HC Deb 04 February 1994 vol 236 cc1212-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

2.31 pm
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)

Having been successful in securing this Adjournment debate, I want to raise the subject of passport fraud. My subject today will range from my personal experience of three cases in which my constituents have been involved and I hope then to exploit what I consider to be a larger example of where there may be problems.

The particular case that I want to outline before referring to two others is that of my constituent Mr. Smith. In 1991, he called at the passport office in Petit France to renew his and his wife's passports. Like many other people, Mr. Smith took with him his own birth certificate and a copy of his wife's. I understand, and most people will now know, that that is not necessary, but many people take those documents in the belief that that is necessary.

At no time at that point was Mr. Smith told that it was not necessary for him to bring those documents and he was certainly not handed his birth certificate back when he took it in. Fourteen days after his visit, his new passport arrived as promised. It was not until August 1991, when the couple were about to go on holiday, that they discovered that Mrs. Smith's photocopied birth certificate had been returned but that her husband's original certificate, dating back to 1921, had not.

Mr. Smith immediately wrote to the passport office, but received no reply. He later discovered that the birth certificate of his 10-year-old grandson had also not been returned by the passport office. Mr. Smith took up both those cases with my predecessor, now Lord Tebbit. After failing to receive a satisfactory answer, he pursued the matter himself.

My predecessor was told by the United Kingdom Passport Agency that Mr. Smith's birth certificate was never recorded as being present with the documents that were handed in. If the birth certificate was not needed, why did the official accept it? That is the first question that I should like answered. If it was not needed, it was obviously easy, to lose in the system as no record of it would have been, necessary.

In February 1992, Mr. Smith was contacted by the Home Office requesting details of his grandson's birth certificate. Mr. Smith provided details of his grandson's name and all the other relevant details. He was then contacted by the Passport Agency saying that it had no trace of his birth certificate, but that that of his grandson had been found.

The official promised to send his grandson's birth certificate back immediately with all the details appertaining to it. Mr. Smith discussed matters further. However, when the package arrived two days later the birth certificate was not the original that had been handed in but a rather badly hand-written copy containing the information that Mr. Smith had given the Home Office at the time. The original certificate, of which the families had a photocopy at home, had been type-written and was dated 1980 while the new hand-written certificate was dated 1989. The family had a photocopy and were able to compare the two.

In all my correspondence with the United Kingdom Passport Agency once I took up the matter, the chief executive persistently said that they had no record of Mr. Smith's birth certificate and that no certificate was ever lodged. Officials have never accepted the fact that Mr. Smith's grandson did not receive his original birth certificate back from the passport office. I wonder why they need to go through this charade when it is clear that it was not the original that was sent in with the grandson's details and he has never had the original back.

When Mr. Smith went to have a duplicate birth certificate issued by the local registrar—this is especially interesting and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bear this point in mind—he was told by the registrar that the main cause for people having to get new birth certificates was the claim that the original had been lost by the passport office, and occasionally by the Department of Social Security. I therefore begin to touch on the larger issue of which my hon. Friend is aware. I wonder how many times this happens and we do not know about it.

Mr. Smith has been reassured by Mr. Lonsdale, the chief executive of the United Kingdom Passport Agency: The UK Passport Agency undertakes a variety of checks on the bona fides of applicants for passports. I hope it will re-assure you to know that if in the future an application is received with your particulars it will be carefully scrutinised and a passport issued only when we are satisfied that it was made by you personally. While that reassures my constituent, I am surprised that Mr. Lonsdale felt it necessary to say that if there was not something else nagging at the back of his mind with the knowledge of what happens to other people.

I raise the issue of another of my constituents, Mr. Goobey, who was on an extended holiday in Norway in 1992. He sent his Norwegian fiancée's passport to the immigration and nationality department to be stamped for residency status. Required with that application was her future husband's birth certificate. All the documents bar the birth certificate were returned.

Despite writing four letters about the loss of the birth certificate, Mr. Goobey did not receive any explanation for its loss until I finally took up the case with the chief executive. Once again, I was given the explanation that there was no trace of its receipt". However, the document was needed for his fiancée's residency to be given. How did she receive that status if the Department had no record of the document ever having been with the other documentation'?

Essentially, I am concerned that, despite my correspondence with the Passport Agency, we seem to have been constantly fobbed off. I wonder how many other people are perhaps fobbed off and do not take up the issue with their Members of Parliament. Perhaps they are not even aware that something has gone wrong, or perhaps they accept that there was some mistake and say nothing about it.

