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Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2009

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2009.

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

My Lords, the Government remain committed to securing UK borders, improving immigration control and reducing identity abuse. As part of that goal, we introduced biometric registration powers in the UK Borders Act 2007 through which the Secretary of State is able to issue secure, reliable biometric documents to foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control. We issued the first identity cards to foreign nationals at the end of November 2008.

The regulations are designed to extend the category for foreign nationals required to apply for an identity card. They will amend the Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008, which came into force on 25 November 2008. The 2008 regulations were previously amended by the Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment) Regulations 2009, which came into effect on 31 March 2009.

Since 25 November 2008, we have issued more than 120,000 identity cards to successful applicants. The scheme has enabled us to identify persons using false identities to apply for leave, which has led to 15 successful prosecutions. A further 14 cases are awaiting prosecution and several other applications are under investigation.

The identity cards are a more secure means of demonstrating a person's entitlement to work and live in the United Kingdom. As we crack down on immigration abuse and identity fraud, it is a high priority to issue identity cards to foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control. We therefore want to continue our rollout by adding tier 2 skilled workers extending their stay in the UK.

The regulations will enable the identity card for foreign nationals to be issued to those applying to extend their stay under tier 2 of the points-based system, which covers: people coming in to fill vacancies that have been advertised to resident workers, but when no residents were available to fill the vacancy, which includes those coming to fill shortage occupations; employees of multinational companies who are being transferred by an overseas employer to a skilled job in the UK-based branch of the organisation; elite sportspersons and coaches whose employment makes a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level, such as Premier League footballers; and people coming to fill a vacancy as a minister of religion, missionary or member of religious order.

The regulations also reflect the change in the immigration category of “sole representative” to a “representative of an overseas business”, which is intended to encourage inward investment to the UK by providing a means for overseas companies to transfer an employee to the UK in order to establish the UK branch or wholly owned subsidiary.

The regulations extend the definition of dependants to include unmarried and same-sex partners. They also make provision for dependants of foreign nationals to apply for a card when applying for leave as a dependant. Such dependants will be able to apply for a card either at the same time or subsequent to the person on whom they are dependent becoming a cardholder themselves.

I am pleased to have brought the regulations before the Committee today. They are an essential part of our strategy for combating irregular migration and the associated abuses arising from such activities. The regulations seek to combat those things and I hope that the Committee will support them.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale; on every other occasion in Grand Committee, I have been accustomed to going third.

These Benches—noble Lords can see the support behind me—do not support the regulations. We do not support the national identity card scheme so it follows that we do not support the regulations. Phrases such as “the thin end of the wedge” have been used on a number of occasions. We have probably now moved a little closer to the middle of the wedge.

Since warning the Minister last night of only a couple of questions that I thought I might have on the regulations, thinking that most of the points would be rhetorical, I have come up with some more questions. I apologise that I have not warned him of them, but they are all perfectly obvious and I am sure that he is well briefed.

First, since the scheme is being rolled out as part of an incremental arrangement, what has been learned so far? How successful is the scheme in the Government’s view? How is the success measured? The Minister has told us that 120,000 cards have been issued, that there have been 15 successful prosecutions and that 14 cases await prosecution. I assume that that means that they are awaiting trial and that all 29 refer to prosecutions made possible by the cards. I do not know whether the Government are able to give us any comparison with the pre-card regime.

Also, who were the stakeholders with whom the regulations were discussed? What were their views? They are mentioned in paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum. If there was no formal consultation on the regulations, presumably there is no formal collation of the views but, in a scheme which is being rolled out, it is fundamental that the views of stakeholders are accumulated and made available in some manner.

I am aware that I have now probably been speaking for as long as the Minister. I apologise to the Grand Committee, because I intend to go on for a bit longer.

