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Biometric Passports

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have proposals to introduce biometric passports.

My Lords, British passports have contained biometric information in the form of facial recognition technology since 2006. There are no plans to introduce a second biometric, such as fingerprints, into passports.

First, given that many countries have said that they expect visitors to have full biometric data in their passports, will that not make it much more difficult for British people to travel in the future, especially to the United States? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that forged passports have been involved in almost every known case of terrorism? Surely biometric passports are much harder to forge than the ones that we have at the moment.

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised various points. There are no reasons at all to suppose that the absence of a second biometric in British passports will in any way hinder the ability of British citizens to travel to whichever country they wish to enter. The United States takes the fingerprints of people entering the country but does not insist on fingerprints in passports. The US does not itself have, or intend to put, fingerprints into its passports.

This Government entirely agree with the noble Lord that passport security is extremely important. Although the move to introduce a second biometric will not continue, one part of the programme that definitely will continue is the strengthening of security surrounding the existing facial biometric.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that effective passports are a crucial weapon in protecting this country from both terrorism and crime? Will the Government ensure that the e-Borders system, which was introduced by the previous Government but is taking far too long to put into effect, happens? At the moment, there are huge gaps in passport control. On 27 April at about 10 o’clock in the morning, I was leaving the UK from terminal 3 but no one made the slightest attempt to look at my passport. When I asked why, I was told that they did not have enough staff. That is not good enough.

My Lords, I think the whole House will agree that secure passports are an extremely important part of combating terrorism. It is certainly the case that there are no exit controls at the moment but it is intended that they should come into operation as part of the e-Borders programme.

My Lords, first, the noble Baroness reminded us that exit controls were removed. Can she remind us which party was in government when they were removed? Secondly, she said that we are going to strengthen the security of passports. Can she tell us how?

The existing facial biometric is a chip inside the passport, and that type of passport has been issued since 2006. It is possible, and we intend, to strengthen the security technology that surrounds that chip to decrease the ability of any forger in any way to clone it or counter its security.

My Lords, the Minister rightly acknowledges the importance of passports to our security. However, does she agree that it is most important to ensure that the existing system is well bedded in and working well before attempting to go on to a second stage? That is one reason why I, for one, support the Government’s intention not to move on to a second stage of biometric passports.

The Government entirely agree with my noble friend that passport security is extremely important, and we intend to ensure that security. However, our view is that the interests of the country are not well served by the Government starting to maintain a database of all passport holders, which amounts to 80 per cent of the population.

I welcome the fact that biometrics will not be kept on the national identity register—this is essential—but we ought to have biometrics in passports which match ICAO standards to make it easier to travel. We should not be frightened of that as long as they are not held centrally.

We agree that it is extraordinarily important that passports should have adequate security, and we believe that British passports with the single facial recognition biometric will achieve those standards. There are actually a number of countries other than the United Kingdom that do not have plans to introduce a second biometric.

Can the Minister say whether, over the next three years, the e-Border workforce will increase, stay the same or decrease? If it is to be decreased, what level of performance will be affected?

My Lords, I am unable to answer that question—I came here to talk about biometric passports—but I will write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with the security of the country particularly in relation to people with dual nationality when one passport is used for entry into the country and another for exit?

That is indeed an issue, but we do not believe that maintaining the fingerprint database of the country will help the problem. However, we do have to combat passport fraud.

Will the Minister be kind enough to answer the question from my noble friend on the Front Bench and remind us which Government removed the exit controls at borders?