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Passports: Parental Identification

Volume 632: debated on Friday 1 December 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

Travelling with one’s child should provide lasting, happy memories. From seeing how our little ones react to their first flight to watching how they take on their first journey on the channel tunnel, travelling with a toddler can prove both thrilling and—as I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker —stressful in equal measure. However, for a growing number of parents in the UK, trips abroad are blighted by confrontations that are both unnecessary and entirely avoidable.

I have chosen to highlight this issue because I believe that a critical purpose of our work in the House is to ensure that British institutions keep pace with the changing nature of our constituents’ lives. Throughout the past century, as women have fought for economic and political equality with men, it has been this House that has introduced laws to cement progress and make those campaigns worthwhile. From the Equal Franchise Act 1928 to the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Equalities Act 2010, Britain has a strong record of addressing the grievances of the marginalised, but also of being proactive to ensure that the British institutions can support the ever- diversifying demographics of British society. With that in mind, I intend today to focus on the issue of children’s passports, and to draw attention to the unfortunate reality that a number of parents are being penalised simply for failing to share their child’s surname.

Before I address the scale of the problem, I should probably declare an interest: I am a parent who does not share a surname with my young daughter, and I was stopped at the border on my return from a recent trip to France. As my husband Chris and I approached passport control, I happened to be carrying Azalea and pushing the pram, and, through no fault of anyone’s, I was separated from my husband in the queue. When I reached the counter, the border official looked at my passport for a long time, looked at my daughter’s passport, and then said, “Who is this girl?” I am sure Members can imagine my surprise. I replied, “This is my daughter.” I accept that my daughter looks very different from me; for a start she is quite tall for her age—if people can believe that. I told the official that she has my husband’s last name, a decision we took collectively upon her birth. To my shock, the situation became quite tense. The official kept asking me for more and more documentation, which I did not have, and I explained over and over again that the child had my husband’s last name, not mine. My daughter was saying, “Mama, mama,” and crying because the unfortunate incident took so long, but even that did not seem to convince the border official.

My problem was that there was a real air of suspicion and I was made to feel that I was doing something wrong when I had just gone on holiday with my daughter and husband. I then had to go and find my husband, bring him back to the border official and convince him that this was my husband, this was my daughter and I was the mother. I wonder what would have happened if my husband had not been there. Would they have let us go? What would have happened next? These are the kinds of questions that many people have emailed to me since this incident came to light.

It is not only women who travel with their children; numerous LGBT couples have contacted me regarding their adopted children. One such couple said that they

“have been questioned mercilessly at the borders wherever they go.”

The same applies to foster parents.

I have a few statistics that I would like to share with the Minister. Between 2010 and 2014 at least 600,000 mothers and fathers have been quizzed at airport, ferry and Eurostar terminals because our out-of-date passport system does not recognise that their children might have a different surname from them. That was first highlighted by the Parental Passport Campaign a few years ago, and it is a reasonable assumption that more than 1 million people could have been quizzed in this manner by now.

Choosing to retain a surname is a neutral choice. I know that some choose to see it as a feminist statement and I certainly abide by the notion that no woman is a man’s property. However, for me, the increasing numbers who keep their surnames are often just a simple reflection of changing life circumstances. According to the experts at STEP, who advise families on succession planning, more than 3 million couples in the UK choose to cohabit, rather than marry or enter a civil partnership.

I personally chose to keep my surname for professional reasons. I was already elected as a councillor under my name when I got married, and had also written for my local newspaper under my name, so I felt no need to take a new name. A number of high profile surveys in recent years have shown that I am far from alone in this choice. According to a 2013 survey by Facebook of its 33 million UK users, women are increasingly keeping their own names. Some 38% of women in their 20s said they were intent on keeping their surname after marriage, up from 26% of women in their 30s. A 2016 YouGov survey showed that

“for those people who wanted themselves and their spouse to keep their original surnames upon marriage”

the most popular option, at 42%, was for the children to have a combined version of their parents’ surnames. The next most popular option in the YouGov survey was for the child to receive the father’s surname, which was preferred by 32% of men and 21% of women, while only 18% of women and 12% of men wanted their children to receive the mother’s surname.