The Government have stated their reason for focusing on foreign nationals—the difficulties experienced by employers in deciding whether a foreign national is entitled to work. I am intrigued to know how much more rolling out will be required for there to be full coverage of foreign nationals. Until it is full, how much use is a partial scheme? I am intrigued to know that the regulations cover footballers and members of religious orders. To many citizens, those two would be much the same. Indeed, some football supporters regard themselves as missionaries for their sport and their teams. It is difficult not to think of foreign nationals as guinea pigs with relatively little public support. I do not mean groups that we have heard about—groups that are likely to abuse or breach the requirements. We know what happened when the Government tried to extend the scheme to airport workers; no doubt that is why they are sticking with foreign nationals. What assurances can the Minister give about fears of discrimination against some groups? Will this not adversely impact on members of black and minority-ethnic communities?

Foreign nationals get the card only if they are here legally and already have documentation to prove it. Most people in this country illegally have come over on visas and have overstayed. I make the point, which has been made before and which we will make again and again, that exit checks are needed, not ID cards. We need to catch criminals, not just identify them.

The appraisal annexed to the Explanatory Memorandum states that ID cards for foreign nationals will deter some illegal immigrants and will therefore reduce crime. What is that crime? Is it the crime of illegal immigration or is it suggested that illegal immigrants are disproportionately criminal in their tendencies?

On fee income from overseas students, it is stated that an element of the immigration fees paid by them is attributable to the card. Since most of the funding for their fees comes from overseas sources, the fee is counted as a benefit to the UK economy. I am not asking a question about this; I simply want to put on record that I find that comment slightly shocking. The annexe also states that the card will make life easier for the cardholder over time. I again make the point that only when there is a full rollout will we see the benefits.

There is great emphasis on the benefits to employers, who have to check whether potential employees are entitled to work. In the debate on this regulations yesterday in the Commons, the Minister, Meg Hillier, said that the scheme,

“is going very well. We are beginning to get reading machines out there; we have a number”.—[Official Report, Commons, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 8/12/09; col. 7.]

She said there were 12 reading machines in active use at border controls and that they would be rolled out more widely. She said that the 12 readers would be deployed across major ports from January. Apart from the fact that 12 machines seem very few if this scheme is to be comprehensive, even as regards this relatively small group, I do not understand how it can help employers until each employer has a reader or easy access to a reader. I assume they are very expensive.

Another benefit that the Government claim is that the scheme will help stamp out health tourism. Those who seek to extend their stay because they have come over for private medical treatment that has not finished will have practical difficulties in obtaining the card. The chances are that they will be too unwell to traipse off to do whatever is necessary to get that extension recorded.

We are also told in the Explanatory Memorandum that cards will make things easier for the groups concerned. I do not understand that. It is an overarching point. Perhaps the Minister will be able to answer it. I shall not ask him to justify the regulations on the grounds of fighting terrorism because I am convinced there is no answer. However, I shall ask, finally, whether he can cheer us up by telling us that no further order or rollout is proposed in the next six months.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for explaining this statutory instrument with such thoroughness and brevity. I am afraid that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I may have to take a little longer than he did.

The Government’s experience in using ID cards for migrants in this country in increasing numbers and categories is surely not unconnected to their desire ultimately to see them carried by every citizen. As the Minister will know, we are against such use. The Minister will not be surprised that I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have a number of questions on these regulations.

First, the Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations states that the extension of use of biometric immigration documents, or identity cards for foreign nationals—which is what they really are—will,

“make it easier for these foreign nationals to demonstrate their entitlements to their sponsor and access other benefits. It will also make it easier for employers to confirm any entitlement to work as the card clearly sets out the holder’s entitlements”.

However, have the Government not failed to prepare business and public services to be able to check these ID cards?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned that the Minister’s colleague in another place had said that 12 identity card readers had been issued by the Government. I believe that this statement was first made shortly after the beginning of October. Be that as it may, can the Minister update the Committee on the number of readers that will be issued? Twelve, I agree, seems a very small number. To my knowledge, there is no timetable for the rollout of the readers. I should also appreciate knowing how many readers the Government believe are needed and where they will be sited. The noble Baroness mentioned ports and airports but, surely to goodness, for the scheme to work properly, they should be much more widely disseminated.

