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EU Borders: Hand and Face Scanning

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 17 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to minimise delays at borders with the European Union caused by the proposed introduction of hand and face scanning.

My Lords, the European entry/exit system—EES—is ultimately for EU member states to implement, but, to minimise delays for British citizens, the Government have engaged on it regularly with the European Commission and the French Government. We are supporting ports and carriers to ensure that they are prepared for implementation and planning communications for passengers travelling to and from the UK so that they will know what to do and can plan accordingly.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, and I am pleased that the Government are in discussion with the European Union. Can he confirm that all passengers travelling between the EU and the UK, by air, sea, rail or road, will have to submit to scans of both hands and a retina scan before they cross into or out of the EU? I am told that they will have to do this in little booths which have to be erected at every terminal. Can he confirm that and perhaps advise the House how long the queues will be while this is implemented?

The EES replaces passport stamping: it registers the time and place of entry and exit of third-country nationals to the Schengen area and digitally records biodata—as the noble Lord has observed—and the travel document, fingerprints and photo. It tracks compliance with the 90-in-180 day maximum stay duration. It will take place in booths— I apologise, as I should have said that—although there are works on various technical solutions to mitigate that going forward. I am told that the amount of time it will take is not particularly onerous.

My Lords, given that airports have failed to meet the deadline that the Government suggested for introducing the rule about being able to carry liquids on board, and that there are long delays at Dover every possible bank holiday weekend, how confident is my noble friend that this deadline will be reached? What will happen if the delays are insufferable? Will additional staff be in place to assist passengers in this regard?

My Lords, considerable investment is going into the queues at Dover. Noble Lords may be aware that the Department for Transport has provisionally awarded £45 million of levelling-up fund money to Kent County Council for the Dover border improvement project, which aims to substantially reduce outbound queues at the port. Ferry operators have previously been very pragmatic about allowing vehicles on to ferries if crossings are missed due to disruption, but we recognise the impact of disruption. The Kent Resilience Forum has a package of well-tested traffic management plans to manage disruption to keep passengers and freight traffic flowing.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that I have raised with him the major mistake we made in abandoning the opportunity of having an identity facility. In fact, he said that I had a good point. Can he tell me whether he has taken it back to his department and whether they will act on it now and reverse the stupid decision taken by the coalition Government?

I think I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord West, only last week, that that is a good point. I have taken it back to the department and have no answer for him.

My Lords, will the hand and face scanning procedure apply also to coachloads of schoolchildren going on educational visits to European Union countries? They already face long and stressful delays at the borders because they are no longer on group travel passports, and the individual passport of every child has to be separately checked. Can the Minister say whether the group passport system could be reintroduced, or whether, at the very least, those groups will be excused from hand and face scanning?

As I have said, I am afraid that this is a system being applied by the EU. It is not for us to say how it is applied; it is for it. However, coaches have already been dealt with as far as the new arrangements at Dover are concerned, and, as far as I am aware, this will not be particularly onerous.

The Minister referred to freight traffic. Since Brexit, we have had phytosanitary certificates, plant passports, import licences and export health certificates. On 30 April, we will suffer Brexit-related import checks on meat and plants, leading to payment of common user charges of up to £145 per consignment, estimated to add 10% to the cost of those imports. Can the Minister tell us why the Government gave only 27 days’ notice of the size of this charge and the date of its implementation? What discussions have they had with small businesses in particular about the impact this will have?

The noble Baroness will appreciate that, as a Home Office Minister, I am not party to those discussions, but I will go back to the relevant department and find out, and make sure that she is made aware of the discussions and their substance.

I do not think so. The Minister will note that there is an air of scepticism in the House about the implementation of these new procedures. Will transitional measures be in place to enable the new system to bed in while the existing system carries on working?

No, I do not believe that there will. As I say, this system is being operated and introduced by the European Union, so we have limited say in whether there should be transitional arrangements. Having said that, I do not think that the start date has been made public yet. I know there is a target start date, but I would imagine that there is no obligation to start on the date that has already been published if things are not yet ready.

Well, it is Back-Bench Questions. Could I say to my noble friend how much I sympathise with him? Not only has he had to deal with the Rwanda legislation but he is now being held to account by Opposition Members for foolish decisions taken by the European Union.

My Lords, I hope the Minister’s optimism will be proved accurate in the event, but I am bound to say that those of us who serve on the Justice and Home Affairs Committee that is currently looking at this are not so happy. There is probably a car crash on the way in Dover, I fear. What about the situation in Northern Ireland, where it will not be at all clear whether people coming from the EU or third countries can travel north from Dublin to Belfast if they choose to do so.

My Lords, I am not entirely sure what the noble Lord would like me to say. As I have repeatedly said, this is an EU system being rolled out by the EU. I am neither optimistic nor not optimistic; I am relying on the information I have received as to the EU’s plans.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how the people of Dover will benefit from the money being invested? It is supposed to be levelling up, to make those communities more enterprising. How will that work with this money being used in Dover?

The first thing it will do will be to ease traffic. I imagine that will be of enormous benefit to the people of Dover.

My Lords, on something that is in our control, and being very much an optimist, I was delighted just recently when I applied for my new passport. I expected it to take weeks or months and that there would be lots of delays. I was pleasantly surprised that I could do it electronically. I turned up to the Passport Office and got the passport in five minutes. That is a tremendous accolade to the Passport Office. I just want to put that on record.

I thank my noble friend for that. That is a long-overdue compliment to the passport service, which has been operating extraordinarily efficiently now for quite some time. I remember there was a lot of disquiet on Opposition Benches post Covid about how long it took to square off the backlog. I have not heard any commendations for its recent very strong performance.

My Lords, can my noble friend give an indication of the comparison that has been made between the efficacy and performance of the systems planned to be introduced on the other side of the channel and those systems that are in place at the UK end of passport control and immigration? Is he satisfied that our technology deployed in the UK is at least of equivalent complexity and competency?

I cannot say whether it is of the same complexity, but I can say that the ETA system, which, as noble Lords will be aware, began to be rolled out last year, is working very efficiently, so I am very optimistic about our end of the bargain.

My Lords, could I just refer the Minister to what he said? Why are we blaming the EU for the consequences of a decision that this Government made in leaving the EU?

I am not blaming the EU for anything. The EU has a perfect right to control its own borders—I wish noble Lords in certain parties would afford the same right to us in this country. I would also like to say that the British Government did not leave the EU; the people of Great Britain voted to leave the EU.