HL Deb 18 July 2002 vol 637 cc1390-3

3.3 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make changes to the procedure for issuing British passports in order to eliminate fraud.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the United Kingdom Passport Service takes passport fraud seriously and already has a range of checks in place to prevent and detect fraud. Those now include a check on the death records of under-18 year-olds in England and Wales. That new check represents a significant step forward in our efforts to crack down on the fraudulent use of birth certificates. The Passport Service has a major programme of work under way to counter identity fraud. That work is complementary to the recommendations arising from the Cabinet Office's identity fraud study, which was published on 3rd July and could lead to future changes in passport issuing procedures to take account of the increasing threat from fraud.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is the report correct that the method used to obtain a British passport in the book and film, The Day of the Jackal—searching parish and graveyard records—is still possible? If so, what action are the Government taking in view of the present threat of international terrorism?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government take the so-called "Day of the Jackal" loophole seriously. Of course, any person is entitled in law to see publicly available indexes to the civil registration records and to buy a certified copy of any register entry. The events of September 11th have ensured that a sharpening of procedures and significant broad checks are in place.

The UKPS requires the provision of information declared to be true on its application form. Birth certificates are not proof of identity; additional evidence—driving licence, medical card, national insurance card or benefit book—is sought in certain cases. On occasion, passport applicants are called in for a personal interview.

We take identity theft very seriously and a detailed action plan is now in place to prevent it. I may add that the statistics for fraud are very low. It is estimated that 0.03 per cent of all issues are fraudulent—about 1,500 cases out of 5.5 million passports issued annually.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, when the maroon passport replaced the black one, we were given to understand that the new passport could be electronically scanned to avoid fraud. I pass through our airports on many occasions, but never once has my passport passed through any electronic gadget. When is such a system likely to be introduced to avoid fraud?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that machine-readable detection methods are being developed. The pace and development of that technology must be sharpened, because we want to crack down on fraud as far as is humanly possible. Other important developments are likely to take place with biometrics, in which the iris, handprint or fingerprints can be read. All of those options are possible; they are all under active consideration and are being investigated by the UKPS as ways further to crack down on fraud.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, will my noble friend remind the House of the number of passports going missing in the post between the Passport Office and the applicant? If he does not have the figure to hand and decides to write to me with it, will he do so rather more expeditiously than have the Government in reply to a related Question on lost documents that I tabled on 14th January?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my noble friend is entitled to a fulsome apology for that delay. I understand that his Question is due for reply during the next week.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in addition to an apology, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, deserves an Answer to his Question? If entitlement cards are introduced, is it envisaged that the Passport Agency would manage and operate the scheme?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the entitlement card project is open for consultation, so those finer details have yet to be worked out. It is important that we respect the consultation period. The matter is delicate. Of course, there are great benefits to be gained by the development of the entitlement card. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the UK Passport Service are working closely together on those projects.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, may I draw the Minister's attention to a large loophole in passport administration? I am sure that he knows, because I received this information in a Written Answer some time ago, that less than 5 per cent of the passports of people who die are sent back. Is he aware that the street value of a dead person's passport is about double that of a stolen passport—for the obvious reason that the chances are that the stolen passport has been reported and, at least in theory, cancelled? Last year, I asked the Government twice whether the Passport Service was now notified of someone's death, so that their passport could be cancelled. On 31st October, the Minister, in a Written Answer, said: The Passport Service is seeking to establish arrangements to receive routine notifications of death as part of its work on improving fraud countermeasures".—[Official Report, 31/10/01; col. WA 161.] Two weeks later, I received the following Written Answer: We have not started to establish arrangements requiring the Government to be routinely notified of the death of United Kingdom passport holders, and we have no plans to do so".— [Official Report, 14/11/01; col.WA 81.] Will the Minister kindly put into effect immediate plans to ensure that the Passport Service is notified by the Registrar General that people have died, so that their passports can be cancelled?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that was a valuable question, and my brain cells are working overtime on it. I shall take the important suggestions made by the noble Lord. Lord Marlesford, to heart. I shall have words with the director of the United Kingdom Passport Service.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, have the Government taken steps to prevent multiple applications for passports? The Minister will recall that, after 11th September, some people in this country who were not unconnected with those events were found to have more than one passport.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am sure that the UKPS is taking steps to deal with such problems. The UKPS has a useful system that contains details of persons known to have made fraudulent applications in the past. With the benefit of the measures that have been put in place partly as a consequence of 11th September, the UKPS is pursuing such cases and is doing extremely well. Earlier, I gave figures on fraud detection, and much other encouraging progress is being made.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the improvement in the service for issuing passports, but I share the problems experienced by my noble friend Lord Lipsey as regards receiving passports through Royal Mail. Two passports for members of my family have recently been lost. Will the Government consider other means of distributing passports? Doing a deal with someone in the Royal Mail would be a wonderful way for someone to get duplicate or multiple passports.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Royal Mail remains the most reliable agency for ensuring that people receive their passport on time. The UKPS is doing very well. I am told that the average turnaround time for a passport is 4.24 days, which is a big improvement on the time that many customers experienced four or five years ago. Then, it took much longer— 17 or 18 days.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, can the Minister say when the requirement for a paper car licence, as well as the plastic driver's licence, will be dealt with? The Minister will be aware that, in many countries, the vehicle driver's licence is used as a form of corroborative evidence for people raising questions about the validity of passports. It is inconvenient that, in the UK, we still have the requirement for a useless plastic driver's licence as well as a paper one.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I take the point. I said earlier that the driver's licence was one of the documents used to check applications. The current driver's licence is in paper and plastic form.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, would it be possible to go back to the first part of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey? He asked about the loss of passports. Does the Minister have any figures on that?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have no figures for lost passports, but I will investigate the matter. I shall write to my noble friend Lord Lipsey and make the information available to other noble Lords who are interested.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, can the Minister say whether passports are normally sent by registered post, which is traceable? If not, why not?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, they are not, I think, usually sent by registered post, but I will check t hat. My children recently received their new passports through the post in the normal way.

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