Does the Minister also accept that the inability of organisations to scan or read these biometric documents has already resulted in the creation of a black market in fake ID cards? The Explanatory Memorandum further states that employers will not be required to undertake any additional checks. Does that mean that employers will not have to check the ID cards of foreign nationals whom they already employ, and who will be required to apply? How can one possibly expect someone who employs, for example, a foreign cleaner to know whether their employee is domiciled legally in this country?

Secondly, part of the Government’s justification for extending the categories of foreign nationals required to apply for identity cards is the need to,

“phase out less secure documents”.

Which documents are classed as “less secure” by the Government? Why are biometric visas considered more secure, given that they are already being produced by the criminal fraternity?

Thirdly, the Explanatory Memorandum states:

“Once the National Identity Register is fully operational it is the Government’s intention that the identity card for foreign nationals will be designated as a document under section 4 of the Identity Cards Act 2006, as soon as it is practical”.

Is it therefore the Government’s intention eventually to store the details of foreign nationals on the national identity register alongside those of British citizens? What would be the rationale for joining those data sets, if the Government intend so to do? Somewhat related to this, can the Minister confirm that further information will be added to the identity cards at a later date?

Finally, one of the Government’s rationales for issuing identity cards to those granted further leave to stay in the United Kingdom under tier 2 of the points-based system is,

“to enable UKBA to bring forward the rollout of identity cards to higher risk categories”.

Will all high-risk categories now be covered? If not, what are the remaining high-risk categories and when do the Government intend to roll out ID cards to them?

Does the Minister accept that foreign students remain a high-risk category, despite being covered by ID card legislation? How many foreign students in the UK have ID cards and is it compulsory for students applying from abroad to register for them in advance? Would it not be better for the Government to focus their efforts on tackling the gaps in the student visa regime rather than being distracted by attempts to roll out ID cards?

I should probably know the answer to my next set of questions, but I am afraid that I do not. Are student visas time-limited? What happens at the end of their courses? Do students return to their country of origin and, if they want to work here, reapply for a visa or work permit from there, or can they do it from this country?

Despite what I have said, we on these Benches support biometric identification for foreign nationals in the form of biometric visas. Those details should be kept on the appropriate Home Office database, whether it is the asylum registration card or immigration casework database and so on, and not the national identity register. We shall not on this occasion oppose the regulations, but the Government should not be distracted or justify failing to address the many weaknesses in existing systems by putting in place an expensive measure from which I can see no prospect of stopping illegal immigration or terrorism.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I was indeed brief. I see no great point in going back over an ID card debate which has been resolved and is now in statute. I do not criticise at all the fact that other political parties have a different view about identity cards, which they have held consistently. On the broader point, which I accept, we are seeking to provide an incremental approach. Effective from the end of November, identity cards became available voluntarily—“voluntarily” is the important word—to those who live and work in Greater Manchester, and to airside workers at Manchester and London City airports. It is in that sense that the word “voluntary” becomes critical, except where we have a requirement on people, for reasons which these regulations seek to identify. A number of interesting points were made by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokespersons and I will try to deal with them in the order in which I took them on board.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to health tourism and those people who are unable because of health conditions—or, indeed, anything else—to attend a public inquiry office or a post office to acquire the document. The answer is that those who are under medical treatment should apply for an extension of stay for that medical treatment. Mobile units can be deployed for applicants who are unable to attend a public inquiry office. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that those individuals would be denied their rights to apply and to be successful in acquiring the card that they need.

I was asked what, effectively, is the value of the card to the incoming tier 2 worker. The card provides a single document that confirms not just status but, importantly, entitlement to work, and access to public funds and local services where that applies. It combines quite a number of documents into one much simpler to understand document.

Discrimination concerns us all. In the summer, I covered the job of Meg Hillier while she was on maternity leave. She is the Minister responsible for identity cards at the Home Office. The truth is that we have been closely in concert with the Commissioner for Racial Equality to ensure that this scheme is fair. I believe that it is the reverse of discrimination. Someone who has this card would be able to avoid any suggestion of discrimination because it gives a clear identity and would protect those individuals. I will come to that when I deal with the other questions that have been put.

