The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: †Mr Laurence Robertson
Blake, Olivia (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)
Champion, Sarah (Rotherham) (Lab)
† Charalambous, Bambos (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
Foster, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Harris, Rebecca (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Holmes, Paul (Eastleigh) (Con)
Mak, Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Morris, Grahame (Easington) (Lab)
Morris, James (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Owatemi, Taiwo (Coventry North West) (Lab)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
Thomson, Richard (Gordon) (SNP)
† Throup, Maggie (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Yohanna Sallberg, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 9 June 2021
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2021
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members to observe social distancing and sit only in places that are clearly marked. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Committee unless Members are exempt or are speaking. Hansard colleagues would be most grateful if Members could send their speaking notes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Immigration (Collection, Use and Retention of Biometric Information and Related Amendments) Regulations 2021.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I start by saying that I am sure that the whole Committee sends our very best wishes to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), whom I am standing in for today. He has had a family bereavement, and we send him and his family our very best wishes. They are very much in our thoughts at this difficult time.
The legislation that we are debating concerns two linked elements of our immigration system: the use of biometrics, and the fees regime. I will take each of them in turn. The use of biometric information enables us to check and confirm the identities and immigration status of foreign nationals who come to live or work in the UK. The Government are pursuing an ambitious programme of change to deliver a fair and firm immigration system that is much easier for customers to navigate and works in the national interest. Through the biometric regulations, we will update our powers so that fingerprints can be enrolled once and retained for subsequent reuse, saving the applicant the inconvenience of needing to re-enrol every time they make a new application to come to or stay in the UK, or to replace immigration documents. As members of the Committee will appreciate, no longer needing to travel from places such as the Shetland Islands or the Scilly Isles to the nearest service centre will be a major improvement for customers. The regulations also provide us with the ability to restart the fingerprint retention period when biometrics are reused for an immigration application, to avoid deleting them prematurely.
The regulations will support the move from physical to digital evidence of immigration status. We live in a digital age, in which businesses and customers expect a swift, user-friendly experience. With that in mind, we are developing a biometrically enabled digital immigration system, underpinned by security and efficiency, that will provide real-time evidence of immigration status online. And with that in mind, the regulations clarify our powers to use and retain biometric information obtained from asylum seekers and foreign nationals who are unlawfully in the UK, require leave but do not have it, or lack adequate documentation.
The fees order sets out the services that we charge for and the maximum amounts that we are able to charge for immigration and nationality products and services. I make it clear at the outset that no fee levels will be changed through the order before us today. Fee levels are amended through immigration and nationality fees regulations, which are laid before Parliament separately and are subject to the negative procedure.
The changes in the fees order ensure that definitions within the legislation are flexible enough to enable us to evolve our products and services to meet the demands of our customers. The fees order will amend the definition of “transfer of conditions” to ensure that it covers the need to update digital services as well as changes to physical documents. The change to the definition of “premium services” will provide the Home Department with greater flexibility to offer a wider range of optional premium services relating to immigration or nationality where there is a demand to do so. The proposed changes do not introduce any new services at this point or impact on standard services. The fees order also ensures the related provisions in the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2018 are updated to reflect those definitions. In reusing biometric information, the Department continues to incur processing costs, which need to be met. The fees order will therefore clarify and give assurance that the power to charge for biometric enrolment also includes the power to charge for biometric reuse.
I realise that the draft regulations both cover somewhat technical areas, but they bring with them a big improvement for those using these services. I hope I have been able to explain how they will help facilitate our ambitious journey towards a biometrically enabled digital immigration system and ensure that the fees we charge for border, immigration and nationality services are supported by the right framework.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I begin by associating myself with the Minister’s remarks about the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Torbay. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family at this difficult time.
As the Minister has explained, the draft fees regulations propose a phased approach to online platforms for evidence of immigration status by amending the definition of the “transfer of conditions” to ensure it covers digital as well as physical documents. It increases the charge of £19.20 to enrol applicants’ biometric information for each application for a period of leave to remain, to a one-off charge of no more than £30 for the reuse of biometrics. It redefines and expands the term “premium services” to cover optional immigration and nationality services generally, not just applications—for example, for Border Force officers checking passports on carriers at sea, which some carriers choose to pay for. The draft order makes amendments to make clear that the expression “premium services” has the same meaning as in the 2018 Regulations and the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2016, and amendments to the definition of “transfer of conditions”.
The Opposition have previously stated our serious concerns about the overall high cost of immigration and nationality application fees. The one-off £30 fee may seem reasonable to us, but considering the financial circumstances of applicants, it may be burdensome on some applicants. Has an impact assessment been done on the effect of the increase on people who may have a very low income, if any at all, when seeking to make the application? We also have concerns about the lack of physical proof for immigration status and have made that point on previous occasions.
