Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 74, in clause 5, page 3, line 29, leave out from ‘documents’ to end of line 30 and insert—
‘which may include the following non-biometric information—
(ii) date of birth,
(iii) place of birth,
(v) immigration status, and
(vi) National Insurance number, if appropriate;’.—[Paul Rowen.]
I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
‘(2A) Non-biometric information under subsection (2)(d) shall be limited to—
(b) date of birth,
(c) place of birth,
(e) immigration status, and
(f) National Insurance Number.’.
Amendment No. 73, in clause 5, page 4, line 27, at end add—
‘(7) A biometric immigration document may only be used in connection with an immigration and nationality matter.’.
Amendment No. 24, in clause 15, page 8, line 43, at end insert—
‘(h) “non biometric information” does not include any sensitive personal data (within the meaning of the Data Protection Act 1998 (c. 29)) or anything the disclosure of which would tend to reveal such data.’.
New clause 1—No requirement to carry a biometric information document—
‘Nothing in this Act authorises the making of regulations the effect of which would be to require an individual to carry a biometric immigration document at all times.’.
When we adjourned this morning I was being nice about the Minister and his reasonableness. I would like to assure the Committee and, indeed, the Minister, that that should not be taken as a precedent in any way. I was coming to the conclusion of my remarks on the second group of amendments, which includes new clause 1. I am glad that the Minister has agreed to go away and look at new clause 1 again to see whether its objectives may be incorporated elsewhere. In an effort to focus his thought processes, I should make it clear that we will be pressing it to a vote.
I understand that the Minister wishes to move a motion to amend the programme motion agreed by the Committee on 27 February to enable the Committee to take evidence from Migration Watch for an hour next Tuesday morning. Manuscript copies of the motion have been circulated to the Committee. I remind the Committee that the motion moved by the Minister is debateable, but will lapse if a single Member objects.
I beg to move,
That the order of the Committee of 27 February 2007 be amended by the addition of the following at the end of the Table in paragraph 2:
I have no wish to object and exercise this unusual power of veto that everyone has. Indeed, I would urge other Opposition Members not to object either. I simply rise to seek clarification. I am conscious that there are other potential witnesses whom members of the Committee may wish to call at some later stage, but we are getting to the point where there are not that many later stages left. Does the Minister think it possible that he will move a further amendment to the programme order to enable a further witness session to take place?
I know that some members of the Committee are anxious to hear further evidence, given the importance of the subject we are debating in the Bill. Organisations like the CBI and other business organisations have a great deal more to say about the need for things like compulsory biometric ID cards and the role they play in driving out illegal working. I am sure that that may be possible and I will undertake to consult hon. Members through the usual channels to see whether there is a blockbuster order that we could perhaps present with all the remaining witnesses that people want to call.
I must now make the Committee aware of the practicalities of taking oral evidence next Tuesday. As the Committee has agreed to take oral evidence for an hour and then seamlessly to resume clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill, my fellow Chairman and I would prefer it if the Committee remained in one room throughout. It is hoped that the Committee will be able to use Room 9 on the Committee Corridor for this purpose, as that is the only room that is set up to enable Public Bill Committees to take oral evidence sitting as the Committee is currently arranged, rather than in a horseshoe.
It is possible that Room 9 will not be ready to accommodate a Public Bill Committee in that way. The work to prepare it was not scheduled to be completed until after the Easter recess. If the room is not ready the Committee will need to take evidence on the Upper Committee Corridor and then suspend and return to this room to continue with the clause-by-clause scrutiny. That sounds slightly tortuous but I am sure that it will be fine. I will ensure that all hon. Members are informed in advance of the location of the sitting next Tuesday and I thank members of the Committee for their continued patience in this matter.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 75, in clause 5, page 3, line 38, leave out ‘in specified circumstances’ and insert
‘if their name or family circumstances have changed’.
No. 76, in clause 5, page 3, line 44, leave out ‘in other specified circumstances’ and insert
‘if he or an authorised person suspects it is being used for a purpose other than was intended’.
No. 49, in clause 5, page 3, leave out lines 45 and 46.
No. 48, in clause 5, page 3, line 46, at end insert—
‘(2A) Circumstances under subsection (2)(h) shall be limited to—
(a) change of address,
(b) change of name, or
(c) loss or theft of a biometric immigration document.’.
I hope that next Tuesday’s sittingwill be worth the strain that it is clearly causingto our logistical arrangements. I assume that the representatives of Migration Watch UK have arrived safely back in this country, which is why the Minister was able to move the motion. [Interruption.] If the Minister wishes to speak from a sedentary position about their ability to get through border controls, I will leave him to it.
The underlying purpose of the amendments is to restrict the Secretary of State’s power to do what he will with people’s private information. It continues previous debates on clause 5, which showed the serious philosophical difference between the two sides of the Committee about how biometric information is used. The Minister and the Government want all-encompassing powers that enable them to collect large amounts of information and do rather a lot with it, which we think is dangerous. We debated this morning how that information should be collected and who should have access to it; this debate is about its use after it has been collected.
Amendment No. 47 would remove from the Bill the permission to combine biometric immigration documents with other documents, which on the surface may seem like a practical thing to do and Ministers may want to do it. However, once again the clause as drafted is hopelessly vague and allows Ministers far too much power, so that biometric immigration documents could be combined with almost anything else and used for almost any purpose. Although in my less cynical moments I believe that that is not the underlying purpose of the clause, the Minister or the Home Secretary, it is incumbent on the House when it is trying to perform its duties of scrutiny to ensure that the legislation does not allow either present or future Ministers powers that it would not want them to have, hence the amendment.
All the amendments, but principally amendmentNo. 47, would limit the use of biometric immigration documents to their stated purpose: to tackle illegal working and other immigration offences. It inevitably involves some repetition of this morning’s debates, but we established during previous debates on clause 5 that, as one would expect, there is no difference on either side of the Committee in our recognition of the need to combat illegal working. If the new documents are to prove useful in doing so we have no objection to them. However, we have big objections to the possibility of their being used for other purposes and we seek to limit such use.
Amendment No. 49 would remove the right of the Secretary of State to demand the surrender of other documents upon the issuing of a biometric immigration document. Again, the main objection to the clause as drafted is its vagueness; it could entitle the Secretary of State to acquire all manner of documents, some of which may have no relevance to a person’s immigration or working status. Clearly, that is not a power one would lightly confer on any Secretary of State. The Minister admitted this morning that some of the provisions contained within clause 5 involve breaching the relevant section of the Data Protection Act. Therefore it is illegal for the Government to collect some of the information that will be collected for immigration purposes. The Minister was unable to reassure us how extensive that collection of information would be and said that he had no ambition to extend the collection of data—I think that was the phrase. It is clear that the Bill has the capacity to allow Ministers to collect vast rafts of the most private information about people. Such information is specifically covered by the relevant section of the Data Protection Act. Therefore, we wish to limit that power and in this case are seeking to do so by raising the issues relating to the surrender of other documents when someone is given a biometric immigration document.
