On the face of it, the clause looks pretty straightforward, but I hope that the stand part debate will give me an opportunity to probe the Minister because its effect is to move the goalposts for a certain category of person. At present, under section 142 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, people who are required to be fingerprinted are allowed to have notice of at least seven days in which to attend and, further, that period cannot begin until at least seven days have passed since the date of the notice. However, the amendment will apply to a certain category—namely asylum seekers and their dependants—and reduce that timing to three days. I want to probe the Government’s intention in seeking to amend the clause on those lines and to raise a couple of the difficulties that might arise from it, chiefly to discover the thinking behind the proposed changes.
The people for whom it is proposed that three days rather than seven will apply are those who have sought recognition as a refugee or asserted that their removal would breach their rights under article 3 of the European convention on human rights, and it includes their dependants. Why is the change proposed and why only in respect of that category of person? What evidence is there that it will make such a difference? Will it truly give the Government the advantage that has merited adding a clause? The logical question stemming from that is: why three days? Why not 24 hours or four days? Is there some magic about the time scale, because three days will cause problems?
What will happen if a person can prove that the notice did not reach him or her until after the date on which that person was required to attend? Sadly, we are all familiar with our postal system, which has deteriorated under the Labour Government. In the old days I could guarantee that the first post would arrive first thing in the morning and the second post in the afternoon, but now I cannot guarantee that it will arrive at any time during the day. If the notice was delayed in the post, for example, what would the situation be? Three days is a very short time.
These are not people that we have tagged or tied down in chains. What would happen if they were temporarily absent from their accommodation for a couple of nights, and therefore did not comply with this new and arduous time limit?
Moreover, if these people are required to travel, which might be the case, what if they do not have the wherewithal to travel to that destination? As I understand it, the consequences of failure to comply with the provisions are that, under section 142(3) of the 1999 Act, they can be arrested without a warrant. I hope that the Minister will respond to those pertinent questions.
The fundamental question is why there is a difference. Why pick out this category? I hope that the Minister, in his response, will give a rational and suitable explanation.
I shall now move away from the three days’ timing and the notice delivery and what may cause a person to fail to comply, to the requirement that a person attend at a specified time of day or a specified hour. The proposal to shorten notice periods and give fixed times will run the risk of more missed appointments and perhaps more wasted time. We are all familiar with our GPs complaining when people do not turn up. If people are forced into a straitjacket, it will increase the risk that they will not be able to comply with the conditions that have been placed on them.
While I am on the subject of fingerprinting and this clause, will the Minister examine the wording that has been used in the drafting of the legislation? In proposed new subsection (2) the wording is
“must require him to attend” and in (2A) it is
“may require him to attend.”
Could attendance not be by arrangement and by mutual agreement? Why must there be that dominant relationship in which an order is barked out to someone to attend? Why could attendance not be by mutual arrangement and agreement, rather than being a requirement, as currently drafted?
I am also sad to see that there is a lacuna in respect of fingerprinting. I hope that the Minister will give me an assurance that appropriate personnel will be used to take the fingerprints. For example, a friend of mine, who is a devout Muslim, would not even shake my hand because I am a lady. That is understandable: it is his culture. Will the Minister reassure me that if there was an issue of culture, particularly in relation to this vulnerable group of people, there would be no repercussions and no insistence that the fingerprinting was carried out by someone inappropriate? Receiving the Minister’s reassurance on that matter during our discussion of the Bill would stand us in good stead.
I do not think that I look like a person who will be troublesome to any jurisdiction in which I travel. However, this summer, without any notice or warning whatever, when I was merely travelling through the United States of America, I had to be fingerprinted for the first time in my life. The Minister is looking at me with wide-eyed youth on his side. I do not know whether he has ever been fingerprinted. I had never been fingerprinted before in my life, but I did not require three or seven days’ notice. It was just done as a matter of course. Naturally, as a law-abiding citizen and wanting to facilitate my very swift passage through the United States of America, I raised no objections. But interestingly, my husband, who is a senior citizen—I do not think he would mind my saying that—also had to be fingerprinted. That was a bit of a shock to his system. But even he admitted that because it was required and because it was supposed to add to our safety and security, he would not put up a fight when he had to press his fingers on to the pad.
