Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, on 25 November 2008 the UK Border Agency issued the first biometric residence permits, through regulations made under the UK Borders Act 2007, to applicants granted further leave under student, marriage and partnership categories. In 2009, the regulations were amended to include students applying under tier 4 of the points-based system and other, smaller categories. January 2010 saw the rollout to skilled workers extending their stay under tier 2, and now I beg to move that the Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment) Regulations 2010 be considered to incorporate the two remaining active tiers of the points-based system for migration.
In addition to those in migration categories who are already required to apply for a biometric residence permit, the regulations will introduce the biometric registration requirement for migrant workers applying to extend their stay in the UK for more than six months under tiers 1 and 5 of the points-based system, and for their dependants. Tier 1 covers highly skilled workers, investors, entrepreneurs and post-study work. Tier 5 is for certain types of sponsored temporary workers whose entry helps satisfy cultural, charitable, religious or international objectives. These permits enable the UK to comply with European regulation EC 1030/2002, as amended by EC 380/2008, which prescribes uniform residence permits containing fingerprints and photograph to be issued to third-country nationals staying in member states for more than six months.
Key to any immigration control system is the ability to establish that a migrant granted leave to enter or remain in the UK is the rightful holder of immigration status set out in the document that evidences that entitlement. The integrity of immigration control is threatened by those who seek to make multiple fraudulent immigration applications, to work illegally and to access public funds and services to which they are not entitled. By enrolling a migrant’s unique biometric information, we can establish a reliable link between the holder and the permit. We can link the biographical details they give us to their unique biometric identifiers and check a person against our existing records before deciding whether to grant their application to be in the UK.
Biometric residence permits make it easier and more reliable for the UK Border Agency, employers and public service providers to confirm a person’s immigration status and eligibility to entitlements in the UK. The infrastructure for these permits is in place and permits have been well received by legitimate migrants, employers and service providers as a secure and reliable way of confirming identity, immigration status, the right to work and the entitlement to access services. With more than 300,000 biometric residence permits now issued, the permit is now widely recognised and trusted as a secure immigration document. Guidance on checking the cards is available on the UK Border Agency’s website and a telephone verification service is available for employers.
To date, the rollout has largely run smoothly, with the majority of successful applicants receiving their permits within a few days of being notified that their application for further leave was granted. Enrolment provision has been expanded to meet customer need, with 11 Home Office biometric enrolment centres and 17 Crown Post Offices offering enrolment.
I will briefly set out the categories to which regulations already apply. Biometric residence permits are currently issued to those granted further leave to stay in the UK for more than six months as skilled workers applying under tier 2 of the points-based system, which is for people coming to fill shortage occupations or a gap in the labour market that cannot be filled by a settled worker and includes elite sportspersons and coaches, ministers of religion, missionaries or members of religious orders.
Tier 4 of the points-based system, which is for students is also already covered, along with a number of other categories of applicant extending for more than six months: spouses and partners of persons present and settled in the United Kingdom, representatives of overseas businesses, academic visitors, visitors for private medical treatment, domestic workers in private households, those applying on the grounds of United Kingdom ancestry and retired persons of independent means. Those transferring their conditions of limited leave from an old passport are also covered. Where the Immigration Rules allow dependants to join the applicant, the biometric regulations also apply to them, whenever they make such an application.
The 2010 regulations build from the previous biometric registration regulations and take us further towards complying fully with our obligations under EU regulations. To complete rollout to all tiers of the points-based system, we now seek to incorporate tiers 1 and 5. Tier 1 is designed to attract to the UK the brightest and best migrants from around the world who have the most to contribute to our economy and the Committee will be aware that the Immigration Minister recently confirmed:
“Those coming into the UK under the highly skilled migrant route should only be able to do highly skilled jobs—it should not be used as a means to enter the low-skilled jobs market”.
