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The Government today announced plans to extend the use of biometric technology throughout the UK visa system in a crackdown against abuse of the immigration system.

Visitors seeking a UK visa will, in due course, be required to provide a biometric - fingerprints, iris or facial recognition scans - at point of application. The Home Office says the procedure will facilitate the cross-reference of data to prevent people staying here illegally or claiming asylum fraudulently.

A biometric technology pilot for visa applications in Sri Lanka began last month. Under the scheme launched today biometric visas will be extended to cover visitors from a far greater range of countries.

Speaking ahead of a visit today to an Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon where asylum seekers are already fingerprinted and issued with ID cards containing a biometric chip, Home Secretary David Blunkett said: "Preventing people from travelling to the UK illegally in the first place has been a key part of the strategy to reduce the number of unfounded asylum applications.

"But I am also determined we take advantage of new technology to tighten up visa applications. Biometrics can play a big part in tackling illegal immigration and abuse of our asylum system and by embracing it we can reduce further the pull factor to the UK," he added.

Since July, everyone applying for a UK visa in Sri Lanka has been required to provide a record of their fingerprints as part of a six month pilot. The fingerprint data is held electronically to help identify those who make fraudulent asylum or immigration applications using a false identity. It is also designed to help return unsuccessful asylum seekers from Sri Lanka who destroy their documents by helping to establish their true nationality.

The Home Secretary foresees all sorts of benefits in extending the use of biometric technology more widely in government.

"Taking a biometric when we are dealing with a visa application will provide a much more secure way of confirming someone's identity, even if they deliberately try to mislead the authorities by destroying their documents. It will also make it easier to discover if someone is in this country illegally by over-staying their visa period and to remove those who do not have a right to be in this country.

"Biometrics are already helping tackle fraud in the asylum system and can help tighten our borders further, particularly through close working with other industrialised countries," he added.

At a meeting of G8 Ministers in May, ministers from the eight leading industrialised nations agreed to develop common standards for the use of biometric technology. UK passports will feature biometrics from 2005.

Meanwhile biometric technology is already being used in the asylum system. All asylum seekers are now fingerprinted and checked against UK and EU databases. So far, more than 150,000 have been issued with a high-tech ID card which "provides a more secure and fraud resistant way of tracking people through the system". As a result of this investment in new technology 53 people have been prosecuted in the last year for making fraudulent asylum applications, according to Home Office statistics. ®

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