‘(b)if on examination of any document so produced or found the immigration officer is of the opinion that it may be needed in connection with proceedings on or for an offence.’.
I welcome you back to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make my first speech in a Standing Committee. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I make any procedural errors. The reputation of the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality goes before him. I am sure that his friendliness and helpfulness to Opposition Members will mean that I shall not get into too much trouble.
In the past week, I have sat patiently and heard the word “brevity” being used many times in many long speeches. I shall try, as I am used to, to keep matters brief and to the point.
Under the Immigration Act 1971, an immigration officer is already permitted to detain for seven days any document that has been found as a result of an immigration search. The Bill extends that power by allowing passports or other documents to be detained for any purpose. We are not happy with that possibility. We must limit the powers to detain passports. Identity documents are necessary in everyday life—for example, to provide evidence of housing or to deal with local councils. For the Government to detain passports for any purpose is too overbearing.
Moreover, the measure may discourage people who wish to leave the country from doing so. I shall give one example: a person from Afghanistan, having been refused asylum, wished to return home, because he could not bear being separated from the rest of his family. He had been refused asylum and was without support, so he went to the International Organisation for Migration for assistance with voluntary return to Afghanistan. His documents had been detained, and he was not allowed to leave the country. The Home Office did not give him approval to go, and he received no further information. That was in January 2005.
In September 2005, the person in question sought advice and found that the Home Office had carried out routine checks with the police, and that there was an unspecified problem with his documents. He stated that to the best of his knowledge he had never been in any trouble with the police, and he had never had any reason to believe that there would be any problem with him returning, but he was still not allowed to do so. The IOM said that it would speak to the Home Office and try to resolve the situation, and it found that the Home Office had removed its bar on him travelling, but had not told him so. He is therefore hoping to return to Afghanistan by the end of October. However, the fact that his documents had been detained stopped him from returning home to his country of origin. Clearly, such incidents do not help people who want to return home voluntarily.
I welcome hon. Members back to the Committee. It is a pleasure for me, as a fellow MP for the Greater Manchester area, to welcome the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) to the Committee and also his first contribution to the Committee. I speak on behalf of some of my other colleagues in Greater Manchester in wishing him well but hoping that he will stick to the facts, which was not perhaps always the case during the recent general election campaign—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”]—However, we will leave that matter to one side for now.
It was a completely gratuitous remark, Sir Nicholas, and I shall move on.
Clause 23 relates to documents produced or found at immigration control—documents produced to an immigration officer. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman’s amendment relates to the existing and long-standing power of an immigration officer to retain a passport or other relevant document on examination of an arriving or departing passenger. An immigration officer can retain more than just a travel document.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of clause 23 is to rationalise and simplify the existing provisions so that the same procedures apply to the examination and detention of all types of documents. It may help the hon. Gentleman if I explain that at present those powers are laid out under the provisions of paragraph 4 of schedule 2 to the 1971 Act, but a distinction is made between travel documents and “other relevant documents” that may be of use to an immigration officer in their inquiries. Therefore, at present there are two different sets of procedures governing the detention of documents. We believe that it would be easier and more convenient for immigration staff if they could operate under a single code, so the clause rationalises and simplifies those procedures. The clause does give immigration staff powers to detain documents, but those powers already exist—immigration staff could at present detain a document for more than seven days, or until removal.
The hon. Gentleman quoted the example of a case involving someone who was unable to leave the country, but proposed new sub-paragraph (b) states clearly that the document can be detained
“until the person ... is about to depart or be removed following refusal”.
The power exists for documents to be released should the person wish to leave the country.
I understand how proposed new sub-paragraph (b) works, but will the Minister explain how proposed new sub-paragraph (c) works in relation to it, because it appears to give the power for documents to be retained longer than is specified in sub-paragraph (b)? If someone has a suspensive appeal outside the country, would sub-paragraph (c) allow those documents to be retained after the person had left the country, despite what is stated in sub-paragraph (b)?
If someone was exercising their right to appeal from outside the country, travel documents would have to be released to them so that they could re-enter the country from which they wanted to make the appeal. A person could not regain entry to the country from which they arrived in the UK if they were not adequately documented on their arrival back in their country.
Sub-paragraph (c) considers the situation in which immigration service staff or the immigration and nationality directorate may wish to hold documents until an appeal is heard on a particular case. That is the scenario that sub-paragraph (c) envisages. In considering fully a case before the asylum and immigration tribunal, the IND would want to hold documents pending full consideration and conclusion of that case.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which is relevant especially to appeals heard within this country.