On stakeholder consultation, there has been extensive engagement with stakeholders, both those who are likely to require identity cards or volunteer to have them, and those who are likely to want to engage with identity cards in the business community. Key stakeholders include major employers, universities, the finance sector and business groups including the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI. That consultation led to the card being positively received by applicants, employers and universities, but some concern was expressed that the requirement for skilled workers to apply for the card could inconvenience them. To address that, the UKBA has introduced additional enrolment centres and contracts for enrolment centres to be provided by the Post Office. There was a problem of people coming into one part of the country and being greatly inconvenienced by not being able to get to a convenient centre. We have now extended that facility to 17 Crown post offices, which will allow applicants to enrol at more convenient times—for example, at lunch times and on Saturday mornings. There is no requirement to have an appointment for such an enrolment, so it should be relatively easy.

Again on discrimination, this will apply only to those who are subject to immigration control. Those who are subject will have to apply for leave only if they wish to stay in the UK. If they are granted that leave, they will be issued with a resident’s permit as proof of their immigration status. That comes in the form of a vignette sticker for foreign nations, which contains certain biometric information to satisfy requirements of EU regulations. Those regulations oblige the UK to issue residence permits in a biometric format to replace the existing non-biometric documents. Therefore, we believe this card will serve the purposes of applicants, employers, local government and local social services. Importantly, it has been well received and has helped to secure our borders. We have heard about the 29 people who are subject to legal process. This has led to prison sentences of four to 18 months being imposed. The measure has helped to capture escaped prisoners, including one connected with a firearms offence. What have we learnt to ensure that the system is customer-friendly? We have learnt that it must meet the needs of customers. That is why—as I have just mentioned—we have increased the system’s capacity by extending it through post offices.

The quantified benefits are listed in the assessment but they are subject to complex rules. The calculations are complex and many of the quantified benefits are cross-cutting. We keep benefits under review and in future may be able to quantify further benefits in a wider national identity scheme as it is implemented, and as the opportunities for improving efficiency are identified. All sectors covered by the card will be recognised.

Card readers exercised the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. If you look at the long term—I am going back to the ID card debate, which I do not really want to get into—eventually we will have card readers rolled out in retail, finance and local authorities, not just at borders. I have been carrying a chip-and-PIN card in my wallet for a number of years. For at least half that time it was of no use whatever because there were no chip-and-PIN readers in retail establishments or banks. However, over time, when the value of the chip-and-PIN card—in this case, a credit card—became known, they became worth investing in on the part of retailers, finance companies or local authorities. When a lot of people were prepared to invest in the cards, the capital costs of investment fell. I believe that in the longer term that will also be the case when the identity card rolls out. I make that last point before I encourage the noble Lord to rise to his feet. I am not inviting a debate on the broader aspect; I am simply saying where I believe card readers are going in the longer term. He is absolutely right; in the short and medium term we have to provide card readers at borders. They are used at airports and ports. I am happy to send the noble Lord a list detailing that.

The relationship between the information on the identity card and that on the national identity register was raised by our Liberal Democrat colleagues during the passage of the borders Bill. Information about individuals who apply for identity cards will be recorded on the national identity register; that is a simple fact.

My Lords, before the noble Lord gets on to that point, he gave the example of chip-and-PIN cards, such as debit and credit cards, eventually being read in shops and banks. Does that mean that the readers for these biometric cards are expected to be provided by the private sector and by local authorities but not by central Government?

As part of that question, does the Minister accept that there is a fundamental difference here in that retailers wish to encourage purchasers to make purchases by making that process as convenient as possible for them? I do not think that is comparable to the ID card situation.

