Motion to Approve
My Lords, the order was laid before Parliament in December and is required to enable nationals of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States of America who are aged 12 or above and seek to enter the United Kingdom as a visitor under the Immigration Rules to be granted such leave by passing through an automated gate, without having to be interviewed by an immigration officer. The change is needed to give effect to the announcements made by both the Chancellor and the Home Secretary that these additional nationalities should be permitted to use our e-passport gates. Noble Lords’ agreement to the order will ensure that the change can be implemented in time for the summer.
The UK already leads the world in the use of e-passport gates for passenger clearance. We have more e-passport gates than any other country and we allow more nationalities to use them. We intend to continue to build on their use as they provide a safe and secure means of processing low-risk passengers, allowing our highly trained Border Force officers to focus their efforts on those who seek to abuse or exploit the system and wider border threats.
The change will have a transformational impact on the border experience for the additional nationalities, providing them with significantly faster entry to the UK. It should also have a knock-on benefit for the clearance of non-EEA passengers arriving at ports with e-passport gates, by removing an expected 6.5 million passengers from the staffed non-EEA queue.
Expanding e-passport gate eligibility to these additional low-risk nationalities will also help us to meet the challenge of growing passenger numbers, ensuring that arriving passengers are dealt with both swiftly and securely. In 2017, there were 137 million arrivals at the UK border, an increase of 5.4% on 2016. Within those figures the percentage increase in non-EEA passenger arrivals was even more noticeable, up more than 17% on the previous year. Passenger numbers are projected to continue to increase, with the Department for Transport predicting year-on-year growth on aviation routes alone of 2.8% to 2020. That is of course good news for the UK, demonstrating that we continue to be a destination of choice.
Keeping the UK’s border secure remains our top priority, and I assure noble Lords that this decision has been taken only after careful consideration and in consultation with security partners across government. Nationals from Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States have been identified as suitable for using the gates based on a number of factors, including levels of co-operation with the UK on border matters.
Part of our long-term vision has always been to make better use of digital technology and greater automation to improve the passenger experience while maintaining security at the border. As noble Lords will be aware, we recently published a White Paper setting out detailed plans for the UK’s future skills-based immigration system, which includes measures to strengthen border security and improve journey crossings for legitimate passengers. The expansion of the use of e-gates needs to be seen in the context of that longer-term programme of work, where we intend to use the UK’s exit from the EU as an opportunity to develop a new global border and immigration system that makes better use of data, biometrics, analytics and automation to improve both security and fluidity across the UK border.
I also reassure the House that this is not a cost-cutting measure—far from it. The Government are increasing Border Force officer numbers, and their powers and responsibilities will remain unchanged. We are committed to ensuring that Border Force has the resources and the workforce needed to keep the border safe.
This new order will allow nationals of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States to be granted leave to enter as visitors for up to six months when they pass through an e-gate at a UK port, including our juxtaposed controls for Eurostar services. Nationals of these countries coming to the UK for other purposes, such as work or study, will also be able to enter using our e-gates but no change to the law is needed for them as they will already hold the necessary leave in the form of a visa or residence permit. We estimate that up to 6.5 million passengers from these countries will benefit from the change. This expansion in eligibility is therefore a clear signal to the rest of the world that the UK is open for business and will allow us to control our borders in the UK’s best interests. Once approved, we expect the change to be fully implemented in time for the summer. I commend the order to the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the draft order. I ask your Lordships to bear with some cynicism on my part.
The obvious questions are: why this order and why now? The Minister said that it is required. It is not, on the face of it, Brexit related—we have enough Brexit-related secondary legislation to fill the Order Paper—yet the Government have said that EU citizens must not be allowed in future to jump the queue at the border. You take your choice as to whether that is a political observation or because of the chaos that would be caused if they had to be checked in by Border Force in addition to those who are now. A different way of looking at the order is that we have to let some non-EU citizens in by equivalent arrangements because we cannot let EU citizens uniquely use the e-gates.
We have heard about the cohort who will be affected. I have got nothing against EU nationals or any of these nationals, quite the contrary, but they will be allowed to enter without any form of visa—unless, as the Minister said, they are coming for work purposes and so on—and without an explanation as to the duration of the stay, though it should be six months, the purpose of the stay or the means by which they will support themselves. The assumption is that all will be seeking to enter temporarily.
This leads to my first question: what if they want to stay longer? Presumably if they know that before they arrive they will have applied in their own country, but what if they take the decision during the six-month period? Will they have to leave the UK and apply out of country, which is what many people in difficult immigration situations have to do at present?
UK visitors to the United States need an electronic visa waiver before they depart. They are questioned at the border, can still be refused entry and have their fingerprints and photographs taken. The Department of Homeland Security assumes that all visitors are seeking to enter to remain permanently—in other words, illegally—until the visitor proves otherwise. So the rhetorical question is: border control?
