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Verification of Information in Passport Applications Etc. (Specified Persons) Order 2007

Volume 694: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2007

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28 June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is simply to ensure that there is sufficient information available to confirm the identity of passport applicants.

The order is being made under Section 38 of the Identity Cards Act 2006, as passports are currently issued under the royal prerogative. Section 38 was included in the Identity Cards Act to establish a power to require information to be provided to verify information in, or in connection with, a passport application. Information may also be required to determine whether to withdraw an individual’s passport.

Section 38 already covers all government departments, but this power may be extended to specified non-government bodies by order. The draft order extends the power in Section 38 to two non-government bodies. The first is the Registrar General for England and Wales, who is responsible for the General Register Office for England and Wales, which although a public body is not technically a government department and so is not yet covered by Section 38.

The General Register Office already provides details of child deaths to the Identity and Passport Service to prevent passport fraud, in particular to prevent impostors from obtaining passports in the identity of someone who died in childhood—sometimes known as The Day of the Jackal fraud. However, the Identity and Passport Service is now starting to introduce interviews for adult first-time passport applicants and therefore needs to extend the checks made to guard against passport and identity fraud.

The inclusion of the Registrar-General in the order will put beyond doubt the ability to obtain information about births, marriages or deaths in order to confirm the identity of a passport applicant. I should add that it is not necessary to add the General Register Office in Northern Ireland, as it is covered already under Section 38(3)(c), which covers “a Northern Ireland department”.

Also, the General Register Office in Scotland was given wide powers in the Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 to provide information to other public bodies or officeholders and to charge for that service where necessary. It therefore does not need to be included in the order either.

The second body covered by the draft order is a credit reference agency with which the Identity and Passport Service currently has a contract for the provision of information. No private sector organisations are currently covered by Section 38, but with the introduction of passport interviews, it is necessary to extend the amount of background information obtained from a credit reference agency in order to verify identity. The Identity and Passport Service currently has a contract with Equifax plc, which is one of the leading credit reference agencies, for the provision of information. The drafting of the order will enable the power to apply to a different credit reference agency if the contract should change in future.

The order will provide clarity that the organisations concerned have the legal power to provide the information requested, because Section 38 creates a statutory duty to do so. Section 38 covers the provision of information needed for verifying information provided to the Secretary of State for the purposes of, or in connection with, an application for the issue of a passport. It might therefore include information provided by the credit reference agency about previous addresses at which the applicant has lived recently. The information provided could also include similar details about a third party—for example, the parent of an applicant or the countersignatory to the application, whose name will also be included on the passport application form.

The order will ensure that the provision of personal data is lawful under the Data Protection Act. I should stress that the personal information provided must be held in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. It will not cover irrelevant information such as details of an individual’s credit rating or financial circumstances. Rather, it will be information directly related to the customer’s identity or information that might be used to confirm at interview that he or she is the same person. This might include information such as the name of the building society from which an individual holds a mortgage or the bank with which he or she has an account, but, of course, not the size of the mortgage.

Once it has been established that the applicant is genuine, any information which has been used simply to confirm identity will be destroyed. Of course, the identity information, such as the applicant’s name, address, date of birth and so on and the application form, will continue to be held by the Identity and Passport Service, just as it has always been.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has been consulted about the order. At its helpful suggestion, the scope of the order has been limited to only a credit reference agency with which the Identity and Passport Service currently has a contract. It therefore does not apply to any credit reference agency.

The two most important reasons for the order are, first, that it creates transparency for the passport customer as to the sources of information against which their application will be checked; and, secondly, that it will ensure certainty that there is no legal doubt as to the provision of information to assist the Identity and Passport Service with its background checks.

I trust that that explanation has clarified the purpose of the order and the reasons for proposing it, but of course I should be happy now to deal with any points or questions that noble Lords might have.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28 June be approved. 22nd Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

My Lords, the order is, we gather, introduced under powers given to the Government by the Identity Cards Act 2006—an Act that I suspect the Government and the noble Lord personally, as an ornament to the Government, will come to regret in due course.

I have a number of questions to ask the Minister about the order and its effect. First, and most important, what extra costs will it bring to the Government—that is, to the taxpayer? We know that identity cards as a whole will cost a great deal of money and we know that the costs will, likely as not, increase in a manner that will make the increased cost of the Dome and of the Olympics look like what we might refer to as small beer. I should be very grateful if the noble Lord could tell us exactly how much this order—this small part of the whole—will add to the cost to the taxpayer.