The arguments presented by the Minister should lead him to consider the underlying thought behind this amendment. If he has full confidence in the biometric document, which the Government argue will be an entirely watertight document establishing the identity of the person holding it and their entitlement, it is not obvious why they wish to remove other documents, which will presumably become valueless.If everyone accepts a biometric document, the other60 documents that the Minister talks about will have no purpose and I do not understand why the Government want to collect them in, as it may cause levels of cynicism and scepticism to rise about why the Government insist on doing so.
It would be interesting if, during the debate on this group of amendments, the Minister would furnish us with examples of people who were issued with one official document and required to surrender other entirely unconnected ones. If someone changes their passport, they keep the old one—I was trying to find an example that might aid the Minister’s case, but that is a bad one. There are examples where outdated documents must be returned, but most of those are useless because they are obsolete. Powers requiring completely unconnected documents to be returned to the Government when a new document is issued are extremely unusual. The value of surrendering such documents must be low because a new biometric document is infallible in the Minister’s world view. Such a view has been comprehensively demolished by the expert witnesses whom we heard last week and is not shared by anyone. I am trying to think myself into the Minster’s mindset at the moment, but I cannot understand why, in his mindset, he would demand the return of such documents having issued a magic biometric document to the people. Those are the issues relating to amendment No. 49.
Amendment No. 48 would limit the instances in which a person in possession of a biometric document must notify the Secretary of State about a change in circumstances to change of address, change of name or loss or theft of the biometric immigration document. The amendment would serve the same purpose as the previous one in limiting what is, at present, the extraordinarily wide scope of the clause and identify the circumstances in which the Secretary of State may wish to act. We believe that we have identified the key changes about which the Secretary of State needs to be informed and about which it would be reasonable to ask for information. This amendment would simplify and strengthen the requirements on the Government and on the person who holds the document. We believe that a small selection of relevant but vital information—address, name and whether the document has been stolen—would leave the document holder in no doubt about what he needs to report. The removal of uncertainty would be good for building public confidence in a system that may well be seen as intrusive. We had a long and fruitful discussion this morning about the degree of intrusiveness that possession of the documents will entail, but the removal of uncertainty about when people need to interact with the state would help the Minister’s case.
Does my hon. Friend remember that on Second Reading I specifically asked the Minister why the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 was not being used? There are powers in it for employers to demand, or at least check, documents held by their employees. The Minister was not able to give me a satisfactory answer. Does myhon. Friend agree that the provision is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut? There are existing powers in place to do what the Minister wants it to do.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, as he did in his excellent speech on Second Reading. This is a symptom of a wider problem: the necessity is not for new legislation but for the will and the ability to use legislation that has already been enacted. That applies particularly to the example that he gives but also to the power to convict those who employ illegal workers, which has been scandalously underused in the past five years or so. I hope that the Minister will address that issue directly.
If the amendment were accepted, it would help the Home Office as an institution. It would prevent it from being flooded with reports of changes of circumstances irrelevant to the underlying purposes of the clause, which would not help to improve border safety or help in the fight against illegal working. Having limits would increase the practicality of the clause and perhaps Ministers’ ability to use it. The Minister might argue that we should extend the list that we provide in the amendment, but I hope that he does not just say that we need to be flexible. We are hearing that a lot, and he must be aware that every time he says it he is increasing the scepticism about the purposes underlying the Bill.
I have listened with great patience and interest to the hon. Gentleman’s argument, which started off being intriguing this morning and has grown more intriguing still this afternoon. This morning we heard about the support of Opposition parties for biometric visas, and this afternoon we have heard from the hon. Gentleman that he has no objection in principle to biometric immigration contracts. I am struggling to reconcile that with the policy position adopted by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), which is that contracts for both biometric visas and biometric immigration documents should be cancelled. I am not sure how that stands up.
On a point of clarification, which I hope will help the hon. Member for Ashford, I absolutely did not say that the information that we would collect would be a breach of the Data Protection Act. My point was that that Act allows the processing of sensitive data and provides members of the public with strict safeguards. We will always comply with those safeguards along with those embedded in the Human Rights Act and other legislation.
As the hon. Gentleman developed his argument it became more reasonable rather than less. He is concerned about unfettered power in the hands of the Home Secretary and his Ministers, which is a perfectly reasonable position to adopt. It is absolutely right that the hon. Gentleman and his party should seek to table probing amendments designed to test some of the arguments that we have used to put the legislation in place. There are two or three points that I should like to draw out, however. The effect of the amendments in the group would be twofold. First, they would prevent us from effectively designating a document as an ID card, because it would be impossible for us to roll the data over. Secondly, the amendments would impose quite substantial constraints on the kind of circumstances that we would ask individuals to update us about.
I have two problems with that. The first problem is that we have been clear in our intention to designate the cards as ID cards as soon as the national identity register comes online. That is important, because doing so will provide migrants who are here legitimately with the additional protections on which Parliament rightly insisted in the Identity Cards Act 2006. The second problem is that if we accepted the amendment, migrants in this country with biometric immigration documents would have several bits of identity. That is problematic, because the whole thrust of our policy is to bleed out those documents.
We had a useful debate this morning, the conclusion of which was that we should indeed equip employers with the ability and the right to check the information on the biometric identity document. Last week we heard at length from organisations such as National Car Parks, which has blazed a trail in driving out illegal working from its operations. A great deal of evidence was presented about how it is sometimes difficult for businesses in this country to understand the different kinds of documents that are available and therefore understand whether the migrant in front of them is here legally and has an entitlement to work.
Phasing out all the insecure 20th century documents and replacing them with a single biometric document will make it easier for the business community to play its part in driving illegal working from this country. If, for example, we were unable to recall other documents, as the amendment suggests, we would not advance very far. I am concerned that there is a pattern of argument building up that is not very serious about tacklingthe problem of illegal working. Opposition parties abstained on measures such as the civil penalty regime, which would allow us to make it easier to punish those businesses that break the rules or turn a blind eye, but now they are saying that we should not drive down the proliferation of documents. I am concerned by that line of argument, because we should make it easier for employers to play by the rules, not harder.
The second issue concerns the limits on the kind of information and updates that we could request from people. It is important to understand that the documents in question are biometric immigration documents. It is therefore important for us to be able to solicit from individuals important news about changes in their status, because changes in their status will often be relevant to whether their leave should continue. Also, as the world changes it is important for the Government to be able to have in place different categories through which to invite people to come to this country.
This morning I gave the example of ministers of religion. Like many members of the Committee, I have a strong Muslim community in my constituency. It is important that individuals in that community should have the opportunity to deepen their faith and their identity. It is therefore often helpful for us to be able to invite from abroad, particularly from Pakistan, those who are experts in Islam and teaching. One of the Government’s responses over the past few years has been to introduce new immigration categories, such as ministers of religion. It is important for us to have the flexibility to be able to collect different kinds of information because it is relevant in granting people different categories of immigration status.
I have been listening carefully. Incidentally, as a historical fact, in his breathless prose of 1996 the Prime Minister stated in his book “New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country”—what a bizarre title—that ID cards are only supported by the wilder shores of the Tory right. Maybe the Prime Minister considers himself now to be on the wilder shores of the Tory right—how we have travelled that circuitous route. There is a dichotomy at the heart of the Minister’s argument. On the one hand, he is saying that we will have biometric immigration documents that will be cutting-edge, possibly expensive and a full bells-and-whistles system of identity management, but at the same time he is saying that they have to be combined with 20th century documents. He cannot have his argument both ways. One will do the job, or else he should explain why he needs to have other documents to accompany it.