While the YouGov poll found that 59% of women would take their husband’s name—again, a perfectly valid choice—that figure is a huge decrease from that in a similar poll into British attitudes in 1994, which found that 94% would take their husband’s surname. So the trajectory of this trend is clear, and provides an undeniable opportunity for our passport authorities to consider the need for change.

From the day that the excellent Guardian reporter, Jess Elgot, covered my troubles at border control, I have been inundated with emails from parents who have faced the same situation. I will relay some of their anecdotes shortly, but first I want to reflect on the Government’s position on this issue.

Our Border Force has a duty under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Work to protect vulnerable children and those who could potentially be trafficked is vital, and I pay tribute to the efforts of the Border Force in that endeavour. Child trafficking is an unspeakable evil, which is why nothing I am suggesting today would compromise the efforts of the Border Force to tackle it; quite the opposite. I hope that my suggestions will reduce an administrative burden on the Border Force and make it easier to separate those engaging in criminal behaviour from those parents who are simply trying to go on holiday with their kids.

The Government’s position on this issue is inflexible, and their reluctance to engage with simple solutions is quite surprising, not least as any such changes to passports would not require legislation. In September and October, I asked the Home Secretary a number of questions on the matter. For one, I asked whether the Government had any record of the number of occasions on which British women had been asked by border control to prove they were related to their children. The Minister responded by saying that this was not something that the Government recorded, and that it was therefore not possible to provide the information. The Minister added that

“it is not currently mandatory for a parent to produce documentation that explains their relationship to the child they are travelling with”.

In principle this is welcome, but such a position has not prevented many thousands of British parents from being unduly harassed and interrogated by officials at the UK border. Similarly, when pressed on the need for reform in 2014, a coalition Minister said:

“A passport is a document for travel. Its fundamental purpose would change if it were to be used to identify a parental relationship.”

I find that strange. The Government’s policy is to stress the need to verify the identity of parents and those travelling with children, yet they also try to swat the issue away by suggesting that a passport’s fundamental purpose would somehow change if it were to be used as an identification document.

Before I outline my proposal today, I want to reflect on three particularly problematic cases that I hope will prompt Ministers to give more considered responses on this. I will not be letting this matter drop! The first case involves Helen, who wrote to me following her ordeal at Gatwick in August, on her return from holiday in Italy. She mentioned that her eldest daughter was from her first marriage and did not share her surname. She also mentioned that her daughter had special needs and struggled with her speech and social situations. After a long wait at passport control, Helen’s daughter was asked, “Is this your mother?” Helen explained that her daughter was unable to provide reliable answers, and that in the process of having her passport updated, she had actually sent paperwork to explain her condition.

The border official had no information on record about her daughter, or about who her primary carers were. Helen rightly asks what would have happened if she had allowed her daughter to answer the original question. She might well have said no, and then what would have happened? The assumption would be that Helen’s daughter may have been questioned separately. Helen tells me that this would have led to her daughter having a major meltdown that could have caused long-term emotional damage. After this, Helen was informed that she should have registered her daughter’s disability with Gatwick airport, as it is the airport that can offer support, but this was not pointed out when she applied for the passport. In her email to me, Helen said:

“I cannot explain in an email how painful this was for us all, genuinely thinking that our re-entry to the UK depended on my daughter who has minimal cognitive ability and all because of her surname”.

Another anecdote I want to share with the Minister is about Jane, a mother of three, who wrote that she was left

“incredibly angry and deeply humiliated”

by a dispute involving her 12-year-old daughter at Stansted earlier this year. She explained:

“They refused to believe I was her mother because we didn’t share the same name and in the end my husband had to be called back from the baggage carousel to ‘claim’ her. I felt incredibly angry and deeply humiliated. I will travel with my children’s birth certificates in future but feel furious that I should have to do this.”

Samantha similarly wrote in with her experience at border control, saying:

“Every time I have re-entered the UK I am made to prove that I am the mother of my daughter. My daughter is 7 in a few weeks and over the last few years has been quite distressed by the atmosphere of accusation and suspicion, even though I always travel with a copy of her birth certificate.”