There are four sub-categories: general, for the most highly skilled workers, who are granted free access to the UK labour market so that they can look for work or self-employment opportunities; entrepreneurs, for those investing in the UK by setting up or taking over and being actively involved in the running of one or more businesses; investors, for high-net-worth individuals making a substantial financial investment—at least £1 million—to the UK; and post-study work, for the most able international graduates who have studied here, to enhance the UK’s overall offer to international students and providing a bridge to highly skilled or skilled work.
Tier 5 is for youth mobility and temporary workers who are coming to work in the UK for short periods for primarily non-economic objectives. There are two sub-categories of tier 5: temporary workers, for certain types of temporary worker whose entry helps to satisfy cultural, charitable, religious or international objectives, and the youth mobility scheme. Those coming to the UK under this sub-category are not able to extend their stay in the UK under the Immigration Rules so will not be affected by these regulations.
I am happy to try to answer specific questions about these regulations if noble Lords wish to raise them. I commend these regulations to the Committee. I believe they are proving to be a useful tool in tackling illegal immigration and illegal working. Employers have told us they welcome the documents as a secure and reliable means of confirming the right to work. When we intend introducing further categories of foreign nationals who are required to apply for a biometric residence permit, we will return to Parliament and seek further approval. I hope that I have explained the purpose of the regulations, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of these regulations which, as I understand it, continue the incremental rollout of biometric immigration documents to include groups of foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control and who have limited leave to stay in the United Kingdom. I understand that the biometric immigration document issued under the regulations is a card with a chip containing biometric data; namely, fingerprints and a digital facial image.
As the Minister said, these are the fifth set of regulations to be made under the biometric registration provisions of the 2007 Act and are intended to enable us to move closer towards complying with the EU requirement for member states to confirm leave to stay through the issue of a residence permit in the form of a card from May 2011, and with a biometric card from May 2012. Do these regulations mean that the UK will have fully complied with its legal obligations under the EU legislation by May 2012, or am I to infer from a comment the Minister made towards the end of his speech that still further measures need to be taken to enable us to fully comply?
The Minister said that under these regulations individuals applying for further leave to stay in the UK for more than six months under the immigration rules in tiers 1 and 5 of the points-based system for migration will now have to apply for a biometric immigration document, as will the dependants of such applicants. The changes apply only to foreign nationals subject to immigration control. Already covered by the scheme are those in tier 2 of the points-based system—who, as I understand it, include intra-company transfers—and tier 4, which covers students. Paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum states:
“Employers are also becoming increasingly familiar with the biometric immigration document as the numbers in circulation have increased following previous roll outs”.
I think the Minister said—I may well have misunderstood him—that there were 3,500 such documents now in circulation. Can he clarify whether that is the case? If it is not, what is the figure, and by how many will the number increase as a result of the order coming into force? In the light of the statement in the impact assessment that tiers 1 and 5 constitute approximately 16 per cent of the total projected numbers of biometric resident permit applicants, will the 3,500 be increased by roughly one-sixth?
To what extent are the numbers of people extending their stay in the United Kingdom under the terms of these regulations affected by the proposed cap on the numbers coming to this country each year? Will the provisions of these regulations or the earlier regulations covering tier 2—which I thought covered intra-company transfers, among other things—made under the biometric registration provisions of the 2007 Act apply to those coming to this country under intra-company moves, who, it appears, may now not come within the constraints of any intended cap on numbers coming to Great Britain.
Paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that there has been no formal consultation, but that the rollout strategy and policy have been discussed with internal and external stakeholders. Can the Minister indicate exactly who were the external stakeholders with whom discussions have taken place, if there were any in addition to those referred to in paragraph 9.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum? It may be that paragraph 9.1 covers all external stakeholders.
The impact assessment refers also to the social costs of £8.1 million which relate to the costs of travelling to enrol biometrics. Can the Minister say how the figure is calculated and broken down, at least in general terms? Likewise, the impact assessment refers to a reduction in benefits fraud and states that this could total £0.4 million over 10 years. Once again in general terms, how is that figure calculated? How does one come to the conclusion that that would be the figure after 10 years?