I am reminded of the case of a crack dealer arrested in Hackney in 1991. The man claimed to be Mr. Joshua William Saunders aged 40 from St. Pancras. After investigation, it was discovered that he was Michael George Morrison aged 32 of Kingston, Jamaica who was wanted in Kansas City for drugs and firearms offences. The real Mr. Saunders is still alive and living in this country. What certainty do I have to give my constituent Mr. Smith that someone dealing in illegal substances is not using his identity to travel between countries?

There is also the story of Donald Brown—I discovered that he is known as one-eyed Donald—who is known to the immigration and police services. He has been deported from Britain five times and has managed to return with a different identity each time.

I am worried about the ease with which agents can obtain birth certificates. I understand that there is a strong and big business in dealing in false passports and birth certificates. I am reminded that Dominic Arkwright did a piece for Radio 4's "Today" programme about trafficking in these documents.

I am also reminded of the recent case in the Daily Mail where the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms Hoey)—I told the hon. Lady that I would be raising this issue—was tricked into assisting a constituent in his claim for a variety of benefits. This is no reflection on the hon. Lady; it is simply an illustration of how this individual managed to run a particular issue past her. It was later discovered that he had obtained birth certificates, false driving licences and bogus rent books. He said that it had been as easy as "taking candy from children".

The ease of obtaining another identity was highlighted in that rather good book, "The Day of the Jackal", where it was pointed out—I suspect to the whole world—how easy it was. All that was needed was an hour because birth certificates are public documents. A person can apply for anyone's certificate so long as he writes with the relevant references. It is estimated that only 5 per cent. of those application forms are checked, and there have been cases in which "agents" have applied for up to 20 birth certificates at a time.

The book was published in 1971, and 23 years later it appears that the loophole remains open. I note that the Government published a White Paper on the matter in January 1990, entitled "Registration Proposals for Change", in which tighter regulations were proposed. The document stated: Those requiring certified copies will have to complete a more comprehensive application form resembling that for a passport. Applicants will be required to identify themselves, state their relationship to the subject of the required certificate and the purpose, official or otherwise, for which it is required. They will also be asked to give their address and this may be confirmed before the certificate is issued. A statutory power will be introduced enabling the Registrar General and local registrars to refuse to issue certified copies unless reasonably satisfied of the identity and entitlement of the applicant. I know that those proposals were probably welcomed by all parties at the time. I urge my hon. Friend to implement them as soon as possible. I understand that the implementation of the proposals is connected with the review of local government, but the loophole will be exploited each week, month or year that it remains open. I believe that it is probably being exploited even as I talk today.

Jamaican yardies realised in 1988 that there was a lack of visa requirements for travel to the United States. That requirement was dropped in America, and it became inviting to them. I only use yardies as an example; others may have different purposes for travelling to and from the United States. It became inviting for people such as them to have possession of a British passport because they did not need the second check of a visa. The use of a British passport gave people who otherwise might not have the ability to travel between the two continents that possibility. British passports are not the only ones which can be false; I accept that a fire in Kingston, Jamaica destroyed many records and made things difficult.

Blank passports and birth certificates have been stolen from HMSO printers in Manchester, and I gather that in 1992 at least 100 were stolen from Petty France. I believe that a man and women were arrested in Petty France in 1991 for possessing blank passports and that they are now serving time.

Those who deal in drugs have no shortage of money and can put up large bribes. I am extremely concerned about that in the light of the recent discovery that there were 20 illegal immigrants working in the Home Office, as reported in last weekend's Sunday papers. I assume that it is correct information, although I have not been able to check it myself. That means that we need to be more careful and to have greater checks within that area.

I am rather concerned that there seem to be a number of ways in which those wishing to abuse the system can do so. It is not just passport fraud for which the documents are used. Anyone living here with five different identities can surely go on to claim all sorts of other benefits. While I am the first to stand up for everybody's right to claim benefits to which they are entitled, it concerns me that we have a large amount of benefit fraud. I urge my hon. Friend to look at the matter with regard to my constituents. I am particularly worried at the way in which they have been treated by the passport office. They have never received the answer that I believe is their due. They could have been given much clearer and simpler answers and perhaps greater checks could have been made.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to assure me that tighter restrictions are in force in the Home Office and that we shall not see repetitions of what has happened to my constituents and others.

2.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) on his success in obtaining this important debate. In a few moments, I shall talk about the subject of passport fraud in general. Before I do so, may I tell him how pleased I am that he referred to the specific case raised by Mr. Ronald Smith, who has had a long and distinguished career in public service. As my hon. Friend said, Mr. Smith raised the case with my hon. Friend's predecessor, now Lord Tebbit. There has been a certain amount of correspondence on that case.

