Government plans imminent legislation for digital visas

Legal provisions for new system of electronic travel authorisations will soon be tabled in parliament 

Credit: eGuide Travel/CC BY 2.0

The government plans to imminently introduce new legislation for a digital visa system that could collect biometric and other personal information on 30 million people each year.

The Home Office has previously outlined its intention to introduce an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) for use all visitors to the UK without a visa or immigration status. The digital documents – which will, for the first time, be required by visitors from the EU – will be subject to an online application process, during which travellers’ biometric information is likely to be collected. 

Provisions for the introduction of the scheme, which will resemble the ESTA visa-waiver programme in operation in the US, were made in the Nationality and Borders Bill put before parliament in July and currently undergoing scrutiny by committee. 

The bill states that home secretary Priti Patel may, in due course, introduce regulations “requiring an individual to have an electronic travel authorisation before travelling to the United Kingdom”.

Airlines and passenger shipping lines will be responsible for ensuring travellers entering the UK have been granted an ETA. Those that fail to do so may face “civil penalties”, according to the bill.

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Patel this week announced the introduction of secondary legislation under the Nationality and Borders Bill that gives her office the power to penalise countries that “do not co-operate with deportations and removals”. 

Penalties available to the home secretary will include the total suspension of the issuance of visas to the country in question, or the imposition of enforced increased processing times or a £190 surcharge.

Further amendments to the bill planned “for the coming week” include measures to enable the introduction of the ETA system.

“[This is] in line with the government’s ambition to secure the border,” the government said. “Once introduced, carriers will need to check that all passengers – except British and Irish citizens – have a digital authorisation or some other form of permission before they can travel to the UK.”

The Nationality and Borders Bill has been widely criticised, including by the UN Refugee Agency, which has called the law an “unacceptable” act of “criminalising asylum-seekers”, in contravention of international conventions.

Campaign group Statewatch is also among the critics of the law and, as part of the ongoing committee inquiry into the bill, has submitted evidence on the implications of the biometric data-gathering.

“The type of scheme proposed by the bill would require the processing of a significant amount of personal data on vast numbers of people,” Statewatch said. “The bill also states that the scheme may require the processing of biometric data, a particularly sensitive form of data that requires ‘specific protection as the context of their processing could create significant risks to the fundamental rights and freedoms’. [Our] submission highlights that the government has not yet demonstrated the need for such a scheme – a vital first step if it is to meet the requirements of necessity and proportionality. If such a need can be demonstrated – a point that remains open to question – it must then be ensured that data processing does not go beyond the minimum necessary.”

Based on pre-coronavirus travel volumes, about 30 million people are expected to require an ETA to enter the UK under the new immigration regime. Ireland will be the only country whose citizens can continue to visit this country using only their passport.


Sam Trendall

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