Samantha raises an extremely valid criticism of the process, which seems to be disproportionately focused on the parents’ return to the UK. She said:

“This situation astounds me on many levels, but my main concern is the lack of attention to people allowed to leave the UK. I have travelled with my daughter to a number of countries all over the world and have never been asked to prove her identity when leaving the UK. This means that she could be taken by anyone, anywhere, so how is this upholding the UK border control’s explanation of this treatment as ensuring the safeguarding of the child and minimising child trafficking? It also means that anyone technically with the same surname has the right to travel freely with her, without questioning.”

So in addition to those with differing surnames being penalised, Samantha’s story shows that it is important to reiterate the fact that having the same surname as the child does not guarantee that the adult with them is their legal parent or guardian. Those stories are just the tip of the iceberg and, frankly, I could have reeled off hundreds of cases for the Minister to reflect on today.

Children’s passports were introduced in the 1990s and list the child’s name and date and place of birth only. It is high time that they were updated to reflect the changing circumstances of British families. Expanding the details in children’s passports to include their parents would improve the time taken when passing through immigration and would relieve stress upon the numerous airport security measures. Support for including both parents’ names on child passports has come from across the House, and many of my colleagues support my efforts today.

I will finish with a few questions for the Minister. Does he accept that including both parents’ names on child passports does not require legislation, nor would it require great expense? The names of the parents are recorded on the application for a child’s passport, so why not make the names available to border control when the passports are being checked so that the relationship between adult and child can be established? In addition, is it not the case that border officers could simply have access to the registry office database in the case of couples that are married? Does the Minister accept that including parents’ names on child passports could save time, confusion and, ultimately, money at the border? Surely the Government can see that that would help the authorities to identify when a child is related to the adult accompanying them. Lastly, will the Minister commit to reviewing children’s passports? If Brexit is to bring new passports for the country as a whole, now seems as good a time as any to iron out issues with the current format.

Those questions are important because the current situation, whereby parents are subject to harsh questioning at the border, is unfortunately creating a great deal of upset. For many, it feels like 1950’s attitudes to marriage are prevailing at the detriment of common sense and acceptance of how the nature of families is changing. Neither I nor the many thousands who have signed up to the campaign want to interfere with anything that prevents child trafficking, but it is clear that the policies need amending to recognise that more and more children will not have the same surname as both of their parents. I do not want my daughter to grow up thinking that the only way to avoid being penalised at the border is to adopt the surname of her future partner. She and the many thousands of children currently in the same situation should be able to grow up in a world where they can travel at ease, knowing that their identity is one of their choosing and does not leave them treated as criminals by over-zealous border officials. I hope that the Minister can address the points that I have raised, so that we can move on from a policy that is not achieving its stated aims and is making many hundreds of thousands of people extremely unhappy.

I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this debate and, as she made clear, on giving voice to the many people who feel aggrieved about the issue—that is not in doubt. She is entirely right that the bureaucratic systems that we set up have to keep up with the times. Her experience at the airport sounds horrendous, and I would feel exactly the same as her if I was in that situation. Her experience has triggered a reaction from the many people who have been made to feel the same way. She said that she was made to feel as though she had done something wrong, and that is wrong.

I encourage the hon. Lady to listen carefully to the end of my remarks, because I will place on the record some things that I have to place on the record, some of which will sound a little inflexible and unhelpful. However, I spoke with the Immigration Minister this morning, and he wants to try to find a way forward. If that is not evident from the prose that I am about to disgorge, I ask her to listen carefully to the end of my speech. There is a lot of common ground here, and I am sure that the hon. Lady and I are as one on wanting to ensure that people legitimately entering the UK have an experience that is as swift and easy as possible when crossing the border. Everyone shares that objective. As a parent of six, I understand some of the additional challenges of travelling with small children, so I certainly do not underestimate the stress that that can cause, and our border system should not be doing anything to exacerbate that stress.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn will agree that ensuring a smooth and swift passage through the border cannot be the only objective. It is equally important to carry out checks to ensure that those who cross the border are doing so lawfully and legitimately, which of course involves carrying out checks and a Border Force officer conducting an interview where any factors warrant further interest.

