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Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment) Regulations 2009

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 26 March 2009

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9 February be approved.

Relevant Document: 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, on 25 November 2008 we issued the first identity cards for foreign nationals through regulations made under the UK Borders Act 2007 to applicants granted further leave under student, marriage and partnership categories. The regulations will enable the UK Border Agency to expand the rollout of identity cards to new categories.

These amendment regulations are designed to allow identity cards for foreign nationals to be issued to additional categories of foreign nationals seeking either to extend their stay in the UK or transferring evidence of their limited leave into a new passport or travel document. The regulations will continue to apply to those covered by the 2008 regulations, but we have updated the student categories to reflect the launch of tier 4 of the points based system, for students, at the end of this month.

Introducing compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals to those who are subject to immigration control is a component of the national identity scheme. At the heart of this scheme is a simple ambition to use biometric technology to fix the identity of an individual. Using the powers in the Act, we have been able to lock a migrant to a single identity and provide them with a secure and reliable immigration document. By checking fingerprints against our centrally held records, we have been able to find out whether we have seen an applicant before under a different identity and/or nationality; such as a failed asylum seeker who has now returned to the UK and is passing themselves off as a student from a different country.

This is evidenced by the fact that since 25 November 2008 we have successfully prosecuted three foreign nationals attempting to or having obtained leave by deception. Several other applications are currently under investigation and we expect similar results, and other applications for leave have been refused as a result of a failure to disclose information relevant to their application.

In addition, these regulations enable the UK to comply with European Regulation (EC 380/2008), which requires the residence permits that grant leave to remain to be in the form of a card containing the biometric features of the holder.

In July last year, the House approved the Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008, which enabled the UK to launch its identity card for foreign nationals. To date, the rollout has largely run smoothly, with the majority of successful applicants receiving their cards within a week of being notified that their application for further leave was granted. Those who are required to enrol their biometric identifiers can do so at any one of the network of offices around the UK. We are investigating expanding enrolment facilities to other locations across the country. The card is already benefiting holders who have used it in a variety of ways, including applying for driving licences, opening bank accounts and as proof of age in licensed premises.

I will briefly set out the categories to which these regulations apply. The rollout categories cover the existing marriage and partnership applications to extend leave, updated student categories, and include a small number of immigration categories that fall outside the points based system, which attract relatively small numbers of applicants.

Starting with academic visitors, the regulations apply only to those who are already in the UK and are applying to extend their leave as an academic visitor beyond six months. As with all these categories, this will enable the UK to comply with EU regulations. Visitors receiving private medical treatment in the UK, who need to extend their stay to complete their treatment, will also need to apply for the identity card. We have also included domestic workers in private households under these regulations. That category concerns overseas domestic workers who have accompanied a person entitled to live in the UK, and who subsequently apply to extend their stay here based on that employment.

The next category covers those applying to extend their leave under UK ancestry rules, which includes people who are Commonwealth citizens, have a British grandparent and can demonstrate a link with the UK. The penultimate category relates to retired persons of independent means; this category is no longer open to new applicants, but a person who is already in the UK under it may extend their leave on the same basis. It applies to persons aged over 60 with substantial means to support themselves. The final category covers those overseas employees recruited by an overseas company to act as their sole representative in the UK. The requirement to apply for an identity card will again apply to those seeking to extend their stay in the UK. Where Immigration Rules allow dependants to join the applicant, the biometric regulations will also apply to them.

Your Lordships may, perhaps, note that postgraduate doctors and dentists are covered by these regulations. Those applicants are not currently required to enrol biometrics, but this category of the Immigration Rules will be deleted at the end of March as we introduce the points-based system and the student tier 4 within it. From the end of the month, postgraduate doctors and dentists will, along with all other tier 4 applicants, be required to apply for leave to enter or to remain under that tier and, as part of their application to extend their stay in the UK, to apply for an identity card.