The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association expressed concerns that processing times will increase when the volume of applications increase because applicants from tiers 1 and 5 will also need to enrol biometrics. The Explanatory Memorandum appears to reject these concerns. On what basis, and against what criteria, have the Government come to the conclusion that they have increased the capacity of enrolment facilities and options sufficiently, as is inferred on page 21 out of 56 of the Explanatory Memorandum documents?
Likewise, the ILPA expressed a view that the requirement for a biometric residence permit will adversely affect frequent business travellers because it adds an extra stage to the application process. The response was that, as part of the review of the front-office biometric enrolment service, the Government will be looking to further improve the service offered to applicants, including increasing the availability of enrolment offices and faster processing times. Since, as I understand it, the policy is to be implemented next month, what specific further improvements do the Government intend to make to address this point made by the immigration law practitioner service, and its further point that the range of locations at which biometric data can be enrolled, to which the Minister referred in his speech, is limited?
I appreciate that there are a number of questions there. I do not know the extent to which the Minister can respond today, but I would be grateful if he could write to me on those questions that he is unable to respond to.
I, too, am grateful for the explanation. I have given the Minister notice of some questions which, in fact, cover very much the same ground as those asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.
On the question of compliance with EU requirements; to put it another way round—what more is outstanding on that score for the UK fully to comply? My other questions are practical in regard to enrolment and access by employers to the information. I am unclear how biometric information, as distinct from simply the production of the card, makes it easier for employers to check eligibility to work in the UK—something which the impact assessment tells us will be the case. Can employers check the position without having access to a reader? The Minister mentioned a telephone verification service. I do not know whether I am confusing the different bits of the mechanics of this, but I am unclear what that service will provide.
The Minister also talked about 11 centres for enrolment, plus 17 Crown post offices. This seems to have been an issue in the consultation. What further rollout will there be and what geographical coverage has already been obtained by the centres that are in place? They seem to be quite small in number.
I am grateful for noble Lords’ questions about this. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the rollout and whether the UK would be fully compliant by 2012 as per the regulations. Yes, it will. Companies are becoming familiar with them, because there are 300,000 in circulation. Certain types of companies tend to use more migrant labour and are therefore more familiar. He asked how many more would be issued. We think about 80,000 per annum. He also asked about consultation. In the Explanatory Memorandum there is a very long list of people consulted, but I shall not weary your Lordships by reading it out.
The noble Lord touched on enrolment capacity and limitations. That is one reason why we did not introduce the BRPs in one go. It is a rollout programme, taking in new tiers.
I was asked how an employer can check a BRP without a reader. Guidance clearly sets out that the security features of BRPs are available to download from the UK Border Agency website. There is also a BRP verification telephone service, which employers can call to check whether a card has been cancelled—for example, because it has been reported lost or stolen.
I was asked where applicants can register their biometric identifiers. They can do so at one of 11 Home Office biometric enrolment offices around the UK, or one of 17 Crown post offices participating in a pilot. At present there are 28 venues located at UK Border Agency inquiry offices at Croydon, Solihull, Sheffield, Liverpool, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff. There are also biometric enrolment centres at passport service offices enrolling foreign nationals on behalf of the UK Border Agency at London Elephant and Castle, Birmingham, Derby and Brighton. The post offices are at Aberdeen, Beckenham, Beeston, Bracknell, Cambridge, Durham, Kingstanding, Battersea, Camden, Earls Court, Old Street, Middleton, Oxford, Redditch, Romsey, South Shields and Stamford. So there are plenty of locations.
We have also rolled out a mobile biometric enrolment service for those physically unable to attend an enrolment centre for medical or other reasons. This service is also available as an exclusive super-premium service whereby UK Border Agency officers will visit an applicant to enrol their biometric information—fingerprints, photograph and signature—and decide and conclude their application. This costs £15,000. The super-premium service is not currently available to customers applying for an extension of leave under a category that does not require a BRP, or applying for permanent residency or citizenships.