The proposed amendment would remove an immigration officer’s existing power to retain a document until a decision is taken on whether to give the person leave to enter or until the time they are about to depart or to be removed from the UK. The current law makes the equivalent provision for passports and other identity documents. Clause 23 simply extends the existing law to other relevant documents to simplify the procedure and make the job easier for front-line staff at immigration control.
The proposed amendment would also remove an immigration officer’s existing power to retain a document while an immigration appeal is pending, as I explained to my hon. Friend. That would prevent the immigration officer from preserving vital relevant evidence in an immigration appeal that is essential fairly to determine the immigration status of the person concerned.
I accept the points made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) about the usefulness of documents for people going about their everyday life. Having pushed his patience once, I may do so again by saying that it sounds as though he may be getting to the point where he could support identity cards and their usefulness as an everyday document in dealing with local councils, for example. I commend to him our identity card as a useful document in doing so. He knows that people who have made an asylum claim are issued with documentation to help them with their stay in the country, especially the application registration card. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but people are helped to negotiate their everyday dealings through other such documents.
With those assurances, I hope hon. Members will accept that the clause does nothing more than simplify the existing law.
I understand the point being made in relation to the simplification and rationalisation of the procedure, but the Minister has not addressed the issue of passports being retained for any purpose. That is my major concern. I understand the sentiment behind it, but the whole process could be abused and used for other purposes. I would appreciate it if the Minister would devote a minute of his time to explaining how it will not be abused.
The purpose of the clause is to give immigration staff, who do an important job in upholding the security of the border, the powers that they need to carry out their functions properly and effectively. The power is in existing legislation. As I explained, the passport can be held up until removal. I want to reassure the hon. Gentlemanthat we would expect that power to be used proportionately and legitimately. The aim would not be unfairly to disadvantage individuals in any way. It would simply be used to help the member of staff carry out his official functions.
The purposes here could also include possible investigation into forgery or document tampering. There can be a wider application than simply examination, which is the point referred to in proposed new sub-paragraph (a). It might sometimes be necessary to make further inquiries about the integrity of the document or the post that issued the visa included in the document. The role that the immigration officer can play can go wider than a simple examination by hand of the document, which is why the clause is drafted as it is. It was a fair point. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to provide that extra clarification. The clause is non-contentious and simplifies the existing the law. I urge him to withdraw the amendment.
This is an important clause and I was interested to hear the amendment proposed to it. The clause deals with powers of immigration officers, of which there are many under existing law, but it prepares us for the time when immigration officers will have devices to scan faces, irises or fingerprints to compare that information with people’s biometric passports or visas. It gives them the power to require people being examined on arrival or departure to undergo scanning in order to provide biometric information.
Broadly speaking, that is to be welcomed, although I should like the Minister to confirm that the power would be applied to British citizens and citizens of other European economic area countries, as well as to other non-EEA nationals. To whom is the power likely to apply? Of course, there are existing powers of examination allowing people to be required by a notice in writing to submit to further examination but not if this would prevent transit passengers or crew from joining their intended ship or aircraft. The clause widens the position.
The second provision in the clause enables an immigration officer to detain a passport for up to seven days to examine it and for longer in other circumstances defined as “any purposes”, which is rather a wide phrase. Passports are, and remain, the property of the issuing Government. Traditionally, Government agencies have appropriately been given limited powers to retain them. Under the 1971 Act an immigration officer is permitted to retain any document as the result of an immigration search for seven days or, if the document is needed for criminal proceedings, until they are satisfied that it will not be so needed. The Bill extends the power by allowing passports or other documents to be retained for “any purpose”—I repeat, a wide phrase—until the grant of leave or the departure of the holder, or until it is decided that the person does not require leave to enter.
One must ask what, if any, prejudice people whose identity documents are held in that way may suffer. There are those who say—I hope that the Minister can help me on this, as they may be right—that those people will need their proper identity documents in their normal daily lives to prove their identity to landlords, doctors, hospitals, childcare professionals and so on. That problem could be solved if the Minister were to undertake that anyone whose document was taken under those circumstances would have a full photocopy of that document given to them, certified by an official as a true copy, to enable them to establish their identity. That would be a simple process. I shudder when I see a proposal permitting a passport to be retained by the Home Office. We all have experience of passports being lost.
Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab) indicated assent.
I see the hon. Gentleman nodding furiously. Perhaps I do him an unkindness. He is extremely well versed in such matters, and perhaps he intended to shake his head.
The people who work in the immigration service are inevitably hard-working and diligent, and do their best. I have no criticism of them or their integrity, but I have a criticism of the system in which passports get lost and are not found for months.