I have not quite followed that argument, but I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is the only person who has travelled the distance that the hon. Gentleman outlined. I was leafing with some interest through some of the remarks that Sir John Stevens—now Lord Stevens—made recently. He is a man that the Conservative party holds in some high regard, or it would not have asked him to chair its task group on border security. He said to the House of Lords that
“the technology is certain, which is the reason why the Association of Chief Police Officers and others have changed their view.”
Later, he said that
“in relation to where we are on identification cards, the police and others in the security services are absolutely certain that there is a need for a certainty of identification.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2005; Vol. 675, c. 28.]
So, Lord Stevens was reflecting on the fact that as the world has changed, so many people have changed their views, not only in the Labour party but in Opposition parties and all fields of public life.
The argument that I am posing—clearly not well enough for the hon. Member for Peterborough—is that constraints on the kind of information that we seek to solicit from immigrants might need to be more flexible than the kind of prescription that can be set out in primary legislation. As new categories of leave are introduced, for example for ministers of religion, or as marriage rules are changed, it might be important to request updates to certain categories of information so that we can modify the basis of people’s leave. That is not inconsistent with the encoding of that information on a single secure document rather than multiple bits of paper.
Given the Government’s record on the handling of complex IT programmes and technologies, is the Minister confident and will he state for the record that if he has his way he is certain that there will be no financial overspend whatsoever, and that this complex information technology product will be delivered on time and on budget?
I am as confident that there will be underspends as I am confident that there will be overspends. I will make no stronger argument than that.
The key points are that it will often be important for us to be able to request information about the changes in people’s circumstances so that we can modify changes in people’s leave. There is no point in having a more secure document if the underlying basis of the information is in danger or jeopardy because we have ruled out in primary legislation our ability to understand whether people have got married or divorced or have been deported. If the amendments were implemented, we could not collect information about deportation.
I should like to give the Committee the following reassurances. The thrust of our policy is to phase out documents and introduce a single document, so that we can be serious about tackling illegal immigration and harnessing the good will and drive of the business community in this country to tackle a problem that we know good employers are determined to tackle. The amendments would render that difficult.
It is important, however, that appropriate regulations are in place. First, we will designate the cards only if we can satisfy the House and secure support for a designation order approved under section 4 of the Identity Cards Act 2006. Secondly, any regulations that we provide for under the clause will be subject to an affirmative statutory instrument. If we are serious about tackling illegal working, it is important that we have the civil penalty regime in place. Indeed, I hope that the Opposition parties change their stance on that approach and give it the support that it deserves. It is important that we can not only phase out the proliferation of documents, but ensure that the underlying information provided in them is up to date, so that we know whether people genuinely have the right to be here and to work, and the right to other public benefits.
I want to speak to amendments Nos. 75 and 76, which stand in my name. The Minister has already helpfully clarified some of the points that I want to make. The key point about the amendments is seeking information from the Government as to what sort of specified information will be required. Again, that information is not provided in the Bill. We want to limit, as far as possible, such information as is made available to that which is absolutely necessary.
As was said previously, the Opposition parties support stronger border controls, but not the extension to ID cards. In clarifying the position on amendment No. 47, the Minister helpfully illustrated that difference. We want to strengthen the borders and ensure that people can come here for their declared purposes, so if the use of biometric data aids the checking of employment records and is a sure, non-corruptible source that cannot easily be imitated, it is a step forward. However, as to combining such data with lots of other information, we believe that the Bill is going beyond its title in what it is seeking to do. We believe that the only information that should be stored on the cards is that which is necessary to enable them to do the job.
We believe that the surrender of the cards should be required only if their misuse can be demonstrated. For example, passing a card from one person to another is a very legitimate reason. We do not want a situation whereby the Home Office, without the backing of primary legislation, is able to take someone’s card. We do not want circumstances in which someone who has been involved in a drunken brawl and is facing deportation but has not yet been tried may yet have the card removed.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be important for the Home Office to require surrender if somebody was deported?
Yes, of course. I believe that the amendment would enable that to happen. We want to know in what specific circumstances the Home Office would require the surrender of the card. The problem with much of the legislation before us is not what it attempts in broad terms, but the loose wording that allows feature creep. We have talked about that before; it is a process whereby a measure is introduced for one purpose, but over time, its use is allowed to change and be modified because of loose wording. The UK Borders Bill relates not to ID cards, but to border protection and policing, which we want dealt with very tightly.
I have heard from my constituents about bad experiences of the Home Office holding on to documentation. I dealt with a case this morning on my way to the House, involving a constituent who had to return to Islamabad because his wife had died. He was stranded there because a document was stuck in the Home Office system. Thankfully, my office had a copy of his UK visa, which we could pass on to Islamabad, and the problem was sorted.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s story with great interest. It is important that we understand the problems that can result, but will he explain why that man had to go to Islamabad because his wife had died? Presumably he was married to somebody living in this country.
His wife died in this country, but their family wanted her buried in Pakistan. He got there very quickly because he had a Pakistani passport as well, but could not get out again because some of the papers in his UK passport were incorrect or were with the Home Office. We had a copy of that passport and he was able to come back. As I said, experiences of the Home Office holding on to information have not been good, and we believe that it should have only information that is necessary.
The more information that we put on the cards, the more liable they are to be misused. We had a discussion earlier about information being secure and used only for the purposes for which it is intended. The more information that is stored on a document, the more it can be misused. Again, we also have concerns about the IT and whether it is robust and can deliver.
I cannot say that I was particularly reassured by the Minister’s arguments in favour of flexibility. He continues to advance a novel constitutional doctrine whereby a Government do not have to fulfil policies promised in their election manifesto if the previous Government signed contracts that were expensive and too lengthy. I find that slightly more bizarre every time that he repeats it.
To accept the Minister’s argument that the cards would provide safety, one must believe two things. First, one must believe that the biometric documents are completely secure. We talked this morning about evidence given by Professor Anderson and others stating that that is not the case. The Committee is into its seventh or eighth sitting and I shall now succumb to the temptation to refer to the Daily Mail, which I have so far resisted. On 5 March, it tried to hack into a biometric passport and produce a new document—a process that took those involved four hours. If journalists can do that now, I suspect that the documents are not 100 per cent. secure, as Ministers believe them to be.
That is the first point on which I am not very reassured. The second is that we must believe, as the hon. Member for Rochdale pointed out, that when the documents are under the control of the Home Office they will be dealt with efficiently and expeditiously. I dare say that Members on both sides of the Committee could spend the rest of this sitting and many others giving examples of pieces of paper vital to people’s lives going missing inside the Home Office, not just for days or weeks, but for months and in some cases years, in my experience. I am not reassured by the Minister and I would therefore like to press the amendment to a vote.
With this it will be convenientto discuss the following amendments: No. 51, in clause 5, page 4, line 19, at end insert—
‘(3A) Before making regulations under subsection (1) the Secretary of State must—
(a) publish the code set out in subsection (3)(e) and (f), and
(b) lay a draft before each House of Parliament.’.