However, I want to know whether down the line the Minister is planning to fingerprint everybody and if not, why not. Are we not going to a halfway house here without facing the reality? Home Office officials have helpfully produced a number of impact assessments to go with the Bill. I should like to refer to the partial regulatory impact assessment on data capture and sharing powers for the border agencies. I know that the Minister will be familiar with everything in that document. His hon. Friends may laugh, but the Minister is in command of his brief and he will be familiar with everything in it.
According to that document, one of the purposes and intended effects of all these new provisions is to maintain
“an accurate movement record of passengers travelling to and departing from the UK, in support of further border control functions, including risk analysis and detecting those who have no right to be in the UK and assist in the fight against terrorists and criminals.”
“travelling to and departing from the UK” suggests to me that down the line we will have fingerprinting in line with what is happening in the US. I would particularly like the Minister to comment on that and on the last page of that impact assessment. Paragraph 19, entitled “Competition assessment”, states:
“All other EU Member States plan to verify identity of persons crossing their borders with biometrically enabled documents. Many other countries either already use biometrics as a key element of their border control (USA, Hong Kong, Singapore for example) or plan to do so.”
Once again, that looks as if this is only a halfway house and more is coming down the road, certainly to bring us in line with other EU member states. I should like the Minister to share his thinking on this.
My final point relates to costs. I have tried to familiarise myself with the impact assessments as best I can. The document on data capture and sharing powers deals with various areas of the financial impact, such as the potential obsolescence of landing cards and other manual processes which will provide a cost saving. Another part of the document allows for the redeployment of otiose Home Office staff who would be redeployed into this area too. Could the Minister give us some idea what the costs are for this area and what the cost savings might be in other areas by moving to a more reliable and secure system? Once again, is this a halfway house before we move fully down the road to full fingerprinting and biometric details of everyone coming in and out of our country?
I will not go over the points made by the hon. Lady, but I should like to touch on a couple of issues specifically in relation to the period of notice that people will be given for fingerprint tests. I believe that the Government are making a large mistake by separating refugees from all other categories and suggesting that they can be called for fingerprinting within a three-day period. I shall give one brief personal example. It relates not to immigration but to planning and a letter that I once sent to my local council. I sent the letter well before the deadline for objections to a planning application, but it arrived 13 days after I had sent it, at which point the letter was out of time and could not be considered as a legitimate objection to the application.
I believe that people who are sent letters containing deadlines and days and times for fingerprinting will often receive them after that time. As a result, the system will be slowed down rather than speeded up. Many appointments will be missed and will have to be reissued, causing an administrative nightmare, whereas if we kept the existing regulations, whereby people are given seven days’ notice, we could pretty much guarantee that people would receive the notification in time and would be able to attend at some time—not at a specific time in the day, but at some point during a particular day. What clause 24 proposes—we tabled an amendment suggesting that the clause be deleted—will revert to the status quo and the powers in place under the 1999 Act. Three days’ notice is completely unworkable and I ask the Minister to think again.
I shall seek to address all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, but let me begin by introducing clause 24. Asylum claimants and their dependants are issued with an application registration card—the ARC card, which we talked about previously—when they make an asylum claim. At the moment, fingerprints are taken from the claimant and their dependants and stored on the card for identification purposes; it is a biometric identity card. However, in certain circumstances it is not possible to take fingerprints from or issue claimants with an ARC card at the point at which the application is made, for a variety of reasons. They may be asked to go to an asylum screening unit. As the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said, section 142 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 provides the Secretary of State with the power to issue a written notice that requires the principal claimant and any dependants to return to a specified place to provide fingerprints. At present, that must be at least seven days after the date of the notice. The notice must also provide the claimants with a minimum period of seven days within which they should attend. It may specify the time of day or hours during which they should attend.