I want to mention a particular case. I should like the Minister to comment, not necessarily on this particular case, but on the general principle of people being able to lay their hands on their passport quickly. The case involves J, a long-term overstayer, who applied to stay in the UK with her husband, who was settled here. Nothing happened; it was taking for ever to get a response, and in June 2003, J decided to return to Gambia with her British-born, British-citizen children, and apply for entry clearance from there. The Home Office promised to return the passport. It did not, so further inquiries were made, and it said that it would return her passport at the airport. She booked a flight, got to the airport, and there was no passport. It took months before she was given her old passport, by which time it had expired, and was able to submit it to her high commissioner and obtain a new one. She finally travelled from the UK in January 2004. She obtained her entry clearance, although that was not a speedy process either, and in November 2004 was able to return to the UK with her daughters and with leave as a spouse to remain with her husband.
That is a not untypical case, and I venture to suggest that there are hon. Members in this Committee who have, from time to time, telephoned the immigration hotline—a number known only to Members of Parliament, for obvious reasons—and asked the person at the other end, “Where is the passport of my constituent x? They are sick of waiting for it and want to travel.” It can take ages—days, sometimes weeks—for a passport to be located. Sometimes I get an answer to the effect that it is somewhere in the system, and they cannot lay their hands on it. If it takes a Member of Parliament time to get hold of a document, or to get an answer, members of the public are disadvantaged. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some assurance in the stand part debate that systems exist within the Home Office to ensure that there will be availability and accessibility to documents that have been retained indefinitely for any purpose, particularly for those seeking to travel. In particular, people will obviously need to prove their identity in other walks of life, so why not give them a full, certified photocopy of it?
Finally, I have five questions for the stand part debate. In what circumstances is a passport required with an appeal? When would a person described in proposed new sub-paragraph (c), whose passport is retained beyond the time when he or she is about to depart or to be removed, get their passport back? What will happen in the case of the new out-of-country appeals proposed under clause 1 and in existing cases in which the appeal is out of country? The Minister alluded to that briefly, but can he explain it more fully? Could a passport be retained in any circumstances after a person has returned to their country? What about human rights cases heard out of country because they are certified as clearly unfounded? Would it be possible to retain the passports of those people beyond the time when they leave the UK?
If a passport is returned to a person after their plane has landed in another country or during the journey, who will have the passport in the meantime? Will it always be in the possession of an immigration officer or a consular official? What steps will be taken to ensure that the person gets their passport back and that their safety is not compromised if the handover of the passport is witnessed by local immigration officials, who might take that as suggesting that the person is in trouble with the UK authorities? Those were the queries and points that I wanted to raise in the clause stand part debate.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, because they give me an opportunity to expand on the clause. He is right to say that it contains important provisions. We covered much of proposed new sub-paragraph (4) in earlier exchanges, although I will return to the points on which he asked for clarification. I shall begin, however, by speaking to proposed new sub-paragraph (5), which he is right to say relates to biometric identification and verification. That will significantly enhance the integrity of our border controls. Under later clauses, we shall discuss in more detail our e-borders proposals, but it is right to explain more at this point about how biometric identification systems can enhance border control.
Clause 23 introduces a new power enabling immigration officers to use biometric identifiers to verify the validity of documents—for example, for those with biometric passports or those who have provided biometric data when applying for entry clearance or a visa for the UK. Immigration officers will be able to compare a document against the data collected when the travel document or entry clearance was issued to ensure the document’s authenticity and to verify its holder’s identity.
Initially, the power will be used for people who applied for biometric visas. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have begun to roll out—to use the favourite word of my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality—the biometric visa programme. The first pilot began in Sri Lanka, I believe, but the system is now in use at various locations around the world and is producing interesting and encouraging results. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is the direction of travel not only of this Government but of others: biometric visas are slowly but surely being introduced at posts around the world. Yes, the clause will initially relate to the verification of biometric visas, but to answer his main question, it will, in due course, apply to all persons, including UK citizens, with biometrically enabled travel documents, as well as to those who have a biometric visa or about whom biometric information has been recorded.
From next year, the first biometric passports will be issued to UK citizens. The passports will hold a chip that includes facial recognition technology. Over the next two to three years, the passports will be enhanced to become full biometric passports. The hon. Gentleman knows that the requirement for a biometric passport has been laid down by the United States in respect of countries in the visa waiver scheme. However, there is general agreement among the majority of leading countries around the world that we need to take steps towards full biometric passports.
The clause envisages the time when we will all hold biometric travel documents and it gives the power to the immigration officer to verify the person before them at the immigration desk. It gives them the ability to ensure that the reading for the person standing there who places their finger on the machine or looks into the system corresponds with the information held on the chip.
