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Identity and Passport Service

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 14 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have to improve the security and efficiency of the administration of the Identity and Passport Service.

My Lords, the Identity and Passport Service set out in its business plan, published on 20 March this year, just how it will continue to ensure that passports are issued as securely and efficiently as possible, including the introduction of interviews for first-time adult passport applicants. It also set out the plans for delivering the national identity scheme to include more secure biometric passports and identity cards for British citizens from 2009.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Many of us recognise that the passport office is doing a better job on ordinary delivery to those of us who need passports, but there are considerable worries about the security of the whole system. Does the Minister realise—this is from an Answer given by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland—that, in 2006, in spite of having changed its delivery system, no fewer than 740 passports were lost in the post on dispatch from the passport office? Hundreds of thousands of people claim—some of them certainly spuriously—to have lost their passports. Does the Minister agree that a review with an independent chair is needed to make the passport system really watertight in these days of terrorism and serious crime?

My Lords, the Identity and Passport Service continues to receive many plaudits from the public and has a 97 per cent rate of public acclaim for its businesslike approach to its service. The noble Lord draws attention to those 740 passports lost during delivery; that is down from 3,593 in 2004-05 when the Royal Mail delivered passports. I think that that is a pretty impressive record when you consider that the passport office delivers 6 million passports per year. That contract has demonstrated its value and validity, and we are steadily bringing down the potential for abuse of passports.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the number of replacement passports issued per year over the past 10 years has gone up tenfold from about 30,000 to 300,000? Those passports were reissued because the originals had been lost or stolen. Is there not something rather worrying about such a dramatic increase in such a short time?

My Lords, of course it is a matter for concern. Some 240,000 of those passports were said to be lost. I do not believe that the great British public are becoming more forgetful, but we cannot forget that people do lose passports or have them stolen. We have to have a proper system for ensuring that we keep a careful track of that and we now have such a system in place.

My Lords, in yesterday’s debate on the UK Borders Bill the Minister was able to indicate that 355 counterfeit documents were detected by immigration staff between January and October 2006. That figure does not take into account falsified stamps or bio-pages that had been tampered with. How many prosecutions were brought during that period?

My Lords, we continue to have a highly effective prosecution programme. I cannot give the noble Lord the precise data this morning; I come as well prepared as I can, but I cannot always supply all the statistics. I am happy to provide the noble Lord with the prosecution data and share them with other noble Lords who have participated in this debate.

My Lords, how are passports sent through the post? Is it by special delivery or is there some sign that they are passports going through the post? I ask that because my bank recently rang me and asked whether I had received a new cheque book. “No”, I said. “Well, you won’t”, the bank said, “because it has been stolen”. I asked: “Has any cheque been drawn on it?” The bank answered: “Yes, for £4,000”. The man who was stealing the cheque books was caught. I just wondered whether those 700-plus passports had met the same kind of fate.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the noble Baroness’s bank account was protected. One should congratulate the bank on its efficient and effective service. Passports are now delivered by Secure Mail Services. It has the contract; it is no longer held by the Royal Mail Group plc. That contract has recently been re-let, which means that we receive an individualised and personalised service when receiving our passport after we have sent it off for renewal or made a fresh application, and so on. I understand that the delivery process is to improve. The company will be using sat-nav so it will know exactly where we live and the passports will be personally delivered to our address. Improvements continue all the time. I am sure that with global-positioning technology improvements will continue to be made.

My Lords, I had my passport stolen when I was in Ecuador. Is there some way to ensure that from the moment a passport is stolen it cannot be used anywhere else in the world?

My Lords, with the new biometric and e-passports, it will be much easier for the passport service to prevent passports, such as that of the noble and learned Lord, being misused in that way. That is one of the improvements we have facilitated through the introduction of new processing schemes over the past few years. I think that the Government should be congratulated on gearing-up with e-technology.

My Lords, does the Minister have complete confidence in the present passport regime? I refer to the 69 personal passport interview offices. The other day the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that only two of them were operative. According to an answer given by the Minister a month ago, 55 staff have been recruited. Belfast has three staff manning the office and Glasgow has six staff manning the office; what has happened to the other 46?

My Lords, I can assure the House that they have not gone missing. As my noble friend Lady Scotland explained very clearly the other day, all the other offices are becoming operative in a phased programme. By getting in early on the process of identifying people who want to have a passport, we can begin to prevent and detect even more fraud.

My Lords, I have been informed by a very responsible source that up to 600,000 lost or forged passports may be in circulation and that there are many hundreds of capable, skilled forgers. Can the noble Lord confirm or deny that figure?

My Lords, that figure is not familiar to me. However, I should be very interested to meet the noble Lord’s informed source.