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Iris scans at UK airports, says Home Office

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The Home Office is to install iris scanning technology in major UK airports. It says this will speed up immigration times for those who register on the scheme, as well as providing a "substantial increase in security".

It has signed a five-year contract with Sagem, the French company, to provide the Iris Recognition Immigration System, IRIS.

The Immigration Service will invite "certain groups of foreign nationals" to join the scheme. To qualify, would-be registrants must have a track record of complying with the UK's immigration laws.

Such people might be non EEA nationals who have indefinite leave to remain in the UK, be regular travellers or hold UK work permits, for example.

The first installation will be at Heathrow terminals two and four, with four other airports joining in 2005. The Home Office expects more than one million people will have registered to use the system within five years.

This will not be a replacement for passports, so will it save time?

A Home Office spokesman explained that the scanning process takes twelve seconds, and that this will be much faster than queuing and then being interviewed by an immigration officer on arrival, which they have to do each time they re-enter the country.

This makes the immigration process sound a little more involved that it actually is. This reporter has travelled more than once with a foreign national who was travelling into the country on a UK work visa. In his experience, the interview with the immigration officer is not a particularly lengthy process and doesn't mean going into a little room to be questioned.

These figures are based on a trial at Heathrow Airport involving 200 people, not anecdotal evidence, the Home Office spokesman soldiered on. Not much of a chance of a queue forming with 200 people, we said. But what about the millions you are expecting?

It will still be faster, he insisted, adding that the findings are also based on immigration officers' experience, and that the IRIS technology will free up their time too.

The trial was conducted at Heathrow, and was a joint project by British Airports Authority, the Immigration Service, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways.

The government will launch a publicity campaign at the end of 2004 to sell the idea to its target audience. Enrolment will be voluntary, and all applicants will be vetted very carefully. ®

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