In addition, the requirement to apply for an identity card will apply to those with existing limited leave who are applying to transfer immigration documents into a new travel document or passport. That will enable holders of less secure documents to upgrade them to the identity card. Those applications are usually made when a person with leave has to replace an old passport, or if they had no travel document into which their vignette could be placed when originally applying for leave and, therefore, received their status document attached to a letter. Those applying to transfer their conditions of leave will have to apply for an identity card and enrol their biometric features irrespective of the type of leave they hold.

The other changes that these regulations make to the 2008 regulations include lowering the age that determines the date on which a biometric immigration document ceases to have effect. That is now in line with UK passports, so that where a card is issued to a person aged 16 or over, its validity period will be no longer than 10 years. We have also brought in two additional requirements where the Secretary of State may require the surrender of an identity card. The first is intended to be used when a foreign national who enters the UK produces an identity card, but not their passport; the other applies to holders who have demonstrated that they are a British citizen and no longer required to have an identity card for foreign nationals. In addition, the regulations enable the Secretary of State to cancel the card in those circumstances. We have also tidied up Regulation 19 in the current 2008 regulations, so that persons whose cards are cancelled as a consequence of them being British citizens are not subsequently required to apply for an identity card. Finally, we have introduced a saving regulation to ensure that any identity cards under the previous regulations are not affected by Regulation 5 of the amending ones.

These regulations build from the previous biometric registration regulations, as I stated, which reflects our approach to rolling out identity cards incrementally. We believe that they are proving to be a useful tool in tackling illegal immigration and other identity abuses. We consider that they support those who are staying in the UK legally, and form part of our wider national identity scheme. When we intend making further inroads to the categories of foreign nationals who are required to apply for an identity card, we will return to Parliament and seek further approval. This is what these regulations seek to achieve and I commend them to the House for its support. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument; I recognise, at the outset, that this is becoming an annual event and will, I guess, continue to be so. The implementation of the full-scale identity card system is, obviously, gathering pace. The Government’s experience in issuing ID cards to migrants to this country, in increasing numbers and categories, is surely not unconnected to their desire to see them carried, ultimately, by every citizen. As the Minister will know, we are against such use, we are against the ID system, which we believe to be quite unnecessary, and we are not particularly impressed by the back-door implementation through the excuse of border control. However, it is with us, so we have to deal with it.

The biometrics on the identity cards that are to be supplied are limited, as I understand it, to two fingerprints with a facial image. Is the facial image a full face photograph or a digital eyeprint? At present, the information is also said to include biographical details such as—I quote the Minister in the other place—name, status, nationality, date and place of birth. Is that the entirety of the information held on the vignette, as I think it is called, or is any other additional information put in? If so, what is it? Is the intention to add additional information in due course?

The Minister has outlined the categories included in the regulations today, and they seem to fall into what we would call the soft-touch areas. They are existing marriage and partnership applications to extend leave, updated student categories and a number of small categories, such as postgraduate doctors and dentists—that is clearly limited—academic visitors, visitors for private medical treatment who need to extend their treatment, domestic workers, our long-suffering Commonwealth colleagues and, almost unbelievably, retired persons of independent means, who will ultimately no longer be entitled to come here. We have had that discussion before, but it does no harm to say again that this seems to be a very strange decision.

Most of those groups are hardly the most likely to breach immigration laws or requirements. The fact that they are among the first to have identity cards seems to suggest that the more difficult categories, and those which will require more work, are being left to the last. I have one or two questions about that for the Minister. I am at a loss as to how the system will work to ensure that someone who is here receiving private treatment, perhaps confined to hospital or having to attend each day, is going to get to a centre to have their biometric details taken. If they are going to be here only for a week or 10 days, are they still going to have to have an ID card? Or is there an expectation that people on private treatment are going to be here for much longer than a short-term visit?

