HL Deb 04 July 2003 vol 650 cc1193-8

2.3 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this statutory instrument is made in exercise of the powers conferred on the Secretary of State by Section 126 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Section 126 enables the Secretary of State, by the making of regulations, to require that an immigration application be accompanied by physical data of an external characteristic. The regulations require that those applying for entry clearance in Sri Lanka will have to provide a record of their fingerprints when making their application. That requirement will be underpinned in practice by the collection of fingerprint data at post in Sri Lanka.

It is right that we now examine the benefits that can he derived from the collection of physical data from individuals who apply for entry clearance. To do that we propose to run a pilot exercise in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during which all entry clearance applications must be accompanied by a record of the fingerprints of the person making the application. The requirement will be fulfilled by the applicant having their fingerprints taken by a member of staff at the British Mission in Colombo. Only fingerprints taken at the British Mission will be acceptable because otherwise it will be not be possible to verify that the fingerprints provided are those of the applicant. Once the fingerprints have been collected they will be given a unique serial number and this number will be inserted on the visa application form so as to form a record of the fingerprints on the application. This record will allow copies of the applicant′s fingerprints to be accessed easily at a later date if necessary. The pilot will initially run for six months during which time applicants applying for entry clearance, regardless of nationality, will be expected to provide the required fingerprint data.

In common with many other governments, we consider that physical data of this kind, including fingerprints, iris or facial recognition, provide the only certain way to confirm a person′s identity. The collection of fingerprints allows a person to be linked to an identity once their details have been registered. That will aid us in our efforts to prevent document and identity fraud in the immigration field. It is essential that we embrace that technology and utilise it to ensure that those who have an entitlement to enter this country can do so without hindrance, but those who seek to circumvent our controls are prevented from doing so.

We have built into the regulations safeguards, equivalent to those that apply when taking fingerprints in the UK, for any applicant who is under 16 years of age. In all cases where a person under 16 years seeks to make an application, they will only have their fingerprints taken in the presence of a responsible adult who is over 18 years and not employed by the government.

It is intended that the fingerprint records collected in Colombo will be added to the Immigration and Asylum Fingerprint System database. That will allow for the identification of any visa applicant who subsequently makes either an asylum or immigration application in a different identity. That in turn will help establish the nationality of those who no longer have a basis on which to remain in the UK, and so aid with securing their removal. In common with other fingerprints collected in respect of immigration and asylum applications, data will be shared with the police and other law enforcement agencies in the prevention or investigation of crime. All such exchanges will be in compliance with the relevant data protection provisions.

The regulation provides that any application not accompanied by the required data may be treated as invalid, without a right of appeal. It is anticipated that the majority of applications that are not accompanied by a record of fingerprints will be treated as invalid. However, there will inevitably be exceptions, including applicants who because of physical disability or injury cannot provide fingerprints. This system will be operated in a reasonable way to limit the impact on applicants.

We have selected Sri Lanka in which to base this pilot as Sri Lankan nationals continue to make significant numbers of unfounded asylum applications, and to use false identities in the process. From a practical perspective we also have a substantial visa issuing post in Colombo that was able to accommodate the not inconsiderable upheaval that this pilot will inevitably involve. Finally, but not least, we have excellent relations with the Sri Lankan Government who have been co-operative and supportive as we develop this imaginative initiative. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords. I thank the Minister for that explanation. I make it clear from the beginning that we support the making of the regulations. However, I have one or two questions. I should perhaps add that the Minister has already satisfied me on probably the most significant of those. It is right that we should take all reasonable measures to ensure that persons given permission to enter the United Kingdom are indeed who they say they are. I was therefore pleased to hear at the end of the Minister′s remarks an explanation of why the Government have lighted upon Sri Lanka. He said that there have been significant numbers of unfounded applications from that country. I am particularly pleased that the Government have received the co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government. That is the important aspect which we hope will make this pilot exercise work.

The Minister said that the pilot is expected to last six months. What will be the measure of the success of the pilot scheme at the end of the six months? On what basis will the Government decide that the scheme has been sufficiently successful to be rolled out elsewhere? Do the Government have in their eyesight any other areas which will be second, third and fourth on the list? If so, is the Minister able to give us any indication? I appreciate that that will depend on whether the Government have already begun speaking to other governments on these matters.

The Minister said that the fingerprints will be taken at the diplomatic mission and then transmitted to the United Kingdom. Will the fingerprints be taken by the new laser technology? One assumes so. If so, which electronic transmission system will be used and how secure will it be? The Minister will be aware that we have been discussing secure electronic communication systems in our consideration of other Home Office legislation such as the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill and the Extradition Bill and that it is a matter of some concern.

