HL Deb 02 July 2004 vol 663 cc461-8

12.27 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10 June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committed.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should first apologise for my lateness in your Lordships' House.

The business before us is the draft Immigration (Provision of Physical Data) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2004, which are 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 specified information about an external characteristic or to enable an authorized person to require an entrant to provide information of that sort.

Two sets of regulations have already been made under the power. The Immigration (Provision of Physical Data) Regulations 2003 provided that an entry clearance application made in Sri Lanka was required to be accompanied by a record of the applicant's fingerprints. The Immigration (Provision of Physical Data) (Amendment) Regulations 2004 extended the requirement to entry clearance applicants in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Tanzania and Uganda and to those seeking leave to enter the UK who, upon doing so, present a 1951 refugee convention travel document issued by a country other than the UK.

The purpose of this statutory instrument is to extend the current regime to new categories of entry clearance applicant. The new provision will require those applying for entry clearance in Kenya and Rwanda to provide fingerprint data. When we debated the 2004 regulations, the Government explained that to ensure consistency with applications for entry clearance in east Africa we would seek to extend these powers to include Kenya, but could not do so at the time as we needed to carry out some work at the High Commission in Nairobi to make it suitable for the collection of fingerprints. I can advise your Lordships' House that we have nearly completed that work and so we will be in a position to collect fingerprints from visa applicants in Kenya from 1 September 2004.

Applications from Rwanda were considered by the British High Commission in Kampala, Uganda, as the numbers did not justify a separate entry clearance section in Kigali. A consequence of the 2004 regulations was that these applicants had to make the journey from Kigali to Kampala as their applications now had to be accompanied by a record of their fingerprints. By extending these provisions to Rwanda such a journey will no longer be necessary. This is a straightforward improvement to the service that can be quickly put into place and we will be able to implement this from 1 August. We also believe that this measure will supplement our wider efforts in east Africa to combat abuse of our immigration and asylum processes.

We are already getting encouraging results from Sri Lanka and the five east African countries covered by the 2004 regulations. Using the information collected under the 2003 and 2004 regulations is proving an effective way of revealing applicants who have sought to conceal an adverse immigration history from the entry clearance officer by using a false identity. The Government remain convinced that greater use of biometric technology will support efforts to prevent document and identity fraud. It will enable those who have an entitlement to enter the UK to do so without hindrance, while preventing those who seek to circumvent our controls from doing so. I fully appreciate that there will be concerns over proportionality and data protection but we consider that the extension to Kenya and Rwanda of the safeguards built into the regime established by the 2003 and 2004 regulations is adequate to address any such concerns.

These safeguards are designed to deal with the collection of data and its subsequent use. With regard to data collection, any applicant who is under 16 years of age will have his fingerprints taken only in the presence of a responsible adult who is over 18 years of age and not employed by the Government.

Turning to data usage, fingerprints collected in Kenya and Rwanda will be added to the immigration and asylum fingerprint system database. This will allow the identification of any visa applicant who subsequently makes an asylum or immigration application in a different identity. This in turn will help to establish the nationality of those who no longer have a basis on which to remain in the UK and assist 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. In terms of data retention, Regulations 7 and 8 of the 2003 regulations require these records to be retained for a maximum of 10 years, after which they are destroyed.

Any entry clearance application that is not accompanied by the necessary fingerprint data may be treated as invalid. There may be exceptions, including applicants who, because of physical disability or injury, cannot provide a record of their fingerprints. However, it is anticipated that the majority of applications that are not accompanied by a record of fingerprints will be treated as invalid. The consequence of an application being invalid is that the applicant will enjoy no right of appeal. The system will be operated in a reasonable way to limit the impact on applicants.

Because of the importance of these regulations and their value to detection, I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 10 June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, we on these Benches feel that it is important that the immigration system should be fair, work effectively and should not give rise to unnecessary abuse. So we support provisions that strengthen the system successfully but we need to ensure that the provisions do not cause unintended consequences and that they do not lack proportionality.

I recall that when the 2003 order, to which the Minister has referred, came to this House, the programme was merely a pilot scheme. It merged into a fully fledged existence earlier this year with a further order that extended the number of countries covered by five. I use the term "merged" advisedly because there seems to have been little or no debate about the appropriateness of the pilot scheme suddenly becoming a fully fledged scheme.

At that stage, on 9 February, Beverley Hughes, then the Minister for immigration in another place, said in the debate on the order: We have no specific plans to include further countries".

But in almost the same breath she said: We want to extend the proposals to Kenya".— [Official Report, Commons Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 9/2/04; cols. 10-11.]

So it is no wonder that we are concerned about how much forward planning the Government have in mind.