Clause 24 makes two amendments to section 142 to bring it in line with our processing procedures, which have become more streamlined and more efficient since the 1999 Act was passed. First, the clause reduces the period between the date given in the notice as its date of issue and the date when an asylum seeker and any dependants can be required to attend for fingerprinting from seven days to three, as has been said. Secondly, the clause enables the Secretary of State to specify a day on which the asylum applicant must attend for fingerprinting, which cannot be less than three days after the notice’s issue date. It removes the requirement that the applicant attend at some point during a seven-day period.
The Secretary of State will continue to have the power to specify the time of day or hours—to answer the hon. Lady’s point—during which an asylum claimant and their dependants should attend for fingerprinting, as under the existing legislation.
I was coming on to address some of the hon. Lady’s points. She rightly wanted to bring out the logic and the reasons behind the change, and began by asking why we are making the change, what the evidence is, and why the requirement of three days. Under article 6 of the EU directive on reception conditions, which came into force in February this year, we are obliged within three days of a claim being lodged to provide every claimant with a document issued in their name, certifying their status as an asylum seeker. In our case, there are two principal documents that can be used to confirm that: the ARC card, which I have mentioned, and a document referred to as a standard acknowledgment letter. Hon. Members may have seen those at their advice surgeries. Either can be used to satisfy that document. The standard acknowledgment is obviously a far less secure document than the ARC card.
I am not making the point that we have an EU directive and that is why we have to do it within three days, but the clear expectation is that we issue a document within that time frame, not just for the convenience of the administrative staff, but because the directive recognises that it is important for asylum seekers to have a reliable document as quickly as possible so that they gain access to the support to which they are entitled. An ARC card is important so that individuals can receive benefits via the post office or other locations. The directive is driven not only by administrative convenience but by a wish to ensure that people are documented as quickly as possible.
On a point of clarification, documents are to be provided within three days and there have been suggestions that people should be fingerprinted within three days. Realistically, with letters being processed and sent out, it is still going to take more than three days, so it is a false argument for the Government to suggest that they have to reduce the time from seven to three days on the basis that people must be provided with the document within three days.
There are a couple of points to make. It is obviously in all our interests that multiple documents are not swirling round the system. It is much better to issue somebody with a more secure document as quickly as possible, rather than issuing standard acknowledgment letters, as well as other documents. We would rather issue one high-quality document to people, offering proof of identity and eligibility to claim support and benefits while they are here. There is also the EU directive.
As for postal delays and the administrative chaos that could ensue, most notices are handed to individuals in person when they attend the initial interview that all asylum seekers go through. Notices are frequently not put into the post; they are frequently handed to the individual in person. That is why the change can safely be made without causing chaos.
I do not think that I was suggesting that. I hasten to point out that it is also in claimants’ interests to be documented to a high standard as quickly as possible. They can then claim the support to which they are entitled. That is in everybody’s interests, including those of the immigration and nationality directorate and the asylum seeker. That is the starting point.
Is not there a logic gap? The Minister says that, within three days, we can fingerprint the individuals, their children and their dependants. Then we can issue the ARC card, which will give them access to support from the National Asylum Support Service.
In throwing out some of the theories, what would happen if an individual and his or her dependants do not have the money to attend for fingerprinting? That would be rather ironic, would it not? The Minister wants to get the card to people as quickly as possible so that they will be entitled to the financial support that they deserve, yet they may not have the wherewithal to attend.
I am not saying that the notice would be received in person in every case. There may be circumstances in which it will arrive by post. We must be clear that for the claim to start to work properly, people must go through that process. It is in their direct interests that they are enabled and encouraged to do that as speedily as possible.
Many points that have been made are operational ones for the immigration and nationality directorate. They are not necessarily the concern of the Bill or other primary legislation. However, I accept the reasonable points that have been made. It is not the intention to place undue pressure on individuals to attend at a time of the system’s convenience or to make it extremely difficult for them to do so. We intend to move to a clearer system, where people are given an appointed time within a reasonable time frame, where we do not have to issue them with a temporary standard acknowledgment letter and where we can proceed straight to the ARC card. Those measures will speed up the process and make it more efficient.