An important element of that—again, I am sure there is no difference between the hon. Lady and me on this—is ensuring that the system protects the welfare of children whomever they are travelling with. Of course, the vast majority of children who cross the border are travelling with one or both parents, often returning from a holiday, and there are absolutely no grounds for concern.

But, sadly, we cannot ignore the fact that there are cases that give rise to safeguarding concerns where children are taken across borders, be it because they are travelling without the consent of others, because of trafficking, forced marriage or abduction, or because they are travelling in contravention of a court order. Additionally, there will be many instances where children travel when not with a parent or guardian—again, mainly with consent, but there are occasions when that is not the case. I hope the hon. Lady will agree that we have to take reasonable steps to ensure that we avoid putting children at risk.

Quite rightly, Border Force officers are required at all times to consider and protect the welfare of children who are travelling. Under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, all those concerned with the operation of the borders and immigration system have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, which means they may stop anyone where they have reason to undertake further checks. The key point is that this duty would not change, nor should it, if parents’ names were to be included in children’s passports.

I understand why the hon. Lady makes these suggestions, and I can see why it appears attractive to provide information to border officials from a verified source. However, information in a passport can only reflect the situation at the point when the passport was issued. Children’s passports last for five years, and a lot can happen in that time. Relationships can break down, parents may disagree on the best arrangement for the child, and the police, social services or the courts may become involved. Information in a passport could rapidly become out of date and need to be replaced.

A passport, other than one that is brand new, even if it contains parents’ names, would not provide conclusive evidence to a Border Force officer that the person accompanying a child has the right to do so or is acting in the best interests of the child’s welfare. The Border Force officer would still need to make inquiries and be satisfied that no further intervention is required, exactly as now.

The hon. Lady has proposed that HM Passport Office adds an observation to the child’s passport detailing parents or guardians with a surname different from the child’s. This information could be verified only at the time the passport was issued and, due to the ability to change names in the UK and overseas, and the fact that circumstances can change, this could rapidly become out of date. The point about observations is that they, like the core information in a passport, are designed to be about the individual and last for the lifetime of the passport.

The hon. Lady may be aware that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office adds the name of the person with whom a child is travelling to an emergency travel document when it replaces a lost passport. However, it should be remembered that, in such instances, the family will be subject to interview. All those with parental responsibility must provide consent, and the document is for a single verified journey. The person or persons travelling with the child will have been subject to at least the level of checks undertaken by Border Force.

I appreciate that questioning by a Border Force officer may appear intrusive or unnecessary, although, as I have explained, it is done from the best of motives. To allow those travelling with children to prepare, and to make travel as smooth as possible, we have published a leaflet, available on, titled “Children travelling to the UK” setting out in what circumstances we might ask questions of a person travelling with a child and why we might do so—principally the child protection reasons I have set out.

The leaflet sets out suggested documents the accompanying adult might want to bring to help smooth the process. It also refers to the questions we might ask and contains a firm commitment:

“We will always do this as quickly as possible and in a way which is sensitive to the interests of the child and the adult involved… We do not wish to delay your journey any longer than necessary.”

I appreciate the sincerity of the hon. Lady’s position and the way in which she has advanced her cause. When she says she will not give up, I absolutely believe her. I have sought to explain that there are formidable difficulties with what she proposes, and we need to be certain that nothing we do, however well intentioned, has the effect of increasing the risk to children. As a mother herself, I am sure she will appreciate that.

Having said that, I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister and I know he understands that the present situation is causing difficulties, particularly in cases where children have a different surname from that of a parent. I am therefore happy to give the hon. Lady the commitment, on his behalf, that he will actively consider how we can take this forward. Child protection is an absolute imperative, and we cannot compromise on that, so I am certainly not going to stand at this Dispatch Box today and make promises that cannot be delivered on. However, I do give her the absolute undertaking that he will give this matter his fullest consideration, with the aim of trying to find a workable solution. I again congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and I am sure that this will not be the last word on this matter, either from her or from the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.