I was asked what we were doing to address the problems that applicants have experienced when applying for BRPs. Most have not experienced problems. The UK Border Agency takes any problems or issues very seriously, and is determined to learn lessons and continuously improve the service provided to its customers. It investigates any complaints received and aims to resolve them as quickly as possible and take steps to put things right if and when they have gone wrong. The vast majority of people find applying for a permit trouble-free. We have been collecting customer feedback and the vast majority of responses have been very positive.
I was asked why applying for a BRP delays applications. It does not do so, but the biometric enrolment must take place before the case is concluded, so that we can check the applicant against the existing databases and link their biographical details provided to the unique biometric identifiers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked several questions. First, she asked what more was required for the UK fully to comply with the EU requirements. EU legislation requires BRPs to be issued to all non-EEA migrants, granting permission to stay in the UK for more than six months, by May 2012. We are on target to do that. She asked how biometric information, as distinct from the card itself, makes it easier for employers to check eligibility in the UK and whether that did not require employers to use a reader to check the information. Biometric information makes the link between the document and the holder more reliable, which in turn means that employers can have more confidence in the BRP than other less sophisticated documents. Currently, an employer can perform a visual check of the biometric facial image incorporated into the face of the card against the person present as well as checking the BRP’s security features and using the telephone verification service. We are currently developing plans for an automated online checking service. In time, readers capable of unlocking the data on the chip will be more readily available and will enable employers to check the biometric information of the person presenting the document against the facial image and fingerprints stored on the chip. They will also have the ability to authenticate the document electronically.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked how accessible readers are. This was an issue in the consultation. Biometric residence permits are an important step in the fight against illegal immigration and abuse of the immigration system. BRPs are more secure than other paper-based documents and allow us to check and store an applicant’s unique biometric identifiers before granting them permission to be in the UK. In addition to this capability, we can biometrically verify the identity of visa nationals, holders of entry clearances and holders of biometric residence permits at 31 major ports. Entrants at these ports, who have these documents, provide their fingerprints to be checked against the records on the UKBA fingerprint database.
A small number of specialist readers, capable of reading the electronic chip on the permit, are deployed at ports and will become more readily available over time as we ramp up the issuing of permits. Investment in card-reading capability will only occur when there are sufficient documents available to justify the investment in such technology. In the mean time, it makes sense to use other means of checking the document and holder, while we assess the need for chip-reading equipment against the volume of documents in circulation and other financial priorities.
I thank noble Lords for an interesting debate on our proposals to expand the roll-out of biometric residence permits, and welcome the Committee’s views. Where I have not fully answered questions, I will of course write. The issues that have been raised are pertinent to the immigration regulations and I have replied.
In conclusion, recording biometric data and biographical information is important because it enables the UK Border Agency to check against existing records to make sure that the person who applies is not known to us or the police by another identity; and to establish a reliable link between the permit and the holder. Biometric residence permits provide details about the holder’s right to be in the UK in a secure format that meets very high technical standards to safeguard against counterfeiting and falsification. A standard format of permit across Europe is of clear benefit to member states, and enables us to comply with the EU regulations and to ensure that we are not a weak link in Europe for immigration abuse.
Biometric residence permits contain features that make it easier for employers and public bodies to check the status of migrants. The permits make it straightforward for employers to identify an overseas national’s right to work in the UK and easier for foreign workers to demonstrate that they are here legally and allowed to take employment or access other entitlements in the UK. With more than 300,000 residence permits now issued since November 2008, employers and others required to check the status of migrants are familiar with them. We have engaged with business, which has told us that these permits make conducting right-to-work checks easier. They would not welcome another change in immigration documentation since this would require them to put new training and procedures in place.
The categories selected for this rollout will enable us to continue it to more migrants with the right to work in the UK under the PBS, and to comply further with obligations under EU legislation. We will return to Parliament to seek further approval as we roll out to other categories of foreign nationals required to apply for biometric residence permits. I commend these regulations to the Committee and beg to move.
Committee adjourned at 5.34 pm.