Now the UK Parliament is in recess for its summer break, it is interesting to look back over the last month and see what has been talked about by the new British Government relating to biometric passports.
First we report on an interesting exchange in the House of Lords on 13 July relating to biometric passports. The exchanges (which we have edited for the sake of brevity) were reported via the Lords Hansard service and begin with a question by Lord Dubs:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have proposals to introduce biometric passports.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): My Lords, British passports have contained biometric information in the form of facial recognition technology since 2006. There are no plans to introduce a second biometric, such as fingerprints, into passports.
Lord Dubs: First, given that many countries have said that they expect visitors to have full biometric data in their passports, will that not make it much more difficult for British people to travel in the future, especially to the United States? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that forged passports have been involved in almost every known case of terrorism? Surely biometric passports are much harder to forge than the ones that we have at the moment.
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, the noble Lord has raised various points. There are no reasons at all to suppose that the absence of a second biometric in British passports will in any way hinder the ability of British citizens to travel to whichever country they wish to enter. The United States takes the fingerprints of people entering the country but does not insist on fingerprints in passports. The US does not itself have, or intend to put, fingerprints into its passports.
This Government entirely agree with the noble Lord that passport security is extremely important. Although the move to introduce a second biometric will not continue, one part of the programme that definitely will continue is the strengthening of security surrounding the existing facial biometric.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that effective passports are a crucial weapon in protecting this country from both terrorism and crime? Will the Government ensure that the e-Borders system, which was introduced by the previous Government but is taking far too long to put into effect, happens?
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I think the whole House will agree that secure passports are an extremely important part of combating terrorism. It is certainly the case that there are no exit controls at the moment but it is intended that they should come into operation as part of the e-Borders programme.
Lord Brett: My Lords, first, the noble Baroness reminded us that exit controls were removed. Can she remind us which party was in government when they were removed? Secondly, she said that we are going to strengthen the security of passports. Can she tell us how?
Baroness Neville-Jones: The existing facial biometric is a chip inside the passport, and that type of passport has been issued since 2006. It is possible, and we intend, to strengthen the security technology that surrounds that chip to decrease the ability of any forger in any way to clone it or counter its security.
Baroness Neville-Jones: The Government entirely agree with my noble friend that passport security is extremely important, and we intend to ensure that security. However, our view is that the interests of the country are not well served by the Government starting to maintain a database of all passport holders, which amounts to 80 per cent of the population.
The Earl of Erroll: I welcome the fact that biometrics will not be kept on the national identity register-this is essential-but we ought to have biometrics in passports which match ICAO standards to make it easier to travel. We should not be frightened of that as long as they are not held centrally.
Baroness Neville-Jones: We agree that it is extraordinarily important that passports should have adequate security, and we believe that British passports with the single facial recognition biometric will achieve those standards. There are actually a number of countries other than the United Kingdom that do not have plans to introduce a second biometric.
Another interesting question was posted in Hansard as a written answer and relates to the re-negotiation of commercial negotiations with suppliers of second generation biometric passports. The question was asked by Alan Johnson, Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department:
Alan Johnson: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when she expects to announce the outcome of commercial negotiations with suppliers of second generation biometric passport technology; and what estimate she has made of the likely cost to the public purse of the termination of such contracts.
Mrs May: Commercial negotiations with suppliers whose contracts are affected by the decision to halt second generation biometric passports are ongoing and are currently planned to conclude by end-July 2010. We do not expect to terminate any contracts as a result of the decision to halt second biometric passports, but we do expect this to result in net savings to the exchequer of approximately £134 million over the period 2010-11 to 2013-14. Costs and savings specific to existing contracts remain the subject of commercial negotiation and to protect the taxpayers’ interests will not be released until negotiations are complete.
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