It is clearly not sensible or practical to suggest that someone who will be here for a limited period is going to have an ID card. Perhaps we can know some more about that. As a former chairman of an NHS trust, I recognise that people who come here for private treatment, or who end up having it while they are visitors here, are not always the most scrupulous about paying either the NHS or the private facility. I am not sure that an ID card will make much difference there. Having to obtain an ID card seems to be somewhat excessive. Perhaps the Minister would enlighten us on the process of how they would go about doing that.

I am glad that visas for doctors and dentists are now being extended to the full extent of their training; that is a very practical and sensible decision. When will those who are already here need to obtain an identity card if they wish to further extend their stay? Or would they have to do that during their limited visa time?

I am concerned about the cards being provided to domestic workers. Many of these people, as the introduction to the regulations suggested, are extremely vulnerable. What would be the penalty or the result of their employers taking their cards and refusing to give them back? We already know that often their passports are taken away as soon as they get into the country, which potentially leaves them subject to trafficking and abuse. There have been enough cases for us to know that. I wonder whether that has been taken into account and whether there is some criminal penalty for not returning someone’s card.

I was going to ask the Minister how long it takes to obtain an ID card, but I believe he said a week. There are centres across the country. The Minister nods, so I have my answer to both points.

Finally, is an ID card supposed to work with a passport as a travel document, or can it operate on its own? I know that if you obtain a passport you probably have to obtain an ID card at the same time. I wondered whether you had to show both when required to at a border. I would be grateful for a reply to my questions, but I have no more observations on the regulations.

My Lords, it will not surprise the Minister that, having opposed the very concept of ID cards, we shall continue to oppose their rollout. Choosing to introduce them to the categories of people who do not even have a vote here is a backdoor way of bringing them in. I was surprised to hear the Minister claim their usefulness as a tool. I think that he said that since November three people had been apprehended. Given the cost of implementing this scheme, three does not seem to be a very great number.

We object because we do not think that this is necessary or cost-effective. The Minister referred to the categories of people, but they all have passports. One downside is that the scheme is likely to be divisive. Perhaps the Minister could remind us of the penalties for any of those categories of people who do not apply for ID cards. The Minister in the other place said that the cards would be useful for employers. That in itself produces a difficulty. Will employers ask anyone who just looks foreign to produce their ID card? If proof of identity was needed, people could produce a passport. The whole idea is anti-cohesion, which the Government spend so much time talking about.

The Government claim that ID cards will help to protect domestic workers from abuse. That is an extreme claim. There are many reasons why domestic workers suffer abuse, but I think that the claim of the Minister in the other place that ID cards will help to alleviate that is definitely a claim too far.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has posed several useful questions, so I shall not rehearse those. My main question to the Minister is: how on earth does he think that this scheme can possibly be cost-effective?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses for their contributions. If we had been more ambitious and produced what the noble Baroness called the harder categories or a much larger number, I wonder whether I would be standing here accused of pushing this through with great speed when we were not sure that we had the capacity to deal with it. Therefore, we have chosen to do exactly what we said we would do, which is to move incrementally in logical steps. The T4 regulations on the points system come in at the end of this month, so it makes perfect sense to bring those two things together. I am slightly hurt by the suggestion that we are doing it for reasons other than for those that we said.

I know that both noble Baronesses have much less affection for identity cards than the Government or, indeed, I do, but I recognise the practical points that they made. Whatever their views, they are perfectly entitled to make them. They asked relevant questions about what these regulations will do. I shall try to deal with them, although not necessarily in the order in which they were asked.

Postgraduate doctors and dentists need to apply to extend leave before their current authority to stay expires, which can be done up to three months before that date. There are a number of centres. At the moment, they are in Armagh, Cardiff, Croydon, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sheffield and Solihull. Over the coming months, we intend to make other venues across the country available. The question of mobile unit capacity where required brings me to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about people who come for private medical treatment. The requirement applies only when the person has been here for six months and wishes to stay beyond that. She made a point about people not being able to visit any of the centres that I named. There will be capacity to bring the equipment to the person rather than demanding that the person goes to the equipment. There is an ability to provide for an individual to have his biometrics taken without too much trouble or hardship for him.

