Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: The application registration card—or ARC—is issued to asylum seekers and their dependants as an acknowledgement of their application for asylum. The card contains information about the individual asylum seeker, including name, address, nationality, date of birth, photograph and fingerprints, which are digitalised and stored on a computer chip. It contains biometric information that can be read and matched with information recorded about individuals. It therefore establishes identity in a way that is extremely difficult to forge.

Even if it were possible to forge an application registration card that looked the same, our record would not contain the information on fingerprints and individual identities necessary to match it. It is a highly sophisticated system. I hesitate to say that it is foolproof, but the card is far more difficult to forge or counterfeit than the standard acknowledgment letter, which it replaced and which could be photocopied effectively and was subject to widespread fraud. We hope that all asylum seekers will have been issued with these cards by September. We may extend the card to non-asylum seekers for immigration purposes when we do not know an individual's identity and are seeking to establish it.

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that her amendment is unnecessary. Under section 8 of the Accessories and Abettors Act 1861—it may not have been at the forefront of the hon. Lady's mind when she tabled the amendment, though I am surprised that it was not at the forefront of the hon. Member for Woking's mind—anyone who aids, abets, counsels or procures the commission of any indictable offence is liable to be tried, indicted and punished as a principal offender. That covers the issues that the hon. Lady raised.

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Angela Watkinson: I take some comfort from the Minister's comments. How to make it as difficult as possible to counterfeit has been carefully considered. I am unfamiliar with the tests that will be used when the cards are presented, but—

Angela Eagle: There will be a matching of the fingerprint data on the card with the record that we hold. That and the photograph on the card will confirm who the person is.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the Minister and I have confidence in the system that is being introduced. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 334, in page 61, line 19, leave out subsection (7).

This simple amendment would delete new section 26A(7) of the 1971 Act, which deals with registration cards. The Minister will have expected the point that I want to make.

Obviously, the power will allow the Secretary of State to amend by secondary legislation the definition of ''registration card'' in new section 26A(1), and to make consequential amendments. We all welcome the registration card as a substitute for the voucher system and a new way to ensure that people are within the system. I understand that some of the details will change as technology develops, as might the processing of the details on to the card. Several sources have confirmed that, in their view, proposed new section 26A(7) will permit unlimited variation in the definition of ''registration card''. It could therefore be turned into something significantly different from what the Minister described.

I do not doubt that the Government do not have such a proposal in mind at the moment. The Minister was right to say that the present system was hopeless, as it involves many pieces of paper that appear to have no great statutory or constitutional validity, can be photocopied and do not look as though they are of much importance. It is not a satisfactory system, and I am sure that we have all had constituency experience of it.

The amendment is probing, and is designed to see how we can ensure that the registration card is used only for the purpose currently envisaged, which is by applicants from the moment of application until the determination of their asylum case and the resolution of that application. We do not want registration cards to be more widely used.

Discussion on the subject started in the wider context of the perfectly proper debate on identity cards. Obviously, some of those willing to sign up to a registration card, as I am, may, like me, not want to sign up to an identity card, which deals with much wider issues. Some of us want safeguards, so that the Government do not move by stealth from the registration card to something else without appropriate authority.

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Angela Eagle: The wider debate about identity cards will be facilitated by the consultation document due to be issued before the start of the summer. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will contribute to it in his usual way. I confirm that it is not our intention to turn the applicant registration card into an identity card for everyone by stealth.

The amendment would remove a provision that would allow us by order to extend the use of the card from asylum seekers to other categories of immigration customer, if I can use that phrase. For example, we might give an applicant registration card, after some future evolution of it, to a person who on arrival in the United Kingdom failed to provide a valid passport with a photograph or other document to establish their identity. If we did so, it would be because we wanted them to be able to prove their identity while the work was done, if they were on temporary admission. We might give someone who arrived in the UK with a counterfeit or fraudulently obtained document such a card in future, so that they could establish their identity while that was sorted out.

The amendment would mean that if there were to be such extensions of the use of the card and someone were to counterfeit a card in an extended category, we could not prosecute them for doing so, which seems ludicrous.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman tabled the amendment so that we could have a discussion about the intentions with respect to the card. We are currently issuing the card to all asylum seekers. We hope to have that done by September, and it is proceeding well. Asylum seekers will then be able to use the card to establish their nationality at the 500 NASS-enabled post offices. They can use it to establish their identity when they pick up their cash allowances, now that vouchers have been abolished.

Several factors make it easier to administer the system by checking on identity in an area where it is often forged. Those advantages could be extended to other immigration situations, and the clause and the order-making power are designed to enable that. However, they are not a backdoor way of introducing ID cards for the 60 million people currently residing in the UK.

Simon Hughes: I am partly reassured by the Minister's remarks. I have one remaining question. The definition of ''registration card'' in new section 26A(1), which is open to change under the provision in subsection (7), is limited by (1)(b), which states that a card is issued

    ''wholly or partly in connection with a claim for asylum''.

That could clearly be changed and it could be extended to anybody in an immigration applicant category. I do not understand how, if we allow subsection (7) through, we prevent the card from being used for categories other than those related to immigration. I accept that the measure appears in immigration legislation, but will the Minister tell we how it is limited to immigration purposes? Unless it is limited, the Secretary of State could change the emphasis.

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Angela Eagle: It is limited by virtue of this being an immigration Bill.

Simon Hughes: That is not very reassuring.

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman should be reassured. There is no intention to widen the scope of any measure in the Bill so that it has a general application. This Bill is concerned with immigration, nationality and asylum. When it becomes an Act, it will still involve only those issues. If we were to decide to introduce an ID card in the future, there would have to be legislation for that. No doubt the hon. Gentleman would contribute to the debate on that in his usual way. This is not a backdoor way of introducing a generalised ID card. It can--and we hope that it will-be evolved for use as a method of identification in other immigration contexts. That is why the clause has the flexibility to allow the card to evolve in that way without having to pass further primary legislation. However, if we do evolve the card in that way, there will be further parliamentary scrutiny, because of order-making powers.

Simon Hughes: I appreciate that further scrutiny is ensured by the order-making process. I also understand the Minister's assurance, and I accept that the measure is not intended to be a method of facilitating an ID card. I know about the anticipated consultation paper—there are five weeks until the summer recess, so that is the time we have for it. It would be helpful if the Minister and her officials could examine the wording and table an amendment that said something like, ''issued by the Secretary of State wholly or partly in connection with a claim for asylum or in relation to immigration matters,'' so that the measure would be clearly limited.

I accept that the measure appears in this immigration Bill, but I do not think, although I am not an expert, that that would necessarily limit it. However, I am happy to leave the matter for the time being, and if the Minister will reflect on it, I will too. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Allan: An issue of concern remains about the development of registration powers. The Minister referred to the way in which the contracts are let. I know, having asked questions about the proposal when it was originally made, that the current system for issuing registration cards to asylum seekers, which as the Minister says has already started, has been carried out by the extension of the terms of an existing contract. The Minister just said that there is a possibility of extending registration to other immigration categories. That would imply that the nature of the contract could be extended by orders of magnitude without parliamentary scrutiny, as my hon. Friend indicated through his amendment. There will be concern if we see the growth of a major new system within the immigration and nationality directorate, which we in Parliament have no ability to scrutinise.

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There is concern about the new computerised system in the immigration and nationality directorate, which has received critical attention in the past, and I expect that to continue. If there is a major extension, I hope that we will be able to scrutinise it properly in Parliament.

6.45 pm

 
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