Mrs Hughes commented that the only thing inhibiting the Government at that stage was the construction of another small building. I am interested in what the Minister said today; that is, that the construction is nearly completed and it will be available from 1 September. I understood him then to say that the numbers did not justify a separate application point for Rwanda. I was intrigued by the way in which he referred to the position in Rwanda because my understanding from the memorandum that the Home Office supplied to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments was that the Government are bringing forward this application in respect of Kenya and Rwanda as a new matter. The way in which the Minister introduced this made it sound as if people from Rwanda already have to make the journey to Kenya to make an application. I hope that in his response the Minister will expand on the point of what has been happening to people who have been travelling here from Rwanda who need entry clearance. I did not think that they had to come within the scheme at this stage. What has been happening to people from Rwanda until now? Does this mean that there will now be a separate application point for them in Rwanda that will take their fingerprints?

The Minister may recall the order brought forward last summer by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, who I see is in his place. The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, said then that the Government see the future of identification as being about more than fingerprints and as including iris and retina recognition. Today we have reference only to fingerprints. Last summer we were led to believe that the programme would involve a more technical application of biometric details. Does this mean that, as the pilot scheme has merged into a fully fledged scheme, Parliament is giving permission for any kind of biometric recognition to be imposed at a future stage or are we being asked just to "okay" fingerprinting? We need to know that.

It would be helpful to the House if the Minster could give an indication of how much further the Government intend to extend this programme of fingerprinting those who make an application for entry clearance and when they plan to do so. How will the list grow and when? We are all aware of the heavy workload of the Immigration Service, which is hard pressed although it does its best to work effectively. We need to know what extra strains are going to be placed on it in the future. However, we support the making of this order.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, in February, we on these Benches agreed that the requirement that an immigration applicant be required to provide biometric data—in practice, a fingerprint—should be extended from Sri Lanka, where the successful pilot was carried out, to all the east African states, except Kenya. We understood that the reason for not including Kenya in the list that we examined in February was the purely practical one that the physical circumstances at the High Commission in Nairobi were not yet in a state where fingerprints could be taken. We therefore have no objection to the extension of the list to include Kenya.

As for Rwanda, I understood the Minister to say that up until this point the number of applications from Kigali was so small that they were considered in Kampala and that it was as a result of the opening of an office in Kampala to consider entry certificate applications there that the requirement to provide fingerprints, which had already been imposed on anybody making an application via Kampala, needed to be extended now to Kigali. So we do not object to that either.

As for the noble Baroness's comment on the use of other biometric data, we understand that the order as drafted would allow iris recognition or other forms of biometric data to be used. However, the more we extend the scheme to use fingerprints only, the more difficult it will be in future to make the switch. All the computer systems will be set up to cope with fingerprints, and the expensive transition to, for example, iris recognition would then be enormous. So the more we go down this route, the more likely we are to be locked into the use of fingerprints irrespective of the merit of other forms of biometric data.

On the previous occasion we said that we were in favour generally of using biometric data for the purposes of immigration control, subject to adequate data protection safeguards, and we are aware of the useful work that has already been done on the subject. There was convincing evidence that the use of fingerprints has been effective both in catching those who have committed immigration offences and in deterring unqualified applications. I hope that the Minister will be able to give the House some information about the effect of fingerprinting in the countries specified in the previous order since it came into effect. He said that it was already proving effective but without giving any statistics.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us, for example, the number of applications made in those countries since February, the number of applications made in the equivalent period before the order came into operation, and whether any of those who have been fingerprinted under the February order turned out to be those of persons who have been refused entry certificates on a previous occasion. I fully accept that the technique is likely to prove effective, but we would like to have some actual data to back that up.

I asked on the previous occasion also whether the Information Commissioner had been consulted on the proposed collection of biometric data from applicants in east Africa, and the answer was, "No; but the commissioner had not raised any issues in relation to the pilot in Sri Lanka". The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, who was dealing with the matter on that occasion, promised to make inquiries. I wonder whether it is possible for the Minister to report on the outcome of those.

I suggest that in a matter of this importance and sensitivity there should be what I might call an affirmative resolution-type procedure. In other words, rather than wait for Mr Thomas, the Information Commissioner, to raise the alarm, and bearing in mind that he may not have the resources to scrutinise several thousand statutory instruments every year—a difficult enough task even for your Lordships—the Government should ask him specifically to look at any SIs that might be thought to raise data protection issues, and ask him to certify that he is satisfied with the manner in which the powers are intended to be exercised.

The order approved in February also allowed for the fingerprinting of those travelling to the UK on CTDs, as the Minister has mentioned already, on arrival from anywhere else in the world. If they were coming from Sri Lanka or from east Africa they would already have been fingerprinted under these orders, as will other passengers coming from those countries. The noble Baroness then said that that was to prevent holders of CTDs issued in some other country destroying their document after arrival and then making a new claim for asylum in the UK.