The biometrics are a facial image; they are not of irises. The card will contain the information that the noble Baroness identified. It will not have a great deal of information beyond that. It will hold basic biographical data. I have mentioned fingerprints and facial images. It will also hold the national identity registration number, which will be unique to the record of the individual. It will also record changes made and when a check is made against a record to verify identity. It will not hold information about a person’s medical, tax, pension or benefits records, any criminal history, occupation or any information about ethnicity or religious beliefs. I hope that that is reassuring. The vignette will have similar information.

Both noble Baronesses asked why we have included domestic workers. The truth is that we have done so because we recognise that this group is particularly vulnerable to abuse. I am rather surprised that the Benches opposite would draw the conclusion that this would not be helpful. In the regulations and in normal life, we have regard to the fact that this is a particularly vulnerable group of people. We consider that enrolling their biometric features and fixing their identity is an additional measure to protect them from exploitation and trafficking. If abuse is taking place or passports or identity documents are being withheld and that comes to the attention of the authorities, it would be pursued.

If someone is required to apply for an ID card and does not, would there be a sanction? The civil penalty would be in line with the code of practice that seeks to ensure that particular circumstances are taken account of. The civil penalty is up to £1,000, but circumstances would be taken into account.

I am not sure that I have covered all the points made by the noble Baronesses. The final point was about the cost-benefit of this against the total cost of the operation. I do not think that that can be seen against just this part of the operation. We are talking about bringing this in over a period of years. It is a fully costed operation and we can make a judgment on it only when it is complete.

The noble Baroness raised another point, which I am desperately trying to remember. I shall have to write to her on it. If she could remind me of the question that I have not answered, I could probably respond to it.

My Lords, I commented on the number of people apprehended since November and asked whether that was cost-effective.

My Lords, forgive me for my momentary lapse of memory. The noble Baroness made the point that there were only three. That is not the whole point. First, there were three successful prosecutions. Also, I stated that others are in the pipeline which we expect to go down the same route. The other important thing is the number of people refused on the basis that they failed when coming to seek the documentation. Therefore, this has had rather more impact than the noble Baroness suggested by saying that only three people had been apprehended. That is in the first few months, so one would expect, as it rolls out to greater numbers and there are people seeking entry by subterfuge, there to be more prosecutions and more successful detentions and successful refusals.

I hope that that takes all the points made into account. This has been a thoughtful debate and I appreciate the points made. We believe that the introduction of ID cards is supporting our efforts to secure our border and reduce abuses of our Immigration Rules and laws. It is also part of our wider national identity scheme. We focused initially on issuing cards to foreign nationals to make it easy for employers, education providers and public services to check whether a person is entitled to work, study or access benefits in this country. That is where we believe that employers would gain some benefit from individuals having those documents. In support of that, we have engaged widely with stakeholders from various organisations, from representatives of employers of foreign nationals to student bodies and government departments. That fits in with our efforts to challenge illegal working and other abuses of our Immigration Rules and laws.

Having recovered from my pain at being accused of choosing only soft targets, I will add that selective rollout will enable us to increase this gradually and, at the same time, increase the availability of places where applicants may enrol their biometric features, expanding the system across the country. We will again return to Parliament to seek further approval when we decide to roll this out to other categories of foreign nationals required to apply for identity cards. We are determined that only those foreign nationals here legally will benefit from the privilege of working and living in Britain. As such, I commend the regulations to the House.

My Lords, the noble Lord did not answer the other question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, which was whether further information was likely to be added to identity cards later.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lady for reminding me of my inability to answer that question. Off the top of my head, the answer is that I believe that there are no plans so to do. I will look for any confirmation or otherwise, but, if this becomes an annual event, as has been suggested, there will be opportunities for that to be engaged in exploration and debate the next time the issue is being discussed. We are committed to bringing it back if we determine to add other categories, but I know of no determination to add information that is not already being collected.

Motion agreed.