No. 50, in clause 5, page 4, line 27, at end add—
‘(7) Before making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must—
(a) publish proposals,
(b) consult members of the public, and
(c) lay a draft before Parliament.’.
No. 52, in clause 5, page 4, line 27, at end add—
‘(7) The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament, not more than 12 months after the commencement of the provisions under subsection (1), a report on the operation of the regulations.’.
No. 69, in clause 5, page 4, line 27, at end add—
‘(7) The Secretary of State may issue a code of practice relating to the issuing of biometric immigration documents by UK Visas providing—
(a) the maximum processing times and maximum costs for biometric immigration documents;
(b) the minimum level of service that visa applicants could expect from UK Visas and their partners; and
(c) any other guidance that he deems appropriate.’.
We are coming to the end of the discussion on this clause. Throughout the debate, we have sought assurances from the Minister that its provisions will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and he has helpfully clarified some of our points.
I am speaking to amendments Nos. 77 and 69. The former is very similar to what the hon. Member for Ashford proposes, as it seeks to ensure affirmative approval by Parliament for some of the issues that we have discussed. Going by what the Minister said earlier, I hope that the Government will respond to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley by tabling some tighter amendments during later stages of the Bill’s passage so as to replace “shall” with “will”. That will be progress.
Amendment No. 69 is slightly different. Anybody who has had dealings with UK Visas and the IND will know that they are subject to interminable delays. I am dealing with a number of constituents whose visa applications were approved last September. We are now in March and they are waiting for their families to visit, but the visas have still not been issued. The Government now seek to introduce a biometric visa necessitating the collection of more data. However, we not yet had any details as to how the data will be collected at the different posts and how long it will take to process that information. Since the Minister switched from dealing with the police to looking after immigration, I know that he has been charged by the Home Secretary with sorting out the IND. I put it to him that accepting amendment No. 69 would give him a perfect opportunity to put his money where his mouth is, because it would require him to set out very clear time scales and deadlines for biometric visas.
UK passports were mentioned when the hon. Member for Peterborough raised the Government’s record on IT. When passports were introduced, they were issued on schedule to tight deadlines. We want our borders to be secure, and we have no objection to the use of biometric data. My huge concern about the process, however, which I expressed on Second Reading, is what the Government propose to put in place to ensure a smooth and seamless transition at the various posts, particularly those that are not busy.
We already deal with a six-month backlog in issuing the family visa. That is not just for complicated requests, but for routine ones where an extended family wants to attend a wedding or come over for a religious celebration. My big concern is that if we are to have a new system in place that requires the collection of more data, we will want to ensure that those data are collected alongside the interview that takes place at the high commission and that there are strict time scales to ensure that the information is processed.
I hope that the Minister can now reassure us that, in the new world of biometric visas, we will see a dramatic improvement in the visa-issuing service. In accepting amendment No. 69, he would have an ideal opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to ensuring that the IND is sorted out, that visas are issued speedily and securely, and that people have a guarantee. If he is going to double the cost of some visas—I know that we will discuss that next week—we should certainly have some reassurance that the level of service will dramatically improve.
I have a great degree of sympathy with the two amendments that the hon. Gentleman has tabled, although I confess to having had some black and hollow laughter at one proposed paragraph in amendment No. 69, to the effect that the Secretary of State should guarantee a
“minimum level of service that visa applicants could expect from UK Visas”.
I am afraid I suspect that many who have been at the other end of that service would share in that laughter, which gives rise to the thought that we often appear to be in a paradoxical and unhelpful situation in which the Government cannot keep out those who should not be here and cannot let in those who should be. That is the experience of many, and particularly those from minority communities who come here for family weddings, as the hon. Gentleman just mentioned. That appears to be a very difficult thing for some of our posts to achieve and it causes quite a lot of distress.
I want principally to speak to the three amendments standing in my name, amendments Nos. 50, 51 and 52, each of which is designed to make the procedure more transparent and to allow greater public involvement in the process at every stage, both while the regulations are being made and afterwards. Amendment No. 51 would require the Government to publish the code used by authorised persons who collect data under clause 5. As we have said many times, we know that this is such a sensitive area that people hold two views that are simultaneous if not conflicting: they want the system to be robust and tough or firm and fair, but they want those going through it to be treated fairly as well. The system fails on both counts too often at present.
We are arguing for a code of practice that I suspect would be of huge value to the designated immigration officers themselves, who would be beginning to exercise their new powers in what are uncharted waters. A good code of practice that they knew had public support and which had been arrived at after discussion with all interested parties would help them by offering guidance. It would also offer them protection; they would know what they were expected to be doing. That would help them, since we all agree that these officers are being asked to do a difficult job.
In laying the draft before Parliament and the public, the Government will be accountable for their actions, with all those interested parties knowing what they can expect to happen under these new practices. It would also be interesting to know what constitutes good practice in the mind of the Government.
I have not sought to be either as prescriptive or as ambitious as the hon. Member for Rochdale regarding specific minimum standards of performance, but it would be useful for the Government to publish what they regard as a proper code. Amendment No. 50 states that the Secretary of State must publish proposals, consult and lay a draft before Parliament. That would allow a proper public debate on what it is reasonable for the Government to demand of those required to carry biometric documents.
We have all agreed that we are talking about the collection of vast amounts of personal data and about the power of the state to impose some documents on people and confiscate other documents. It is proper that these important proposals are fully debated in public and in Parliament, and not simply left to the statutory instrument process, in which the power to amend is much less significant. If the Minister is confident in his case, he will welcome a public debate.
Amendment No. 52 would require the Secretary of State to publish a report to Parliament on the operation of measures
“not more than 12 months after the commencement of the provisions”.
As has been made clear, far too often, particularly in this field, we pass legislation that has less effect than Ministers promise and—I suspect—expect, because it is not used by the enforcement agencies.
It would be extremely useful and in accordance with good practice for the House to revisit legislation systematically in order to find out whether it is making any difference in the world outside this place, and if so whether that difference is positive or negative. I commend that to the Minister as an innovation that could spread to other areas. On the matter before us, there are considerable public concerns about the measures and sweeping powers that the Government have taken. Parliament can reasonably expect to be informed on a regular basis of how the system is operating, what is working and what needs to be changed.
Common sense suggests that not everything will work perfectly from the start. As I said, that is a general truth about legislation and parliamentary scrutiny, and particularly about Home Office legislation and legislation affecting the immigration department. It is also particularly true with the combination of the immigration department and large-scale IT projects. One could not pick criteria requiring more scrutiny not just before and during the process, but afterwards. History and experience tell us that that is when things tend to go wrong.
I should not be unkind to the Home Office, because it is not alone in this. One thinks of the Rural Payments Agency and the national health service IT systems. Throughout the public sector there are IT disasters, but the Home Office seems to attract more than its fair share. The three amendments standing in my name would allow both Parliament and the public much greater scrutiny before, during and after the passage of the legislation and lead to much better implementation of the clause.
I have been moved to intervene very briefly by the contribution of the hon. Member for Rochdale, not so much to disagree with him or to dissent from his amendments, but to sound a word of caution. At the same time, I add my support for the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and for the spirit of his call for transparency.
