix children to a single identity to make them less attractive to those who wish to exploit them. This will reduce the risk of a child being passed off as someone else’s child in that exercise.

The Border and Immigration Agency has experience over many years of taking fingerprints from children aged five and upwards without difficulty or, for that matter, without public concern. Fingerprint patterns do not change as a child grows older, and the technology is capable of recognising images taken from a person at a relatively young age.

We already record and check the fingerprints of children requiring biometric visas and the children of asylum seekers issued with application registration cards—ARCs as they are often know.

From 2002 to 2006, the Border and Immigration Agency issued some 39,401 application registration cards to children aged between five and 16. Biometric data collection technology is being rolled out to all our overseas posts and the offices of our commercial partners. UKvisas has already collected biometric data, as part of the visa application process, from 5,679 children aged five to 16 between September 2006 and the end of April 2007. That number will increase as the number of overseas posts able to issue biometric enabled visas increases during this year.

I turn to our commitments in the European Union. In 2003, the United Kingdom signed up to Council Regulation (EC) No. 1030/2002 of 13 June 2002—laying down a uniform format for residence permits for third-country nationals—which requires a standard residence permit to be issued to anyone, including a child, authorised to stay in a member state. A forthcoming European regulation will require the UK to issue a biometric card containing fingerprints and a photograph when it authorises a person to stay in the UK. The biometric immigration document will be how the UK complies with this obligation. It will be issued to those aged under 16 as the authorisation which permits them to be in the UK.

Discussions are continuing in the EU on what age children should have their fingerprints recorded—and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to that debate. However, there appears to be a consensus in the European Council that the fingerprints of children will be recorded from at least six years of age.

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Clause 6(3) provides safeguards by requiring any regulation made under these provisions which relate to those aged under 16 to make provisions similar to Section 141(3) to (5) and (13) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999; that is about fingerprinting children. Staff dealing with children and young people will have to receive relevant training and will be obliged to conform to guidance to enable them to do so sensitively.

Biometric immigration documents issued to children aged under 16 will not be designated under the Identity Cards Act 2006.

We consider that 16 years is an appropriate level to set as the first age where an individual is eligible for an identity card and registration on the national identity register. Unlike immigration documents, which are required by both children and adults, identity documentation is, in most cases, first required when individuals become economically active; that is, have the right to leave school, marry, start work and open their own bank account. Biometric immigration documents issued to children aged under 16 will expire after five years or when their leave expires, whichever is sooner.

I hope that that answers most of the points raised. Of the others, I think that the most important one is the reliability and viability of biometric fingerprint technology. What can I say about that? Biometric fingerprint technology is used worldwide and is recognised as a secure form of matching identities. We have a lot of experience of using fingerprint biometric technology on children as young as five. Fingerprint patterns and characteristics do not change as a child grows older, and the technology is capable of recognising images taken from a person at a young age. The biometric immigration documents issued to children under 16 will expire in no later than five years. We will need at that point to update facial images, just as we currently do for passports. As part of the process, we will update any other biometric and non-biometric information as required.

I think it was the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who asked what progress we were making on establishing age assessment centres. I do not have that information today, but I undertake to correspond with noble Lords on that point and to share the fruits of that correspondence with all colleagues in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether the points raised in debate on Monday will be responded to quickly. I have signed off the correspondence this afternoon. If the noble Lord likes, I could ask someone to collect it and deliver it to those Members in Committee who want it this afternoon if that would help them, although I think that our debates have moved on a bit from some of those issues.

Why fingerprints? They are widely used across the world. I have explained about expiry, and the software cost of procurement is already accounted for. We already have considerable experience of using biometrics with children. This makes a lot of sense, and it offers important protection, enabling us to help those young persons who we think are at greater risk of abuse and exploitation through trafficking. There

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are many plus points in approaching the age at which we require biometrics, and those benefits will become manifest as this develops.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: There are clearly differences of opinion between the noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches and the noble Lord. On the general point about fingerprints, the noble Lord said that the system is used worldwide, which it is, and that it is thoroughly reliable. I hate to say to him that the clause applies to Scotland. He may know that recently a lady police officer was said in court to have been present at a certain place at a certain time when a crime was committed, because her fingerprints were found there. She denied that. She was then accused of perjury, because the fingerprint system is considered to be completely foolproof. That was a terrible thing for her. Subsequently, it was discovered that the fingerprint matching system—which is separate in Scotland, I think it is a fingerprint agency there—was not in fact foolproof, and she received a very large sum in compensation rather than all that going back to court. The noble Lord’s officials may know about that; I cannot expect him to know about it. It was a very big case in Scotland not very long ago.

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