The Minister referred to Regulation 4 which provides safeguards in respect of the provision of a record of fingerprints. Paragraph (4) states: This regulation shall not apply if the authorised person reasonably believes that the applicant is aged sixteen or over". I am interested by the phrase "reasonably believes" and in how the person is to come to that reasonable belief. What kind of guidance will be given on how the decision regarding reasonable belief should be made, and by whom will it be given? What documentation is likely to be acceptable? I am sure that the Minister will understand that my concerns result from the fact that, as we know, there is a significant worldwide problem with the trafficking of children. We should always have that at the forefront of our minds in these matters.

I turn finally to the matter of costs. We are told in the Explanatory Notes that the cost of the pilot will be met from existing funds, but we are not given an estimate of the sum which will be swallowed up within the existing budget. What is the projected cost for what we are told is to include the deployment of equipment, the reconfiguration of offices and the additional staff that will be required?

Within the context of those questions I certainly support the regulations.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, we also have no objection in principle to the use of biometric data for the purpose of curbing the use of false identities to evade immigration controls. There are just a couple of questions that I should like to add to those that have been put to the Minister by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay.

The Minister has already explained why Sri Lanka has been chosen for the pilot study; he told your Lordships that it was because of the number of unfounded applications that came from persons living in Sri Lanka. However, there are many other countries with a much larger number of unfounded applications. Just glancing through the list of initial decisions on applications made in the first quarter of 2003, I see that, for example, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Iraq and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia accounted for larger numbers of refused applications than Sri Lanka. I take it that the second reason that he gave, the collaboration of the Sri Lankan authorities, is really the determining factor. In those other countries it might have been either physically difficult to arrange for fingerprinting—obviously you could not very well do it in Baghdad in current conditions—or simply more difficult to secure the collaboration of the authorities. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that in his concluding remarks.

Secondly, what is the estimated number of additional staff and the total cost in the six months that the pilot study will last? Thirdly, would not any person who makes an application and is fingerprinted realise that he could not then make another application using a different identity without being detected? I do not quite see how that works. The explanatory memorandum says that the identification of applicants who use a false identity is likely to enable the return to Sri Lanka of people who have no right to be in the United Kingdom. It would be useful if the Minister could give an example of how that would operate in practice. What is the scenario by which a person is detected? If a person applies in a second identity, presumably the attempted deception would be picked up in Colombo, not in the United Kingdom. So the authorities in Colombo would pinpoint the attempted deception and there would not be any increase in the number of people who would be removed from the United Kingdom as a result of false identities being detected in the country of origin.

The fingerprinting of Sri Lankans is said to be a pilot exercise. Can the Minister give an undertaking that before it is extended to other countries a full report is published on the number of fingerprints taken, how many are matched with those held at Croydon, how many applicants are caught using false identities and the cost of the whole exercise in practice as opposed to what is predicted?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for their questions which I shall attempt to answer. If I fail, I shall, of course, write to them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned the co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government. They were very co-operative. Noble Lords will note that I talked about Sri Lankans and all other nationals coming through Sri Lanka. If you are American and you apply in Colombo for a visa to come to Britain, you will have your fingerprints taken.

This is a pilot scheme. The future of identification lies with biometrics, whether it is iris, retina or fingerprint recognition. Many other countries are considering using this new technology as it develops.

This is simply a pilot scheme. Biometric data have great potential. We are exploring a variety of ways in which it can he realised. But the pilot in Colombo is just that—a pilot. We shall consider what benefits flow from the data, the practical aspects of its collection and the wider impact it has on the system once the pilot has finished. From that we shall determine what further use we can make of this new technology in the entrance clearing field.

I was asked about electronic transmission of data from Colombo to London. I can tell the noble Baroness that fingerprints will be gathered electronically. Data will be transferred electronically using the FCO′s secure communications system.

The noble Baroness asked how we determine the age of a child, particularly at a time when there is a great deal of trafficking of children. That is an extremely good question. I do not have an immediate answer but I shall write to the noble Baroness and give her as much information as I can.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that offer because naturally we shall discuss trafficking of children in other contexts. I am sure that whatever he says in his letter will he most helpful.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, finally, the budget for costs is £1 million but we expect them to be well under that figure once the pilot is completed.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked why Sri Lanka, when many other countries have many more illegal applicants seeking entry into Britain. First, the Sri Lankan Government have been very co-operative. Secondly, there is evidence that nationals other than Sri Lankans are using Colombo as a port of entry into the UK. The other very significant reason, which I mentioned in my opening remarks, is that Colombo has the staff and facilities to encompass the pilot scheme.

I am afraid that I am not in a position to give any undertaking about the results of the pilot scheme, and I explained to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that it is just that. Once we have the results, we will obviously consider them with great care. The underlying matter that must be highlighted is that, in the area of illegal entry into this country and many other countries, it is likely that biometrics will play an absolutely vital and central role in future.

On Question, Motion agreed to.