On the subject of visa issuing, I give a word of warning to the Liberal Democrats: they should not lose sight of the other end of the equation and the vital importance of immigration control to this country and the role played by those who issue visas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Perhaps I might regret it when he continues but we shall see.
I made a very specific reference in my remarks—and the hon. Member for Ashford supported me—about the routine issuing of visas for family weddings. It takes UK Visas an interminable time to get a simple visa sorted. I am not talking about the difficult cases; I deal with those as well. Does he not consider that, in the case of an established family over here and an extended family in another country wanting to visit, if it cannot set reasonable time limits for issuing a visa, it should not really be in business?
I can see the white flag being hauled halfway up the mast. I have not even mentioned family weddings. I was not going to mention them, and that was not going to be the nature of the caution I gave to the hon. Gentleman. I was just going to use a gentle word of caution to draw his attention to the pressures that exist in the field of visas—the huge demand for visas to come to this country from certain other countries and the pressures under which immigration staff are working. I support those staff, because I believe in immigration control. I think immigration control is extremely important to this country, and if it does not work—it is the first line of defence—we are then presented with the problem of illegal immigration, which the Government have said that they are trying to address today. This issue has tremendous consequences for people in this country in terms of population growth and also in terms of all the expense and the legal problems that we face in trying to remove people who are in this country when they should not be.
Let me reiterate what the hon. Member for Monmouth said, which is that we have a problem at the moment with not letting in the right people and letting in the wrong people. That is the crux of the matter. We need to get that right.
The word of caution I will addressto the hon. Gentleman is that he should not underestimate the pressures that visa operations face. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I visited Nigeria and Ghana last year. From Nigeria alone there are more than 250,000 visa applications to come to this country every year. It is very important that some of those applications are granted, but it would be naïve not to realize that there is also at the same time in Nigeria a huge problem with people applying to come to this country on forged documents and people who simply should not be coming here at all.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point and he makes it very well. During his visit to Nigeria, did entry clearance officers brief him on the refusal rate of visas against applications made in Nigeria?
They probably did, as they are very conscientious, and it may be that the figure has slipped my mind. It would not come as a surprise to me on the basis of my overall visit to learn that there was quite a high refusal rate. It is also important, however, that some people from Nigeria do come to this country—something I shall deal with in a minute.
The hon. Gentleman is extremely kind. Would he be surprised to learn that in some categories the refusal rate can hit as high as 80 per cent.?
I am not surprised by that, and I give the Committee one figure that the Home Affairs Committee quoted in its report. It is one example of the sort of thing the hon. Member for Rochdale needs to think about very carefully. We were told of just one university in this country which received 2,500 applications from Nigeria for its foundation course. Of those applications, 1,250 were accepted by the university. We do not know exactly how many of those people received a visa to come to the United Kingdom, but I understand that quite a number did so, and that out of those who had applied and received a visa, five arrived at the university to undertake the course.
That is an illustration of the pressures that we are up against. At the same time I add that it is very important for properly qualified and properly motivated people to come from Nigeria to study at courses in universities in this country. These are people who intend to return to Nigeria at the end of their courses and intend to carry out the courses properly and to follow the terms of their leave properly. That is very important, for example, in the field of law, where this country has a strong connection with Nigeria. A very high number of people in the Nigerian high courts have been trained in the United Kingdom. I do not want to go too far down that route, but I hope that I have illustrated some of the problems.
In conclusion, I ask the hon. Member for Rochdale to remember that the visa system is the first line of defence in immigration control. If that line of defence is breached, we must go to all the lengths that the Government have outlined today in the Home Secretary’s crackdown on illegal immigration, which I shall have some more to say about later. However, it ill behoves the Liberal Democrats to appear in the media, as their spokesman did today, complaining that that crackdown was not sufficiently effective when the first line of defence is being undermined and potential illegal immigrants are being allowed into the country.
That is my contribution in support of my Front-Bench team and to remind the Liberal Democrats of the importance of immigration control for UK citizens and for other people who genuinely want to come to this country for proper reasons.
I am pleased to be able to follow the hon. Gentleman, because the argument that he is making is absolutely right. In this era of global movement, it is no longer possible to sustain a notion that our frontier controls are in fixed points around the British isles, with immigration staff reliant on a paper-based process. We need a different concept of the frontier, in which the frontier controls begin abroad; we need to offshore those controls. That is precisely why the programme of biometric visas is so important.
You missed my interesting fact this morning, Mr. Amess, when I told the Committee that we have introduced the process of issuing biometric visas in just a few posts overseas and already we have found that about 2,000 people with what I shall call an adverse immigration history were trying to come back into the UK, possibly under a different identity. That is why biometric visas are so important, and will continue to be in the future, and why it is a matter of such regret that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden proposes to cancel the contract for them.
On the issue of biometric visas and immigration documents, which the hon. Member for Rochdale addressed, I wanted to clarify one matter and I hope that it will give him some reassurance; biometric immigration documents will, of course, not be issued by UK Visas. UK Visas will only issue visas. Biometric immigration documents will be for those people who are staying in the country for a certain period of time. That is an important point of clarification.
Approximately three-quarters of the world’s population need a visa to come here and from 2008 that will be a biometric visa, even if someone wants to come to Britain for a single day. If anyone from the 169 non-EEA countries wants to come to work, or study, or to stay for longer than six months, they will also need a biometric visa. However, the current proposal is that if people are staying for longer than six months, they will need a biometric immigration document. There are debates as to whether to bring that limit of six months down to three months and we will have further proposals on that matter to lay before the House in the months to come.
The proposal is that those who are staying in Britain for longer than six months should be required to have a biometric immigration document. There is a secondary question, which is relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and that is the question of those countries where we seek to extend a visa regime. Currently, I am not completely convinced that the right countries around the world have a visa requirement imposed on them. Some countries, such as America and Australia, with which we have very strong relationships, have extremely robust processes for issuing documentation, and therefore have systems that are sufficiently robust for us not to require their citizens to have a visa. However, there are other parts of the world where that is not the case.
There is a debate in Europe about whether the ceiling in European regulations should move from six months to three months. We will have more to say on that in due course.
Before the hon. Member for Ashford rises, I should like to clarify the issue raised by the interesting Daily Mail article. It is important for me to point out that electronic passports are designed to be read at border controls as well as abroad. Once public access readers are available, people will be able to read the passport chip. Any attempts to modify the chip would be detected at a border control point and the individual concerned would be rapidly diverted to a secondary line for further conversations.
If the Minister believes that, I hope that he is right, but that is not the experience of those who were modifying the chip. I am fascinated by the figure that he has now repeated twice—that three quarters of the world’s population will require a biometric visa. Is he saying that for as far ahead as he can see, a quarter of the world’s population, which is 1.5 billion people, will not be required to have a biometric visa?
I am happy to clarify that point. It is not that three quarters of the world’s population will require a biometric visa at some point in the future, it is that they require a visa today. From 2008, all visa posts will issue biometric visas. There is a requirement for the remaining quarter of the world’s population to secure a visa if they are coming to work, study or stay for longer than six months.