I encourage hon. Members to attend an asylum screening unit, if they have not already done so, where they will see the nature of the operation. It is efficient and streamlined, but staff are trained to deal with the sensitive nature of the cases before them. They are highly skilled at doing so, and it would not be their intention to place undue pressure on the individual.
We all have an interest in the system working. It would be in the interests of both the immigration and nationality directorate and the asylum seeker to give a specified time for claimants to attend.
I am going to tempt the Minister again down this path. If we are trying to reduce bureaucracy, to give people the immediacy of support and to identify people sensitively, why will he not go down the route of fingerprinting everybody, with the exception of the under-fives because their fingerprints are not be fully formed and, therefore, cannot be registered? Surely that is the simplest, most accurate and most exact route. The measure is another halfway house. I think that the fingerprinting of everybody is coming anyway and that this step is part of a process of erosion.
The hon. Lady is right that the provision does not extend to those under the age of five. It does affect all asylum claimants, however. We must be clear about that. It does not affect a particular group. The requirement applies to all asylum applicants and their dependants. I agree that that does not include those under five year, although it does affect everybody else. The majority of claimants will be issued with an ARC card at the first point they present in person or at their initial interview. We want to issue them with that document at the earliest possible time, and that is in their interests, too.
Clause 24 deals only with a minority of cases that have to be given an appointed time to return. I take the points about how the system needs to be implemented. It needs to work for both the individual and the staff who are administering it. We believe that it will achieve on both counts, but I hear the issues that have been raised.
The hon. Lady asked who would take the fingerprints and raised potential cultural issues. The immigration and nationality directorate is highly aware of those issues and care would always be taken when registering a person’s fingerprints. She broadened out the discussion and mentioned her experience on her summer holiday travelling round the US—
The hon. Lady was not pleased about being fingerprinted—the first time in her life that it had happened. It made me wonder how many other Tory MPs have been fingerprinted. I am sure that you, Sir Nicholas, are not one of them, but there are allegations swirling around. However, we will not go there.
The hon. Lady asked whether we are looking forward to a world in which everyone is fingerprinted. The point about the biometric passport, which many countries are moving towards, and the e-borders system is to have an accurate record of who comes into and who leaves the country. That is the bedrock of the e-borders system.
I think the Minister is saying that basically we are going to fingerprint everyone on the way in and the way out. I should like some clarification. I asked the American immigration officer who took my fingerprints how long they would keep them on their database. He appeared not to understand the question because my fingerprints are in the USA database in perpetuity.
What I thought impressive about the information-sharing aspect of the system was that the immigration official also had the details of my visa, which had expired some time ago. That gives rise to a question. I think that under the 1999 Act there is a period of time by which fingerprints have to be destroyed. Does the Minister plan on keeping all fingerprints of anyone who falls under those categories in perpetuity in order to secure our borders?
I made some light-hearted remarks a few moments ago, but there is a connotation attached to fingerprinting: some people may find it uncomfortable or intrusive. That will change, because people who have travelled to the US, as the hon. Lady has, in the past few years—certainly since 2001—will have found that it is being carried out routinely. I have not been there since that time, but I believe that at certain ports the exit controls are becoming automated so that the US immigration authorities simply match the fingerprint to the record that they held on arrival and automate that part of the process.
People are going to become more familiar with the process in the next few years. We have made it clear that regardless of what happens with identity cards and whether the House finally approves that legislation, we are moving towards a biometric passport, which ultimately will contain a chip of people’s records.
Hon. Members may ask why we are committed to that system. It is precisely because the linkage between a unique personal identifier, be it a fingerprint or iris pattern, means that each person can register for only one document. That is the core strength of the biometric system. The photo and the signature are no longer a guarantee of identity and veracity.
I need to press the Minister one more time on the matter. Given everything that he has said about what the future holds for the security of this country—the Identity Cards Bill is being considered at present, although it is a moot point whether it will go through—why have the Minister and the Department taken the policy and strategic overview to move increasingly to halfway houses, or 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. houses? Why has the Minister not bitten the bullet and gone the whole way if the future he has been painting for us in words is the one that we are looking forward to? It seems that there will be more waste, more bureaucracy and more room for error when the Minister’s intention is ultimately to go to the control position whereby everyone is required to provide all their details immediately on entering or leaving the country.