I was responding to the broader question of the rollout of card readers. The noble Baroness is absolutely right; that is a responsibility of Government. That is why we are placing them at ports of entry and airports. In the broader and longer term—and I should probably have tried to avoid this debate by not commenting at all—when the value of chip and PIN was seen by the retail and finance industries they were prepared to invest. We believe that it will be similar with identity cards. In the experiments of the past and the rollout that we have now, there is an indication that, for example, an advantage that applies to a student population does not necessarily apply to someone of my venerable age. The ID card can be used in a nightclub or another establishment that requires people to carry their passports to prove their age at the moment. It can also be carried around all the countries of Europe and the EEA, without the requirement to have a passport. Those are not necessarily arguments for this debate—they may be for a broader area of debate—but we do not anticipate a further order on this issue or related issues in the next six months. I think that that will bring noble Lords some relief.

I turn to some of the other questions, although I am not sure that I will get them all. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has a tremendous appetite for questions that require detailed answers, which I am more than happy to respond to, although I am not sure that I can respond to them orally and do justice to their value. However, I can almost certainly provide a written response.

We do not believe that we see, so far at least, any black market in identity cards. There may be one in identity cards for other purposes, but the cards that are being produced are quite difficult to copy. There was a Daily Mail article a year ago—or in the summer, at least—that pretended that an identity card had been cloned, but it demonstrably did not clone the national identity card that is produced under these regulations. It took a blank card and put its own information on it. Although there is always a danger that technology, criminality and ingenuity go together to defeat us, at the moment we certainly do not believe that that is happening. Indeed, we think that we have designed a card that it would be extremely difficult to clone or forge.

A question was asked about discrimination, and I hope that we have dealt with that. The current vignette that is placed in the passport will be replaced by 2014, when it is assumed that 90 per cent of foreign nationals will have an identity card. That achievement will provide third-country nationals with a single document to confirm identity, status and entitlement to work and facilitate access to services. We believe that that is a reverse of discrimination and provides employers, universities and others that provide such services with a single document that can be accepted as identity and entitlement. At the moment there are numerous documents that can be produced as proof of identity and entitlement, but that causes confusion and a considerable burden in authenticating documentation and confirming identity and entitlement. We hope that what we are putting forward is a much simpler but non-discriminatory way of protecting our borders and the individuals concerned.

A number of other questions need to be answered, but we have taken a considerable time in a long day of statutory instruments. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in particular, would be content for me to respond in writing to the questions that he put, or whether any particular question burns into his heart and soul so badly that he cannot live without an answer given orally.

My Lords, if that is a reference to my amateur dramatic past, I think that we had better forget it. There is only one question from the list that I produced that the Minister has not answered to which I would be extremely grateful for an answer today, on the subject of students, given that we have a Starred Question on Tuesday on students, artists and that sort of thing.

My Lords, it is tempting to say that, if there is a Starred Question, why would I spoil the theatre of the Chamber by answering it now? I will be contradicted if I get it wrong, but I will launch into it. The problem referred to may indeed be part of the gestation for the Starred Question—that there is more difficulty around people who come to the United Kingdom for a short period with visas under the new regime. By including sport personalities and others, we seek to overcome that. I suspect that there will still be some problems for people with short-term requirements who come on short-term visas, but there has always been a problem in relation to people in the business sector who may have an engagement in London or Manchester at very short notice. We do not seek to do anything different; we certainly do not intend to make things more difficult for them. I suspect that the question has been raised on several occasions and that my Home Office colleagues are sympathetic to finding a solution to it. The regulations do not make life more difficult in any way; I hope that they would ease the situation somewhat. If that is an inadequate answer, I will ensure that I get another answer to the noble Lord in quick time—before the beginning of next week.

I am very grateful. I probably made a mistake in mentioning Tuesday’s Question. Of course, the noble Baroness and I both asked questions about students in specific relation to the regulations, but if the noble Lord is happy to write I am sure that she, and certainly I, would be happy to receive his missive.

I can answer one simple point. I was asked whether visas for students were time-related. They are related to the course that they are on. A problem raised with us was about students having a course in medicine or what have you that went beyond the normal period of a university degree. That is one of the issues that has been taken care of.

Motion agreed.