There are always people who will seek to benefit by beating the system in one way or another. In the case of commercial or banking fraud, the benefit to the fraudster is usually financial gain. In the case of passport fraud, the benefit to the end user is usually the ability to outwit the immigration and nationality controls of this country or a country overseas.

My hon. Friend will recall from his excellent work in the Committee stage of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, that the problems faced by the immigration service at passport control go much wider than the question of British passports. He will recall the talk then about forged documents of a wide variety—not necessarily British passports. My hon. Friend quoted many examples. I am sure that he will bear it in mind that in many of those cases the process of fraud did not necessarily involve a fraudulently obtained or forged British passport.

My hon. Friend will also wish to know that the birth certificate is not used as evidence of identity. I shall enlarge on that in a few moments. He also mentioned a report in this week's The Sunday Times about an allegation that 20 illegal immigrants worked in the Home Office. I hope that my hon. Friend and the House will be reassured to know that I have written to the editor of that newspaper making it clear that there is no substance to that allegation.

Some end users are willing to pay large sums of money to obtain a passport fraudulently, so there will always be middlemen trying to obtain passports on their behalf. As I shall seek to show, that is something about which we are constantly watchful.

It is the task of the United Kingdom Passport Agency, which is responsible for the six passport offices at Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Newport and Peterborough, to take steps to defeat the fraudulent passport applicant. The embassies and consulates of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have a similar responsibility overseas. It may be helpful if I describe in broad outline the security procedures that are followed, which I have personally seen in action on my visits to different passport offices. For obvious reasons, I shall try to avoid giving away any details that would be of assistance to the criminal mind. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I must be careful about that.

All standard passport applications have to be made on an official passport application form. There are separate forms for new passports and replacement passports, and for amendments to existing passports such as the addition of children or a change of surname, for example, on marriage. The procedures vary slightly for the different types of application. In the case of an application for a new passport, the applicant is required to give evidence of his identity by having his application and his passport photograph countersigned by a responsible person who has known him or her personally for at least two years. There is sometimes criticism about limiting the people who can countersign a passport application to those who are professionally qualified or of a similar standing, but it is obviously vital that we should be able to trust the person who provides evidence of identity.

My hon. Friend will recall that the passport application form clearly states, in the form of a caution: You are warned that the making of an untrue statement for the purpose of procuring a passport is a criminal offence. So the warning is perfectly clear for anyone who serves as a countersignatory, as well as for an applicant.

As we often make inquiries to check that the person said to have countersigned the application and the photograph has done so, it helps if the countersignatory has a place of work where he or she can be contacted during normal working hours.

I understand that in Canada the only people who can countersign an application for a new passport are those who have been accepted for inclusion on a special list of countersignatories. We have not reached that point here yet, but it has been suggested in some quarters that all new passport applications should come through solicitors, who would vouch for the identity of applicants and the authenticity of the relevant documents. We have so far resisted that suggestion, on the grounds that the inconvenience and expense would not be justified for the great mass of applicants. It will be clear from my remarks that a birth certificate is not taken as evidence of identity.

In addition to evidence of identity, we require evidence of nationality. For most adults born in this country, a certificate of their birth is sufficient for that purpose—not for identity, but to establish that other fact. For those born abroad, the relevant documents may be certificates of naturalisation, registration, birth or marriage, as appropriate to the circumstances.

Mr. Duncan Smith

A birth certificate could be used to obtain proof of identity in another sphere, which could then be used to help the applicant to obtain a passport.

Mr. Wardle

As I sought to explain to my hon. Friend, because identity is sought by separate means, identification does not hinge on the birth certificate.

I appreciate the significance that many people attach to their birth certificates and to those of their families. However, what we call the original birth certificate is in fact a copy of the details contained in the relevant register of births. The legal position is that anyone can quite properly obtain the birth certificate of any other person if they have sufficient information about the birth to identify the registration from the public indexes and if they pay the statutory fee. Such public access to specific records has been a feature of our civil registration system since its inception in 1837. We are mindful of the fact that a birth certificate cannot, or should not, be seen to be evidence of identity for a passport application, because the certificates are so readily obtainable.

I come to the particular case that my hon. Friend mentioned today. When I say particular, I mean the case of Mr. Ronald Smith. I shall write to my hon. Friend about the case of Mr. Smith's grandson and, as I know Mr. Smith's son-in-law—I think that my hon. Friend does, too—I shall pay particular attention to the reply that I send my hon. Friend in that regard. I shall also write to him about the case of Mr. Goobey.