To be clear, the provision significantly enhances the security of travel documents. The strength of the biometric identification system is that people will be unable to hold multiple travel documents. They will be able to register their biometrics only once and therefore the scope to travel on false documents will be severely limited. That is why the clause is important. It will apply generally to holders of all biometric passports in time, and I am grateful to have had the chance to clarify that point.
The hon. Gentleman made a similar point about documents that are needed in everyday life—I believe that was the phrase he used—particularly in relation to the retention of passports by the Home Office. I readily acknowledge, as I did before I joined the Home Office as a junior Minister, that we have all come across cases in which passports or travel documents have gone missing. That is not something that we would consider likely or desirable because it can cause considerable stress to people who need their travel documents. I accept that, but that inconvenience has to be balanced by the need at times for immigration staff to have direct access to those documents in the course of carrying out their duties and by their overwhelming duty to uphold the integrity of the system. So although I accept that there are unfortunate examples of travel documents going missing, they have to be balanced against a more general duty on members of the immigration service to go about their work.
I imagine that the retention of a document will happen infrequently. In such cases, will the Minister undertake that if it is retained the person will be provided with a certified photocopy to enable him or her to help to establish their identity in other places? Surely that is an easy task.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the power should not be exercised lightly and that it should be used proportionately at all times. As I said to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington it does not extend immigration officers’ powers to retain documents on occasions where they do not currently do so. We would expect them still to carry out their duties reasonably and proportionately.
Although I listened with interest to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Woking about certified photocopies, that could cause an extra administrative burden on the immigration service. So long as people exercise their functions reasonably and take care and so long as systems are put in place to ensure that documents are taken care of when they are in the possession of the immigration and nationality directorate, we can give him the assurances that he wants.
A valid point has been made in relation to certified copies of documents. It seems straightforward to make a certified copy of a document that is retained so that someone can use it for the purposes of identity without it being useable as a travel document.
I understand the point, but how useful would that document be, given that it is a photocopy? Furthermore, it would not be especially difficult to forge. What practical use would it be for people’s everyday business?
One must look at another scenario. It may not always be practical to issue the person with a copy of the document. Although I do not disagree with the general thrust of the argument, no one wants to burden people unfairly in going about their daily business. That is not our intention. It is not right to legislate for the two or three occasions on which a passport may go missing. We are ensuring that we give people who are doing an important job on behalf of us all the ability to go about their business in a simple way.
I recognise, however, that we should put systems in place which ensure that, where documents are retained, they are safeguarded and proper account of them is kept. There have been instances in which that has not happened. I accept the point, but I am afraid that I do not concede to go so far as to require all documents to be photocopied.
The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) asked in what circumstances a passport may be needed in an immigration appeal. The passport or travel document is often relevant to an immigration appeal—for example, in cases in which the nationality of the individual who is appealing is disputed or in which passport stamps are relevant evidence to the claim that is being made. The document is also potential proof of that individual’s identity.
More broadly speaking, immigration service staff retain passports to ensure that, where an appellant loses his or her appeal, he or she can be removed. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the National Audit Office report on removals. He will know that the need to ensure that people are properly documented can be a frustrating factor in operating an effective removals system. I hope he accepts that the need for proper documentation is an important element of our system.
It is important to stress that the ARC card that is issued to all asylum seekers is meant to fulfil the functions that have been mentioned—that is, the ability to go about one’s daily business and the ability to prove one’s identity. The ARC card is a biometric identity card. I do not know whether hon. Members have seen one, but they are a proof of identity that is not currently available to other citizens.
The hon. Gentleman asked about out-of-country appeals. Depending on the outcome of an appeal, the documents would be held until grant of appeal or removal/departure. That is the case in law at present. The Bill does not substantially change the present system; it simply rationalises the process that is in place. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), I cannot believe that there could be many—if any—circumstances in which travel documents would be retained when a removal had been effected or in which a voluntary return had been made.
It would always be right to enable the individual to receive his or her documents. The hon. Member for Woking asked when people would be given back their documents. That would happen at the point of removal, when the individual has boarded the aircraft to leave the UK. That would be the right time to release the documents. These are points of operation for the immigration service and not for primary legislation. The overall principle is that we should return people’s travel documents to them. As he rightly said, it is not a light thing to take someone’s documents away from them. We should return them when they are no longer of any reasonable use to the immigration service.
The clause is important, particularly in respect of the foundations it lays for biometric passports and visas, which will enhance the documents and give their owners more confidence that their travel documents cannot be abused or used fraudulently by those who take those documents from them. It is an assurance for the Government and for the individual travelling member of the public. It will help us to tackle document fraud and identity theft, combat illegal immigration and organised crime, and be a deterrent to those who try to enter the country illegally.