I hope that the Minister will now be able to tell the House how many CTD holders have been detected using this ruse since February; what countries they came from; and whether the IND has been able to remove them to the countries where they had already gained asylum. Presumably they would be from countries outside the EU since otherwise they would have done better to wait until they had been able to gain citizenship in the countries of origin. Then, they would have been able to come here lawfully under the free movement provisions of the European Union.

More generally, we have discussed the problem of arriving passengers who destroy their documents en route or even at the arrival port before presenting themselves to an immigration officer. At Waterloo and at the channel ports where there are juxtaposed controls, there has, as we know, been a gratifying reduction in the number of undocumented arrivals. Unfortunately, at all the Heathrow terminals and at Gatwick, the figures provided by the IND to Sub-Committee F of your Lordships' European Union Committee in connection with its study, Fighting Illegal Immigration: Should carriers carry the burden?, showed that, up to September 2003, the numbers were increasing. Does the Minister think that the use of biometric data will have an impact on the numbers, and if so, are there any plans to extend the practice to other areas of the world?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful, as ever, to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their interest in and support for this important development in the practical application of policy. I will try to respond to the points that have been raised as best I can, although I must confess that I do not have all the information that certainly the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, would like me to have.

It is worth reiterating that the pilots have so far been very successful. I will come to the figures shortly. The Sri Lanka pilot proved that the technology worked. UK visas are now rolling out fingerprinting to further posts as a result of that, and the United Kingdom is committed to incorporating biometrics in visas and the visa process by the end of 2007 under EU regulations to which the United Kingdom has signed up.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked about the position in Rwanda. We want to extend the arrangements to Rwanda—that is why we have the order before us—in order to improve the system for Rwandan applicants. The Rwandans have to apply for visas in Kampala, Uganda. As all Kampala applicants have to give fingerprints, Rwandans have in the past had to travel to Kampala to apply. These regulations will allow Rwandans to submit fingerprints in Kigali, at the British embassy, rather than travel to Kampala. We think that that is a significant improvement and should make the process much easier for them.

As to biometrics, the draft EU regulations may in future require the use of two biometric indicators. There is no decision yet on which, but at present the United Kingdom is using fingerprints. We have no plans to use other biometrics in visas ahead of any decision on the second biometric test which is provided for in those regulations.

I can understand the curiosity expressed about the success and effectiveness of the visa fingerprinting scheme so far, and I have some data. Roughly speaking, we think that about 1 per cent of visa applicants in the east African countries have shown themselves to have been previous asylum seekers. Local management information also indicates that, in the past two months, some 12 applications from asylum seekers have been made by people whom we have been able to identify by using these fingerprint records.

Breaking the data down by place, to 21 June this year, in Colombo we found 161 asylum matches; in Addis Ababa there were seven; in Asmara, two; in Dar es Salaam, 18; and in Kampala there were 53. As I said, the percentage is about 1 per cent or perhaps a fraction under; I have not done the maths myself. However, the numbers are significant and demonstrate to us the value of this extra protection to our system.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister have any figures that demonstrate the likelihood that unqualified applicants have been deterred by the necessity of providing fingerprints, as has been claimed on a previous occasion?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is hard to provide statistics for those who have been deterred as, obviously, if they have been deterred, they are not likely to show up in the figures.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, if I remember rightly, the number of applications reduced considerably after the process was inaugurated.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was about to say that the figures are considered to have reduced as a consequence. Clearly, people who are fearful of being detected are being put off applying. We consider that that is of benefit.

The noble Lord understandably asked about the Data Protection Commissioner. We have not specifically sought the commissioner's views on this matter but, as I think the noble Lord recognises, we have not been made aware of any concerns. That is an important consideration but this is only an extension of an existing scheme and we have not thought it necessary to pursue the point with the Data. Protection Commissioner. We shall, of course, need to ensure that in the future we keep adequate lines of communication open on that point, particularly if we seek an extension to the way in which the scheme operates although not necessarily the range of countries to which it applies.

I am advised that the number of Sri Lankan undocumented arrivals has fallen dramatically since the introduction of fingerprinting in Colombo in July 2003 and due to the impact of other immigration measures. I believe that the average number is down from about 150 a month to just two or three. That reinforces the point I made earlier that it is considered that the range of measures that we have introduced is very effective. We ought to take note of the important deterrent value of fingerprinting.

I believe that I have answered most of the points that have been raised but I shall check the record and ensure that I provide both the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, with responses to any points that I have not covered.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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