The essence of Mr. Smith's case is that he has informed us that he deposited his birth certificate with the London passport office when he applied for a replacement passport. The office says that it has no record of having received it and that because it was an application for a replacement passport, rather than a new one, the person who examined Mr. Smith's application at the counter would have relied on Mr. Smith's previous passport, which was retained and subsequently returned. That previous passport would have been pivotal in the application for a replacement. At this distance in time, it is not possible to resolve the uncertainty conclusively one way or another, but I wished to set out the circumstances.

Mr. Smith's real concern, however, is that his birth certificate might be misused by someone else to apply for a passport fraudulently. There, I think that I can give him some reassurance. As I have explained, anyone who so wishes can obtain a copy of Mr. Smith's birth certificate from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys by providing certain details and paying the statutory fee. As a result and as I have explained, the passport office does not accept a birth certificate as evidence of identity.

Anyone wishing to obtain a passport fraudulently using Mr. Smith's or anyone else's birth certificate would need to provide evidence of identity, by means of a countersignature of the passport application, and photograph by a responsible person who has known him personally for at least two years. Passport office staff are specially trained to look at all aspects of a passport application and its supporting documentation to see whether a fraudulent application is being made.

In addition to the normal checks operated by all passport office staff, special fraud detection teams in each passport office liaise closely with the police. They have had considerable success. In 1992, some 800 cases of suspected fraudulent passport applications were referred to the police.

The criminal law provides severe penalties for those who are found guilty of offences in connection with passport fraud. Those vary, depending on the precise form the fraud has taken, but can be up to 10 years' imprisonment under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. Charges may also be brought under the Criminal Law Act 1977 and the Immigration Act 1971.

The passport office's files are full of cases of attempted fraud. I shall cite just one, because my time is limited. It is a case where a postal passport application from Chelmsford was sent to the Peterborough passport office, apparently countersigned by a London-based solicitor. The staff at Peterborough were suspicious of the application and checked with the solicitor, who denied having signed the form. Checks were then made with the Passport Agency's main passport index, with St. Catherine's house and the City of London police. Those revealed that the application was being made on behalf of a person in Tenerife who was wanted by the United States authorities for an alleged multi-million pound fraud. As a result of the inquiries, the person concerned was arrested in Tenerife and extradited to the United States to face trail.

Although this debate is primarily about passport fraud, we should also remember that the primary purpose of the passport service is to provide British passports promptly and economically to those who qualify for them. This is an area in whch there have been significant improvements in recent years, while always taking into account the importance of pursuing and identifying fraudulent applications as diligently as possible.

The Passport Agency was set up as an executive agency of the Home Office in April 1991, as part of the Government's next steps programme. The agency issues more than 3 million passports a year. At this time of the year, that means that, at the six passport offices, a total of more than 20,000 passport applications are received each working day. The House will appreciate that that considerable volume of business needs to be handled carefully but speedily.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary sets customer service targets for the turnround time for processing straightforward, properly completed passport applications. He also sets targets for reducing unit costs. The main customer service target is to process straightforward, properly completed applications in a maximum of 20 working days in the period from January to June—the busiest time of year—15 working days in July and August, and 10 working days in September to December. Over the year as a whole, the target is to process those applications in an average of nine working days.

I am pleased to say that all these targets have been met. In addition, in its first two years as an executive agency, the Passport Agency has reduced its unit costs by over 4 per cent. in real terms. Regular surveys have shown that customer satisfaction is very high and the Passport Agency has been awarded a charter mark for excellence in the provision of public services.

As I have explained, the passport offices put great emphasis on the prevention and detection of passport fraud. They liaise closely with the police, Customs and Excise and the immigration service, exchanging information about developments in the world of passport and visa fraud. The new-style British passport contains a number of advanced security features, making it more difficult for the personal details or photograph to be changed after issue.

It is vital that the battle against passport fraud should be waged vigorously and continuously by improved technology and in other ways. At the same time, we must recognise the interests of the vast majority of applicants who are honest and law-abiding, and are entitled to obtain a passport for holiday or business purposes without too much hassle and expense. As in so many things in the Home Office sphere of operation, it is a question of achieving the right balance between security and convenience. I hope that I have been able to show my hon. Friend that, in the case of Mr. Smith and the other cases which he cited, that is the approach taken by the passport office. I hope that this debate has clarified some of the issues and provided reassurance to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.