Will there be further instances of UK citizens acting on behalf of the state as a result of this new arrangement—employers, landlords and banks checking on the status of an extra group of people who are living here? We are often told that the largest number of people in the UK without leave to be here are over-stayers, and we know how much more difficult it is to find and remove them than to not give them leave in the first place. I wonder whether this is a false economy.
The Explanatory Note tells us that there will be no significant impact on the private, voluntary or public sectors and that therefore there is no impact assessment. Should we really accept that without questioning?
I am all for efficiency and the use of reliable technology, but by identifying these nationalities as lower risk, by implication others are higher risk. I simply observe—there is no accusation in it; I say it to myself as well as to others—that we must be careful not to appear to be prejudiced in any way.
It is not news to any noble Lord that my instincts are to want the UK to be as open and welcoming to visitors as possible. I do not subscribe to the rallying cry of “take back control”—none of my noble friends do—but one must ask whether this order is taking back control of our borders.
My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the Minister’s introduction.
In relation to the noble Baroness’s questions, what will happen between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland when these checks have to take place in both directions and there is, apparently, to be a no-check border? How will that be done?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the purpose of the order in respect of the e-passport gates and the additional countries selected to benefit from the new arrangements. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has raised a number of important points, to which I am sure the Minister will respond.
I have not been to the United States of America for three or four years but I am conscious that when you arrive at the border you have your photograph and fingerprints taken. You have to fill out a form in the UK and you can be refused at that point; and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, you can be refused at the border. Will these arrangements be reciprocal? Will the current arrangements apply to British citizens when they arrive in the United States? US citizens seem able to get into our country fairly easily.
Can the Minister explain why these countries were selected? She said that they are low-risk countries. Is there a list of low-risk, medium-risk and high-risk countries? Are there plans to extend this scheme to further countries? What will other countries have to do to qualify to use the e-gates and what criteria will the department use in selecting them? More generally, apart from the US, will these arrangements be reciprocal with other countries? I want to live in a free and open country but, equally, when I am abroad I want to benefit from as much freedom of travel as possible. It would be useful if the Minister could answer that point. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also made the point that we should not be seen as prejudiced in the countries selected.
With those comments, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I wish to ask two questions. First, on the six months, what record is there that it is a six-month stay that is allowed? Secondly, do the gates require adaptation for the nationals of the different countries coming in? If, for example, another country is added later, will it be possible to adapt the gates to enable that?
I thank noble Lords for the points they have raised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked why we are doing this. Sometimes with SIs a suspicion is built into noble Lords’ minds. We are doing it because UK airports have asked us to and to make it easier for passengers. Noble Lords and Members of the Commons have been asking for the expansion of e-gates to make it easier for visitors—I stress “visitors”—to use them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay asked about six months. It is the usual time allowed for visitors, so that is why six months is in play.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about Ireland. The situation for Ireland is no different from what it was before this SI was laid. It is all about expanding e-gate facilities to countries other than the UK, so the arrangements for Ireland remain unchanged under the SI.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about people who want to stay longer. They would have to do so under the terms of their reasons for wishing to stay longer, such as to work or as a visitor. They would have to make those arrangements. Generally, those arrangements are made ahead of travel across the border.
I think the answer is not necessarily. Individuals entering the UK via the e-passport gates will be granted six months’ visitor leave. This is the standard leave granted to visitors. They will be required to leave the UK at the end of the six-month duration of their visitor leave. If they want to extend their stay, they cannot. They must return home and reapply. I was not sure about that, so I thank my officials for that answer.
The noble Baroness talked about going from the UK to the US being different. Yes, it is an entirely different experience when going to the US. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about reciprocity and other noble Lords asked whether we will expect other countries, such as the US, to do the same as we have done. Obviously, we operate the UK border in our way and in the best interests of the UK. We would expect other countries to follow suit in due course. I guess that is a partial answer on reciprocity, but I would like the eventual outcome of this to be that other countries do the same.
Is the Minister saying that we tried to get the United States to make an e-gate change, that we did not bother or that we do not intend to do so? It would be nice to know. The United States is a great country, and I have been there many times, but it is not the easiest place to arrive in and you do not get the friendliest welcome there. It would be nice to think that, as we have been so accommodating here, that could be reciprocated.
Indeed. As I said, going into the US is an entirely different experience from going to Manchester Airport. I imagine that conversations have gone on but, rather than guessing the answer, I will ask whether we have information on this.
The noble Baroness said that if these countries are lower-risk, by inference others are not. It is not a question of either/or, but we have specifically looked at countries that are low-risk in all sorts of areas, some of which I clearly cannot discuss publicly. She also asked about the impact assessment. We have said that there is no impact, but there might even be a positive impact if people’s travel through the e-gates is easier. Passengers will still go through the same procedures, but they will be able to use the e-gates.