UK: New visa regime to match that of the USA
- UK "Warnings Index": "lists people with adverse immigration histories or who are of other interest to the Government. Every visa applicant is checked against this database"
The UK is planning to introduce a new regime for issuing and refusing visas to visitors which closely mirrors the plans in the USA. The UK's intentions are spelt out in its response to a questionnaire sent out to all EU states on the creation of an EU-wide database on visas - which will probably be held on the Schengen Information System (SIS). While most of the national replies only deal directly with the questions, the UK response - almost hidden in a 95-page document - goes further and spells out its intentions clearly.
The UK report opens by noting that the impetus for the creation of an EU Visa Database was:
"motivated by the need to improve operational cooperation to combat terrorism and other serious crime in the wake of the attacks of 11 September, and not simply to improve administrative visa issuing procedure"
The report also notes that the while the UK "does not take part in the Schengen visa issuing arrangements, we do play a full and active role in EU action to combat illegal immigration and the prevention of crime".
The main points raised by the UK report are:
1. The UK argues that data should be kept on both visas issued and visa applications rejected. Users of the EU visa database should also be able to access the FADO database on valid travel documents and user of other databases "such as EURODAC and Europol" should have access to it too. Access and data exchanges with "certain third countries" should be considered" on a reciprocal basis while "respecting EU data protection principles".
2. The current UK visa issuing system is run by the Joint Entry Clearance Unit (JECU) managed jointly by the Home Office and the Foreign Office. The JECU runs a network of 165 visa issuing posts (1,200 staff) worldwide who handled 1.75 million applications in 2001. Two "significant modernisation(s)" are underway.
3. The current visa issuing software is known as "Proviso Express" and a new version, "Proviso 3", is now coming online. This can capture data from Machine Readable Passports and visas, check local alert lists, and print visas.
4. The UK "Warnings Index" is run by the Home Office and:
"lists people with adverse immigration histories or who are of other interest to the Government. Every visa applicant is checked against this database"
The system is run in a similar way to the Schengen Information System (SIS) as the information on the spot outside the UK simply registers a "hit" if a person is on the list, getting the detailed information is a separate process. For security reasons the basic list is currently supplied by CR-ROM for use on laptops.
5. The current system is to be replaced by "Firecrest", a "global FCO standard suite" run through the "new Confidential level FCO Telecommunications network (FTN) running over lines and satellite and will give access to all visa applications world-wide. It will essentially be a "centralised entry clearance reference system" linked to the "immigration records currently held in a Home Office data warehouse". The new "FTN" network will also carry the "Warnings Index" to posts overseas online (replacing the laptops) and may include the background information/intelligence as well.
6. The UK report notes that the EU appears to be "moving in the direction of" including "biometric information on the UFV (Uniform Visa Format)". As reported in the press, the UK is currently conducting a trial with frequent flyers using British Airways and Virgin Atlantic who are able to "register an iris scan" and enter the UK at Heathrow airport via automatic gates rather than by seeing an immigration officers. The UK report observes, using classic bureaucratic speak, that applicants "would be offered the opportunity to have their iris scanned". Although the UK report suggests this technique could be used for visa applicants world-wide its own experiment largely concerns EU citizens.
7. Looking into the future the report says that "future modernisation" may go down the lines of that used by the Australian Electronic Travel Authority with the issuing of electronic visas. The report concludes that:
"An electronic visa in conjunction with a biometric could do away with the need for visa stickers or even the need for a passport"
The Australian system goes further in practice with pre-boarding checks on passengers who can be stopped from boarding a plane. The US Homeland Security plan cites this example as one it wants to follow and the US has argued for a similar "global" EU-US procedure.
Full-text of the UK response from document no: 6084/02, dated 8 February 2002: UK report
Full-text of questionnaire: 15577/01 (pdf)
Full-text of whole document: 6048/02 (pdf)
Story filed 6.4.02
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