How Britain keeps under review the issue of whether visa requirements are imposed on the right countries is an open question. All sorts of considerations have to be taken into account, some of which were raised by the hon. Member for Monmouth, who mentioned the closeness of our links to the country concerned, the strength of its security controls and the economic impact of the relationship. We will have more to say about that issue, which I realise is not subject to the amendment, in the months to come. The key point is that biometric visas would cease to be issued if the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden got his hands on the contract book, because he would close down that system.
The purpose of many of the amendments is quite rightly to secure a much greater degree of transparency in the way in which regulations are drafted and codes of practice developed. We want the flexibility to keep the regulations up to date, because security features that we want to bring online might be added to the national security scheme, for example. We might add to the categories of information that we collect; we have talked at length about new categories of leave to remain, such as that for ministers of religion, and we have highlighted the importance of certain categories of information, such as whether people are married and therefore eligible for spouse visas. That flexibility is important.
I do not think that any member of the Committee would want a situation in which people were here without leave and were not required to keep their documents up to date so that it was clear whether they had a right to be here. There is rightly concern about the level of performance throughout the IND’s operations, which was at the heart of what the hon. Member for Rochdale said.
In other countries, our entry clearance officers work in some pretty difficult and often quite dangerous circumstances, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere said. They do the job well and provide a service that is extremely good internationally. That said, is it good enough? No, it is not. Does it need to be better? Yes, it does. Does there need to be greater transparency? Yes, of course there must be. That is why I propose to bring forward amendments, which I hope to table this afternoon, that will set out in some depth the kind of functions that a new, stronger, more powerful regulator would provide. That would include an investigation into whether the IND is operating effectively in accordance with race relations regulations and whether there is consistency in the quality of its operations. Is there consistency in how it is following the rules in its enforcement operations? That is particularly relevant to this morning’s debate. I do not propose that the regulator would produce reports that it kept secret or submitted only to the Secretary of State, as it is vital that Parliament can scrutinise the reports to see whether the service is improving. I have said on the record many times that it is important that communities throughout the country have a chance to see how the immigration service is doing where they live, and the regulator should help with that target.
The Bill states that the Secretary of State may issue codes of practice that require authorised persons to have regard to them. That is important; it is expressed in that way because we want to undertake a thorough exploration of whether existing codes provide the best means of securing the ends that Opposition Members rightly seek. Those codes are most likely to be the Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes issued in 1984, which are rightly regarded as something of a gold standard and encompass processes that would include taking biometric information. They would set out the processes that are involved and they are tried and tested, well recognised and probably the right basis for the codes that the Secretary of State would issue to guide authorised persons in the work that they do in this respect.
I am grateful to the Minister for his agreement to table amendments on the important role of the regulator. To respond to the hon. Member for Hertsmere, I do not seek to weaken or downgrade the immigration system; we are discussing how to strengthen it. However, we do not want a system that is already struggling under the weight of what it has to deal with to get worse, which has happened on many occasions when there have been changes as a result of new legislation.
I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the regulator will have all-encompassing powers and will consider how the system is introduced, because we want it to work. The most disastrous thing that could happen to hon. Members is that we introduce into a system where there is already delay because of the sheer volume of work something that causes even further delays and makes it impossible for anyone going about their legitimate business to get a visa.
I was a bit disappointed, however, as I thought that the Minister this morning agreed with his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, that he would change “may” to “shall”, which is important as we need to see the regulations. There have been occasions in the past—admittedly, not while the hon. Gentleman has been the immigration Minister—when promised legislation or guidelines for the operation of immigration officers, for example, have not been published. We agree with the increase in powers but we want them to be published.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on what I have said, because we want the system to work and we want everyone to be confident that everything is in place to make it a success. “Shall” rather than “may” will give us that certainty. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(3A) Regulations under subsection (1)(b) may, in particular, require the production or other use of a biometric immigration document that is combined with another document; andsection 16 of the Identity Cards Act 2006 (c. 15) (prohibition of requirement to produce ID card) is subject to this subsection.’.
Our debate this morning gave me the opportunity to clarify the fact that despite many of the concerns legitimately expressed by Opposition Members I do not have the ambition of equipping the Secretary of State for the Home Department with unfettered powers to compel anyone he likes to acquire an identity card, or with the power to solicit all kinds of unnecessary information. I take a far more cautious approach to the Bill than perhaps hon. Members will accept. They are perfectly right to be sceptical.
We want to issue biometric immigration documents to help those who are here legitimately to prove their immigration status and their entitlements. As I have said several times in these debates, my ambition is to phase out 20th century paper-based documents, which are too insecure, too many in number and provide too many opportunities for fraud. I want to make it much easier for businesses and public services to check a single document and to check it securely. It should put people’s identity beyond doubt and provide an easy way for them to prove who they are and what they are entitled to do.
I have also made it very clear that when the national identity system comes on line it will be our ambition to designate these cards under the terms of the Identity Cards Act 2006. The Committee might find it useful if I sketch out a little bit of the background that is relevant in the Act. Under section 16 there is a prohibition on anyone being required to produce an ID card as the only means of identity, save in three exceptions. The first is where there is a reasonable alternative; the second is where we have introduced compulsory registration; and the third is where we have made additional provisions under another enactment, such as Acts subsequent to the 2006 Act.
It may strike all reasonable members of the Committee as perfectly obvious that the UK Borders Bill is a reasonable enactment and therefore satisfies section 16 of the 2006 Act. But advisers have suggested that there is the merest shadow of a doubt, which I seek to eliminate with the amendment. I want to put it beyond question that once biometric immigration documents are designated, we can require this card and nothing else to be produced. Before designation, regulations will set out where they can be produced, such as to employers, and we would want that situation to carry on after designation.
We need to ensure that section 16 of the 2006 Act does not take us backwards once these cards have been designated under the terms of that Act. I do not believe that it does, but I want to put the question beyond doubt with this amendment. This does not take away any of the protections in section 16 that an individual cannot be required to produce a card for a non-immigration purpose where the immigration status is not relevant, such as opening a bank account. A person could not be required to produce an ID card in that situation. If he wanted to work in a bank, that would be a different matter because his immigration status would be directly relevant. That is the long and short of this amendment. It is a technical and cautious amendment which seeks to put quite a small question beyond all reasonable doubt.
I rise briefly, because I feel encouraged by the Minister’s words that he does not believe that this is necessary but that there is the shadow of a prospect that it may be necessary to provide protection for people. That is laudable and I merely commend that approach to him on other parts of the Bill. We heard this morning that he would take new clause 1 away to think about it. I urge him to adopt the same process with that, because it has a similar ring to it as the problems that he is trying to avoid with this amendment.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 61, in clause 6, page 4, line 33, leave out subsection (3).
No. 79, in clause 6, page 4, line 36, leave out from ‘regulations’ to end of line 37 and insert
‘may permit only the use of iris data.’.
The two amendments in my name, amendments Nos. 60 and 61, are probing amendments on the application of regulations under the clause to children. It is clearly one of the most sensitive matters for debate, and since Labour Members regrettably chose to snub the Refugee Children’s Consortium and refused to hear its evidence, it is important that we show—
On a point of order, Mr. Amess. Isit still within the gift of Committee members, particularly Back-Bench Committee members, to table amendments that would allow further witnesses to be summoned to give evidence?