The draft regulations on biometric information allow the retention of a vast amount of information, to be stored for a period increasing from 10 to 15 years. It also grants the Secretary of State huge powers. We have serious concerns about the draft regulations, but it is difficult to assess the impact, because there is a lack of transparency on what the new digital orders will look like in the future, what legal safeguards will be in place to protect people’s privacy and their data, and how the process will interact with the digital hostile environment that previously existed. We also have questions about the use that contractors in removal centres will have of biometric information and the safeguards around the contractors’ processes in managing that data.
The Secretary of State’s powers will be draconian. For example, the draft regulations allow the Secretary of State to order someone to whom the regulation applies to attend a place to have their photograph taken.
We have further concerns about the deletion of data. We have heard previously detail from the Windrush scandal of people having their boarding passes destroyed. We have concerns about how long the data will be held and the Home Secretary’s power to turn off the tap and people losing all their data at the switch of a button.
The Opposition not only have concerns about safeguards, but about people’s immigration status. Currently, people have physical documents to prove their status, but what happens under a solely biometric system if someone is unable to produce a physical document? Does that mean they will lose out on various benefits, the right to rent a property and the right to work, even? Those data changes may be made without their notice. If any changes are made to someone’s immigration status, what safeguards will be in place to notify them? Will they receive a letter or an email? How will that work?
The Opposition will not oppose the statutory instruments, but we would like our reservations to be noted. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond in writing, not necessarily right now, to our valid concerns. We will not push the matter to a vote but want our concerns to be noted.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister, as ever, for his constructive comments and questions. I will make a number of observations in response, but if I miss anything, I am sure that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, will be more than happy to follow up in writing, because I am conscious that the shadow Minister asked several probing questions.
On fees, it is important to make the point that the fees order is an essential part of the immigration fees framework. It enables the Department to set fees via any future regulations. The changes in the order we are debating will ensure the right framework is in place to support the ongoing fees that we charge for border, immigration and nationality services. It is crucial to recognise, however, that the fees order is not creating any new services. The change to the definition of “premium services” made in the order will provide the Department with a greater flexibility to offer premium services relating to immigration or nationality in a wider context of circumstances, and as things develop. We are not proposing any new services at this point in time; that is something that we may look at again in due course. The existing fees will not change, however, as a result of amending the definition of “premium services”, and those services that we do offer will continue to remain optional.
Everybody is very mindful of the security of data. That is a pressing concern, and quite understandably given the nature of the world that we live in. The shadow Minister is right to ask about such security. Obviously, we have collected biometrics for immigration purposes for many years—in fact since 1993—and we store biometric information very securely on the immigration and asylum biometrics system. That is a different system from the one with which there have been issues relating to police data and its loss earlier this year. There are strict controls on how biometric data may be used, and when such information must be deleted is set out in legislation. The draft SI will, if approved, change the retention regime but it will not alter where that information is stored or how that data is protected.
Biometric records due for deletion are subject to a three-step process before they are permanently deleted from the system. IABS has a number of mechanisms to protect the data it holds and that data is stored in secured locations, accredited to store and process UK Government protectively marked information. I hope that offers the shadow Minister some comfort about the safeguards in place to ensure that the data is handled securely and correctly, as people across the country and visitors to it would rightly expect.
The shadow Minister referred to people being able to demonstrate their status so as to meet necessary requirements, and I think it is important to say that extending the period of data retention should make it easier and more convenient for people to be able to demonstrate their status so that they can successfully access services.
On the confirmation of status, it is now standard practice to issue letters to demonstrate and clarify people’s status. They are then able to retain those letters for future purposes, and that is helpful if they are ever required to demonstrate their status for any particular purposes, including when interacting with government more generally.
If I have missed any points in response to the shadow Minister, I am sure that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, will be delighted to write to him with more detail.
In conclusion, the focus of the proposed legislation is to further simplify, standardise and modernise a range of provisions to provide a clearer, more consistent experience for those who engage with the immigration system. As we roll out biometric reuse, applicants will no longer have to attend repeat biometric enrolment appointments. Home Office teams will be able to focus on processing applications instead of waiting for applicants to attend a biometric appointment to enrol their biometrics both in the UK and overseas. We will continue to phase out less secure physical documents that are easily lost and need to be replaced. We will simplify the process for gathering biometrics and standardise how we use and retain them in what is a key strand of our drive to deliver a fully digital system.
The changes to the fees order will provide a stable legal basis and ensure that it is fit for purpose for services and products developed gradually. I emphasise again, and to respond to the shadow Minister, that the changes will not amend specific fees, and any future fee changes will be subject to approval by Parliament, and no doubt future debate of any such regulations.
Throughout the lifespan of the fees order, immigration fees will continue to be reviewed and updated where necessary, and all existing Government oversight arrangements will remain in place. As such, I commend the order and the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
DRAFT IMMIGRATION (COLLECTION, USE AND RETENTION OF BIOMETRIC INFORMATION AND RELATED AMENDMENTS) REGULATIONS 2021
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Collection, Use and Retention of Biometric Information and Related Amendments) Regulations 2021. —(Tom Pursglove.)