Can the noble Lord also tell us how much the order will add to the cost not so much to individuals but to the various others who will be affected by it, such as credit reference agencies and others referred to in the order? Again, that is not dealt with in the Explanatory Memorandum. We need to know what the compliance costs are for other people in dealing with the order, which is one small part of the further burdens to be placed on all of us by the Identity Cards Act 2006.

I hope that the noble Lord will be able to deal with those points. If he cannot, as always, he can offer me one of his letters. I am very grateful for the number of letters that I receive from the noble Lord and would be happy to have more, but, if possible, perhaps he could answer that point at the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for putting those questions. I have further questions for the Minister and, like the noble Lord, I say that if the Minister cannot reply today, I do not want to delay the House, so he may care to write to me.

As the Minister said, we are seriously concerned about matters of identity fraud and passport fraud. Figures that have been repeatedly supplied to your Lordships’ House give rise to serious concern about those matters. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno is sitting next to me, because he has been very prominent in issues relating to the whole subject.

Let me say at the beginning that we believe strongly that we must do everything possible to make our borders secure. On that, there is no dispute. The Minister will have seen that by the contribution that we are making on the UK Borders Bill at the moment. That is our purpose. We do not want passports to be issued and then used for fraudulent purposes in any way.

I have read the instrument and the Explanatory Notes and listened to the Minister’s assurance about the use of the information. I have a problem with the manner in which a section of the SI is laid out. The SI contains a requirement to which the Minister referred when he talked about what would happen if a credit reference agency refused to provide information. However, it is clear in the Explanatory Notes that there is a requirement for the credit reference agency to produce information concerning the identity of individuals. That provision is not subject to the constraint to which we feel that it ought to be on background information. There is no requirement in the statutory instrument and therefore no guarantee that the information should be destroyed and that the Identity and Passport Service must confine itself to the limited information to which we have referred.

My concern about the statutory instrument is not about what it seeks to achieve. I have absolutely no problem with what the Minister has said about what information should be provided. I want government officials to be given power to stamp out fraudulent passports.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their interest in, if not support for, the order. I was not quite sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Henley, supported it. Of course, it relates not to ID cards but to passports and passport security, which is a different point. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, as ever chides us about costs, but he fails to understand that most of the costs of ID cards are contained in the current budget for the Identity and Passport Service, as we have explained on many occasions. However, this matter is of genuine interest, concern and debate. We have yet to hear from Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition whether they will abolish legislation on ID cards if they ever return to government. There is a debate to be had on that, no doubt over many years.

The noble Lord then asked about the precise costs of the order and how it is to work and be funded. How do we pay Equifax and what are the charges? We pay Equifax by way of a licence fee, the cost of which is calculated by estimating the number of transactions at a predetermined transaction charge. In addition, a provisional annual development cost was anticipated at the outset of the Equifax contract. The actual cost of development is met on completion of the work or through a series of milestone payments. There are, of course, some continuing maintenance software and hardware charges, which are quite tightly controlled in that process. The contract was let in March 2004, but became effective from June 2004. The contract value when let was £8.3 million—a combination of licence and development spend.

How do we pay for GRO information on births, marriages and deaths? The Identity and Passport Service pays a fee to the GRO for all certified copies of birth, marriage or death certificates. We are also provided with bulk data on all child deaths, for which we have made a contribution to the costs. We do that for the very good reason that we do not want to do anything that undermines our continued fight to prevent identity fraud, the consequences of which I am sure we all recognise are very serious indeed. I should add that we are also looking to the provision of online information on births, marriages and deaths, but the costs of this have yet to be settled, so this may be something for the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, offered us his support for the order, and reiterated a position that interestingly emerged in our discussions on the UK Borders Bill when he voiced his fairly vociferous support for doing more to secure our borders. We as a Government are genuinely grateful for that. The noble Lord is absolutely right that we need properly to secure the way in which passports work. We have been working very hard at that and we now have a very good passport service that turns applications around very quickly. The service is also becoming increasingly effective in tracking down fraud and abuse, which will help us in the fight to secure our borders.

The noble Lord asked about information data and their destruction. They will have to be destroyed if they are no longer relevant because, as I explained in my initial contribution, the Data Protection Act 1998 clearly applies to the retention of this information. There were no other questions of substance but, if I have missed anything, I shall check Hansard very carefully and ensure that I add to the pile of correspondence that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, obviously greatly enjoys.

On Question, Motion agreed to.