The hon. Lady sounds dangerously as if she is moving towards supporting the Identity Cards Bill, which will create the national identity register, and will indeed do the things that she wants when she asks me why I will not go the whole hog. I can explain that although some people have imagined great conspiracies in the database, it simply links the basic information that is now on a passport application form to a unique biometric identifier. In doing so, not only can the authorities be more sure, the immigration officer at the desk can be more sure that the person before him is the person on the document, and the individual can be more sure that his travel document cannot be taken by someone else to go off round the world. People can have more confidence that their documents can be used only by them.
When an individual presents at an immigration desk, it is not a case of checking one fingerprint against the database every time. The immigration officer will do a one-to-one check of the chip in the passport with the biometric details before them. That is the check that will be carried out. I think that people will be reassured that their identity cannot be misappropriated.
The clause relates to fingerprints held on the ARC database. Section 141 provides for the destruction of records or prints after 10 years. I say to the hon. Lady that, with regard to immigration control, there is a purpose in keeping records for a period of time. The introduction of biometric visas in certain parts of the world has enabled the immigration and nationality directorate to compare fingerprints taken by entry clearance officers of people applying for visas. On occasion, they have been matched against asylum records and the fingerprints of people whose claims for asylum were turned down. That is relevant information to the entry clearance officers and the IND.
There is a purpose in retaining the records but at no time is it to withhold unduly from people what they are entitled to; it is to enable us to prove that people are who they say they are, which is one of the main functions of our border control systems. I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but that is the way we are going. The e-borders system is the basis of the clauses that we are about to discuss. Embarkation and entry controls will give the authorities a clear record of people coming into and leaving the country. Both are taken care of.
I am sorry to have confused this with the other Bill, but the matter is important and is mentioned in the next clause. Is the Minister saying that the information that is held on me as a UK citizen on my ID card will be kept in perpetuity, but the information that is taken from an asylum seeker and their dependants will be destroyed after 10 years?
People’s asylum claims will not be held in perpetuity, but for the time in which it is relevant for them to make a claim. The valid period of time for which to hold that data is considered to be 10 years. It is different for UK citizens; we believe that we would all benefit from being enrolled on a national identity register. That is a different matter. If we are going to introduce such a system, we need to keep a permanent record of an individual and their unique identifying characteristics. That is why there is a difference.
We have spent some time on the clause. We have strayed more widely than the clause permits, and I am grateful to you, Sir Nicholas, for that indulgence. It is important to discuss how we manage our border control and passport security in the future, and I am pleased to have been able to provide clarification. I say again to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington that it is not our intention to create a harsh or unduly punitive—[Interruption.]
I believe that I have given the hon. Gentleman the assurances he requires. I hope that the provisions in the clause will help to achieve a more efficient system, and to give people entitlement to their benefits more quickly, which is something that I am sure that he, in his heart of hearts, would support.
The clause is important, and I ask the Committee to allow it to stand part of the Bill.
I will be brief. I have listened carefully to what the Minister said. He has not assured me that there will be no problems as a result of the change. It will be impractical and unworkable to expect people to be fingerprinted within three days. In certain circumstances it will be fine, but on occasions it will not be possible and will cause further problems. We therefore do not support the clause.
I have been impressed with the honesty, integrity and sympathy with which the Minister has answered my questions on the clause. The provisions are important to all of us, not least because of the connotations that attach to having one’s fingerprints taken. However, I hope that what the Minister has said will reassure people outside the Committee, if not all the members of the Committee, that the process is necessary and will offer us additional security.
I appreciate that there could be some practical difficulties and, for the purpose of probing, I have tried to give the worst-case scenarios to the Minister. Despite the shortness of the notice period, I am satisfied that he has arrived at the provisions with reference to what is rolling down over us from Europe, and that there may be some merit in them. I therefore have no hesitation in telling him that, although the Liberal Democrats are pressing for a vote on the clause, I believe that my party will support it.