The last time I looked, I was not the Minister. [Hon. Members: “Shame.”] If things changed, I would be delighted. I am always delighted to talk to the Refugee Children’s Consortium. Indeed I, all my hon. Friends on the Committee and the hon. Member for Rochdale voted to hear from it, and I assume that the Minister’s point of order means that he regrets the action that he and his colleagues took last week.
In which case the Minister’s repentance is sadly too late. It is wholly welcome, but unfortunately his attempt to do something about it will be stopped by procedure, which is regrettable.
“Biometric immigration documents will be issued to under-16s as proof of their immigration status, and they will contain a facial image.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 676.]
He went on to say that he was still considering at what age the requirement of fingerprints would apply. Will he clarify the position on that?
The Refugee Children’s Consortium tells me that the EU is examining how to ensure a consistent approach to the use of biometric identifiers and considering the setting of a minimum age for the recording and storing of facial images and fingerprints. The Minister will no doubt be involved in those discussions, so will he clarify where we have got to on that? He will be aware of a study in the Netherlands that concluded:
“The facial changes taking place up to the age of 12 are so marked that face recognition is not possible without highly sophisticated software and the considerable expense which goes with it”.
On fingerprints the same document stated:
“Scientific tests have confirmed that the papillary ridges on the fingers are not sufficiently developed to allow biometric capture and analysis until the age of six.”
It is clear that, in purely practical terms, there are different ages at which it would be sensible to take biometric information from children, and that different biometrics require different ages.
The EU document proposes that for children aged 0 to 12, the member state should decide on storage in the chip of the passport on the basis of national legislation, but that from the age of 12 it should be compulsory. I am sure that members of the Committee would find it useful if the Minister gave his thoughts on that EU proposal and whether the Government intend to support it or bring it into our own national law in some other way. I should be grateful if he would do that.
Would the Minister also tell the Committee the cost of the software needed to calculate age-related changes in biometric information, and set out the frequency of registration to which under-18s would be subject for the purposes of maintaining a biometric immigration document or eventually, if he has his way, identity card? The regulatory impact assessment for the Bill states that one of the key benefits of the power for the compulsory registration of biometric details of third-country nationals is to
“Align with the wider National Identity Scheme to ensure that there are no gaps in the system”.
However, as the clauses are drafted, there is an inconsistency in relation to the biometric identification of children. The 2006 Act applies to UK nationals aged 16 and over, but the Government intend biometric immigration documents to be issued to under-16s. There is clearly some inconsistency, so I should be grateful if the Minister would clear that up.
My concern is not just with practical matters but with moral issues. There is a wider point regarding the compatibility of the Government’s proposals with our international obligations, in particular with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. The Refugee Children’s Consortium argues that extending any provisions on biometric registration documents to under-18s may well conflict with article 16 of that convention. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister were to let the Committee know why he thinks that that is not true—I assume that that is his view; otherwise, he would not be proposing this legislation.
I did not quite follow that last point. Would the hon. Gentleman rehearse his argument once again for my benefit? I want to ensure that my response is as full as possible.
The argument about the UN convention is that any extension of provision for biometric information to under-18s may conflict with article 16, which provides children with the right to respect for their private and family life without unlawful interference. The argument of the Refugee Children’s Consortium is that without the full details of how the Government plan to use such a registration scheme, it is not possible to determine whether its application to under-18s would be in accordance with their rights under article 16. I assume that the Minister does not propose to breach the convention, so I should be interested in his comments as to why he thinks that those fears are unfounded. Clearly, the degree of vagueness surrounding various clauses in the Bill, particularly this one, gives rise to such fears.
A raft of issues, practical and moral, and in relation to our international treaty obligations, requires serious debate by this Committee.
I support what the hon. Gentleman has said about the clauses and amendment No. 79, which is a variant to be used if the Government are not prepared to consider withdrawing the use of biometrics for young people. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was disappointed that we were not able to hear from the Refugee Children’s Consortium. We have serious questions about how these clauses and the later one requiring people to report will affect the rights of children.
I should like to refer the Minister to the remarks of his colleague in the Lords, Baroness Scotland, which have been quoted by the Refugee Children’s Consortium. During the debate on the Identity Cards Bill, she stated that the Government had
“no immediate plans to reduce the age below 16 as the cost of doing so outweighs any benefits that may arise. This is due to the fact that children have unstable biometrics which would result in them frequently having to re-register.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 November 2005; Vol. 675, c. 1681.]
During this debate, we have been saying that we want a system that works and is robust and fair, but clearly there is a problem with children’s biometrics changing with time. A Minister said that we will not require UK children below the age of 16 to have an ID card because they have unstable biometrics, despite the fact that ID cards obviously will apply to people in the UK. It seems reasonable, therefore, that we apply the same criteria elsewhere. The hon. Member for Ashford spoke about human rights and treating people fairly and equally. If we will not require children below the age of 16 from the UK to register for biometrics, we cannot impose such regulations on children coming to this country. There is a question, therefore, about whether their human rights would be breached.
That is the argument that the hon. Member for Ashford makes against registering the biometrics for children below that age. If the Government are not prepared to accept his argument, they could consider my alternative amendment, which is based on evidence given by the Professor on biometrics—these evidence sessions are useful. I understand the problems with rejection rates, particularly among black people and other ethnic minorities, but it was stated clearly that iris data do not change, but remain stable from the day that somebody is born.
I tabled my amendment to help the Government, to whom I put it that if they are not prepared to take on board the comments made by the hon. Member for Ashford and to abandon their proposal for children, they could consider the use of iris data only. If facial and fingerprint data are going to change and become unstable, it will make a mockery of the system. We want a fair and robust system that will not be subject to ridicule because part of it does not work. On the basis of what Baroness Scotland said, a case could be made for the Government to reconsider where they stand on that proposal.
Perhaps I can deal with the question about the UN convention on the rights of the child. Article 16 does indeed include the right to respect for private life. Under article 8 of the European convention on human rights we are obliged already to respect that right. I could not quite keep up with the debate among Opposition Members and cannot recall whether their position is to derogate from the ECHR. However, as long as the ECHR is incorporated into UK law under the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government are obliged to respect the private lives of children. It would be interesting to have that debate with the Refugee Children’s Consortium. I can imagine what it would say about derogating from the ECHR.
I can assure the hon. Member for Ashford, however, that biometrics will be used only in a way that is necessary for the maintenance of immigration control. Of course, when EU regulations on biometric cards come into force—as we discussed this morning, there are proposals for biometric resident permits—it is inconceivable that they would be incompatible with ECHR obligations.
In response to the amendments, children below the age of 18, if not British citizens, are subject to immigration control. I think that all members of the Committee will agree that that is very sensible. We would not want to grant amnesties or to end immigration control for those below the age of 18. I suspect that, if we were to take such a step, we would start to see pretty rapid build-ups of people arriving at our border controls pretending that they were under the age of 18. Last week I launched a consultation document about, for example, introducing tougher checks on people’s ages. If children under the age of 18 come to this country and claim asylum, it is important that we know genuinely how old they are, so that we avoid the risk of having adults in the children’s system or, indeed, of having children in the adults’ system.
