Byrne sprinkles biometric ID pixie dust over immigration 'issue'

Magics 'new' data from old pilots

Home Office Minister Liam Byrne was today scheduled to pitch ID cards as a crucial weapon in the fight against illegal immigrants, according to the advance spin in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph. The paper, entirely forgetting about Tony's Fortress Britain, claims the switch to playing the immigration card is a "fresh approach" from John Reid, this week's Home Secretary.

On cursory examination, however, the 'new' plan and the "research" on which it is based turn out to be a rewarm, repurpose and repackaging of some dubious twiddling that dates back to 2003. And while we're about it, we think we may be able to spot a shameful conflation of the issues of asylum and illegal immigration.

Byrne was to present findings from "research that began in Sri Lanka in 2003 and was extended to cover 12 'visa issuing points' in nine countries for those wishing to come to Britain." Those who've been paying attention (this possibly doesn't include immigration ministers, as we've been through about half a dozen of them since then) will recognise this as being part of the phased implementation of a UK move over to biometric visas as standard issue, and will therefore share our bafflement that Byrne was also due to tell us that the trials "finished last November". So if we have that right, the "success" of the Sri Lanka trial resulted in the expansion of the programme from March 2004, and the programme was subsequently so successful that, er, they stopped it again in November 2005?

The text of Byrne's speech, as and when it is available, may shed some light on this conundrum. Note in passing that there's also a general EU plan for biometric visas via the Schengen II system, but the UK is not fully signed up to that, and in December 2005 the EU biometric visa plans were starting to look unwell.

But at any rate, the purpose of the original Sri Lanka trial was mainly to link individual visa applicants to documents via their biometrics, making it in principle easier to identify overstayers if whoever picked them up had access to the right database, and stopping would-be illegal immigrants coming into the UK on documents that had been issued to somebody else. The Sri Lanka trial and the later extensions of the system to East Africa were also intended, by nailing the applicant to the document, to stop people coming into the country as a visitor then destroying the documentation and claiming asylum. So, the broad strategic purpose of the biometric visa system (in the UK and the EU) is to improve control of general immigration, while the specific early implementations by HMG were skewed towards tacking 'asylum abuse'.

Byrne's shame (at least as far as the Telegraph reports it) is that he will present biometric visas as a fix for illegal immigration, but support his pitch with figures covering failed asylum. During that wacky "trial" period "1,400 failed asylum seekers trying to return to Britain illegally" were detected.

This gives us a clue as to the databases used in the trial, and who had access to them. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate has been issuing asylum seekers with biometric ID cards for some years now, so it ought to have (but one can never be absolutely certain with IND) a comprehensive biometric database of everyone who's applied. The overseas "visa issuing points" are (or were, if they really did switch it off) taking the biometrics of visa applicants, so clearly these two datasets have been meeting, and have thrown up 1,400 hits between March 2004 and November 2005.

We should at this point remind readers of that successful Sri Lanka trial. A total of nine villains was detected over six months. The 2002 figures we quoted in our story on the subject put Sri Lanka asylum applications at 4,285, with 3,670 of these refused. At that time, using 2002 numbers we guesstimated that the extension of the biometric visa system to East Africa would catch 600 fraudulent applicants a year; we seem to have been a damn sight closer there than certain immigration ministers were when they predicted how many people would come to the UK from the new EU countries. Newer asylum and immigration figures are available here, showing approximately 26,000 asylum applications for 2005, and applications from Sri Lanka and Sudan at 330 and 1,305 respectively.

The Government meanwhile estimates net "in-migration" of 223,000 to the UK in 2004, including 494,000 non-British nationals arriving and 208,000 British nationals leaving. Some perspective on the inherent foolishness of bothering about 1,400 failed asylum seekers over a period of 19-20 months, or indeed 26,000 total asylum seekers over 12 months, can be gained from the knowledge that there were 387,875 decisions on applications to vary conditions of leave to remain in 2005, and of these 68 per cent were grants of extension, 23 per cent grants of settlement and 9 per cent refusals.

Essentially, the numbers that make up the immigration 'problem' that we know about are far, far larger than the total number of asylum seekers and the fairly small number of frauds and overstayers caught. The 'successful' system as described by Byrne seems only to have trapped failed asylum seekers who had then left the country and attempted to return by applying for a visa, so misses those who didn't apply for asylum in the first place, arrived illegally or have been in-country for some years. Or indeed those from countries where the UK does not require a visa. Byrne, if he is serious about ID cards being the cure for the 'problem', should level with us about the pervasiveness of the biometric internal passport system that will be necessary to identify all illegal immigrants, and the extent of the enforcement system that will be needed to remove them all. As his boss John Reid intends to sort out immigration within five years, but won't do this via an amnesty, it's all surely a bit urgent, at least from Byrne's point of view.

ID Card Fraudwatch One of the previous justifications for ID cards was the need to combat so-called health tourism. The justification was somewhat undermined by the Government having no reliable figures on the level of this class of fraud, and by those figures that did exist indicating that the cost probably didn't even count as a rounding error in the NHS budget. Well, it turns out that they had the numbers after all. According to FOI figures obtained by Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, treatment valued at £27 million was given to ineligible patients at 106 hospitals last year, and £10 million of that has not been repaid. Whew. If those numbers are reflected across the whole system, the loss to the NHS is (ulp) £20 million, out of an NHS budget of £80 billion plus. The Tories, bless, seem to have identified this as a problem anyway.

Blunkettwatch Talking of asylum, he's back, and he's on the book tour. Choice segments from the memoirs of last century's Home Secretary began appearing in the Guardian today, and he's well up to his traditional delusional and self-serving mark. Straight out of the starting gates the intro tells us Blunkett "has always refused to name or discuss her [Kimberley Quinn], a rule he sticks to throughout his diaries", while the Evil One himself tells us he will not "name the lady in question... My refusal to name names might seem odd to some readers. But throughout these pages I have expressed my conviction that it is proper for my private life to be kept private..."

This would be the same David Blunkett who in December 2004 kept his private life private and didn't discuss Quinn in these terms: "In future he [my son] will want to know, not just did his father care enough to sacrifice his career but he will want to know, I hope, that his mother has some regret... [and his tormentors should examine] their consciences about what they have done to that little boy's future. I hope they will think about it," and toured TV and radio stations slagging her off? Indeed it would. Towards the end of today's excerpts our David even confirms this, saying: "I am not proud of those 10 days [to Christmas]. I wasn't thinking straight and I wasn't behaving sensibly. No excuses. I had simply had enough. I said things to journalists and to other colleagues that should not have been said. I attacked the key person in my personal life, and implied that she was a hedonist and not a good mother. I regret this, and believe it to be untrue." But we suppose it is possible he nev er mentioned her name, as such... ®

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