We should not end immigration control for those under 18. Doing so would be a serious pull factor, which would encourage illegal immigration to this country. I fear that it would also be a green light for traffickers and smugglers. Therefore, the maintenance of robust immigration control for the under-18s is important, so that we do not set up any perverse incentives in the system.
Does the Minister accept that nobody on our side, certainly during this debate, has sought either an amnesty or to have anything other than robust systems in place? Our concern is that the proposals are not robust and, therefore, could lead the system into disrepute.
I am grateful for the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I am slightly warier about the second. If he is suggesting that the most robust system for immigration control is the current system of immigration controls or, indeed, the very philosophyof frontier control—outlined earlier by the hon. Gentleman—which has a static point at a border where people offer various bits of paper to the immigration officer standing at a desk, then I would humbly beg to differ. I am glad that we are united in wanting immigration controls to persist for the under-18s; I am saddened that we differ about the best means of securing such immigration control in the future.
A few months ago—I think before Christmas—I was interested to note on the Liberal Democrats website a response to one of the hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Rochdale, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander). I was excited to see that the Liberal Democrats had come to full support for the use of biometric information in passports. That is a very welcome advance. That is a sensible recognition that the use of biometrics in immigration documents is important. I want to extend that principle to the immigration control documents that we use for those foreign nationals under 18 in this country, subject to all the protections that we talked about in the ECHR and other international agreements. We currently take biometrics of foreign nationals under the age of 16; indeed, biometric visas must be taken up by everybody over the age of five. There is a debate among the experts—currently going on over EC regulations—about whether the right age for introducing biometric resident permits should be five or six. Obviously—in a way this is my direct answer to the hon. Member for Ashford—our provisions will be in line with that EC regulation; whether the age will be five or six I am not yet in a position to say.
The hon. Member for Ashford also raised the question whether there was an inconsistency between the sort of debate that we had over the national identity scheme, to which the hon. Member for Rochdale alluded, and biometric immigration documents. The tension is resolved with the answer that we will not be designating biometric immigration documents under the terms of the national identity scheme if the card holder is under the age of 16. However, it is important that immigration control is retained for those under 18 and that the most secure possible documentation is used; if it is good enough for biometric passports, I think it is good enough for biometric immigration documents for foreign nationals. With that clarification on the record, I hope that hon. Members will feel able to withdraw the amendments.
My amendment is slightly different from those of the hon. Member for Ashford, so I am being consistent with what my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said. We are in favour of the use of biometric data, and in my amendment I have suggested the use of the iris, which at least does not change with time. Will the Minister respond to that?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right not to let me sit down before answering that question, which I apologise for not picking up in my earlier remarks. My concern with eliminating the capture of all biometric information save for the iris is that it will be some time yet before we can have tried, tested and robust systems in place so as to make iris capture possible all over the world.
We should remember that because we have a created a unity of systems, the system that we have—one which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden would shut down—would be the one underpinning biometric visas. So, the biometric information captured on that system when people apply for such a visa can conveniently be reused for biometric immigration documents should people secure, in-country, their leave to remain for more than six months. That saves them from going through the rigmarole of applying for it again.
Now, if we were taking the approach that the hon. Member for Rochdale sets out, we would have to introduce iris capture technology in countries covering three quarters of the world’s population. That is a big task, which would delay the opportunity to introduce biometric immigration documents at the speed that we could do that. So, while I have no problem with a future that includes the capture of iris data, my concern is: how do we move quickly now, to render immigration documents for foreign nationals more secure? The Liberal Democrat position is that biometric information can make the difference, and I agree. We should implement it for immigration documents for those who are over 18, and under 18 as soon as possible.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. In the context of the comments made by the hon. Member for Rochdale, would he not agree—against the contexts of comments made by other Committee members about the difficulties that could be encountered with large-scale information technology solutions—that rushing too quickly to a more complex biometric, such as iris, could be a mistake in terms of achieving platform stability and effectiveness as soon as possible? That is so, even though it would give us the long-term confidence that we all seek.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a good point extremely well. I would fear any proposal that puts off into the distant future the opportunity to secure better immigration documents, whether that is for over-18s or under-18s.
Does the Minister not accept that we heard about the use of biometric iris data in, for example, the United Arab Emirates when we were viewing evidence? If I travel down here by plane from Manchester—I do not usually do that, but if I care to do it—then at Manchester Airport there is a camera taking my iris data. The system and technology is there; it works, and experts have told us that it is accurate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out Project Iris, which is certainly the fastest-growing trusted traveller scheme in western Europe, and possibly in the world. It is extremely successful and an example of an IT project that is, by and large, working. However, it is currently constructed only as a trial, so I return to this point: perhaps I did not study the Liberal Democrats’ website closely enough—indeed, some of the font is quite small—but I cannot remember seeing a proposal to introduce iris-only passports. The hon. Gentleman will be able to correct me if I am wrong, but I think that it was termed more widely than that and posed in terms of biometric capture.
My own view is that biometric information in an immigration document is an advance on the securityof paper-based documents. These systems will be important in rendering more control of immigration documents and will make immigration control easier, not harder. The sooner we get on with securing them, the faster we will render our borders as secure as the British public demand and deserve.
I should like to make a few brief remarks in response to the Minister. I thought that the last 10 minutes clarified quite a lot. This Committee has been told by its expert witnesses that iris technology is better than fingerprint technology. The Minister cannot give any kind of time scale for introducing the better of the two main biometric recognitions, but is prepared to go ahead with one which we have been told will create huge numbers of false results. I am storing this away for some years hence when those results start coming in. Indeed, if the professor who gave evidence is right, and the accuracy levels are at his calculation and not at the calculation of the Metropolitan police, the system will be swamped. I am sure that the Minister hopes that the professor is wrong and that the Met is right about that.
Even so, the issue gives rise to the prospect that if the Minister has his way, we will introduce a very expensive, all-embracing fingerprint system and then have to replace it some years later with an even more expensive all-embracing iris recognition system, because we will discover that it is not accurate enough. One of the debates that he and I have had recently is about the Government’s latest guess in their rising set of guesses as to how much the whole thing will cost, which is £6 billion. Others have estimated that it will cost up to £20 billion. The evidence that we have heard from the Minister over the past 15 minutes has made me even more convinced that the higher figure will be the real figure, not the lower one.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is being very generous. When more robust technology becomes commercially available over the years and decades to come, surely he would agree that we should exploit it, wherever practical, to render our borders more secure, rather than blindly cancel contracts, which will render us defenceless against tackling illegal immigration in the future.
The basic false premise at the heart of the Minister’s whole argument, but particularly that argument, is that it will make our borders more secure. If he is introducing a biometric system that we have been told will create huge numbers of wrong results, he will not be making our borders more secure. He will just end up accusing large numbers of innocent people of offences they have not committed, about which there will be much public outrage, and he will let through large numbers of people whom he should be stopping.
Effectively, the situation will be just the same as it is now, where the right people are sent away unnecessarily and the wrong people are let through. The only difference will be that the Minister will have wasted billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money achieving the same rotten result that we have at the moment. I am afraid that that does not give me any great confidence about the long term.
As I said in my introductory remarks on the amendments, I was seeking to probe the Minister’s attitude on the practical and international issues involved. He has addressed all those individual issues very fully and very enlighteningly. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.