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Specialist Printing Equipment and Materials (Offences) Bill

Volume 758: debated on Friday 23 January 2015

Second Reading

Moved by

That the Bill be read a second time.

Relevant document: 15th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

My Lords, this small Bill is an important step in tackling identity crime. It had swift conduct through the other place by the honourable Member for Southend West, Mr David Amess. I will address briefly the context, the mischief that the Bill aims to address and a couple of final matters of clarification.

First, on the context, obtaining false identity documents enables criminals at all levels, from opportunistic criminals to those involved in immigration offences, serious organised crime and terrorism, to hide their tracks and evade detection. Although your Lordships will be aware of the use of false identities to commit fraud, in 2013 the National Fraud Authority showed that almost a third of UK adults have been the victim of such crime at some point, with an average economic loss of £1,200 per person. In fact, crimes using false identities now account for half of all frauds in the UK. False documents might be used to obtain a bank account, which gives the first layer of a legitimate identity that could then enable illegal immigrants to merge into society and even to claim social security benefits to which they are not entitled.

However, there is a public safety aspect to false documents. If someone knows that they will fail a CRB check to work with children, they might seek false documents and a false identity to obtain the requisite permission. People might even try to obtain a firearms licence with them if they have a previous conviction. On a visit this week to the specialist Metropolitan Police unit, Project Genesius, named after the patron saint of printing, I was shown numerous recent examples of illegal document factories which it has uncovered. Merely by downloading the hard disks from specialist printing equipment that it has seized, it has compiled a database of 94,000 false identities that are in circulation.

Project Genesius is a great example of the retailers of specialist printing equipment working together with the police to protect the public and the reputation of their industry. There are around only 1,000 retailers of this equipment. I was pleased to learn that when PC World proposed selling this equipment, it followed the police service’s request not to do so as, unlike other retailers, its systems would not have allowed the identity of the purchaser to be obtained. In fact, the consultation on this Bill showed that more than 80% of respondents favoured the introduction of this specific offence. I pay tribute to the dedication and enthusiasm of DCI Andrew Gould, Mr Gary McManus and their team at Project Genesius, which is such that other countries are now sending their officers to visit our specialist unit.

People who operate these document factories are of course prosecuted but the Crown Prosecution Service has not been able to prosecute those who have supplied this specialist equipment to criminals, even when there was evidence that the equipment was to be used for such purposes. The mischief that the Bill seeks to address is a small but important gap in the criminal law armoury: of knowingly supplying specialist printing equipment for the purposes of criminal conduct. Clause 2 defines “specialist” to cover the manufacture of relevant documents, which include passports and immigration documents, travel documents such as driving licences and blue badges, security passes, national insurance number cards, currency, credit cards, and birth, death and marriage certificates. It even includes those who make rubber stamps, as a false passport without a false UK immigration stamp can be useless.

Finally, there are a few matters of clarification. The geographical extent of the Bill will be for England and Wales. However, the Home Office is working with the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and the Crown dependencies, on these measures. It has committed to keeping them informed of the progress of the Bill. It is also important to note that false document factories are a cross-border problem, so the Bill will apply to the supply for the purpose of criminal activity occurring in any jurisdiction. If a supplier in England and Wales sells equipment to an identity fraudster knowing that they will use it to manufacture false documents, the supplier will be prosecuted whether the manufacture happens in England, Scotland, France or even Timbuktu.

Many of these specialist printing firms will also service the equipment that they have sold but the offence will take place at the time of the supply or sale of the specialist printer. If the company or an employee later becomes aware that a crime is being committed as a result of a printer supplied by their company, they will be in the same position as any other citizen, in having a moral responsibility but no legal duty to report it. However, if the company or an employee then made a subsequent sale to that person, their knowledge would be a relevant factor. I note that under Clause 3 corporations and partnerships, as well as individuals, can be prosecuted for this offence.

Finally, and in fear of sounding like I am on the National Lottery results programme, this seems to be the first appearance of the word “connivance” in an English statute. The word is not defined in the Bill and will therefore have its dictionary definition,

“willingness to allow or be secretly involved in an immoral or illegal act”.

Essentially, this is to cover implicit rather than explicit consent and will, I hope, cover those officers of companies or partnerships whose systems of reporting are so dilatory or are designed so as to avoid them knowing the information obtained by their salespeople or delivery drivers. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall speak briefly in the gap. It is a shame that there is no other Back-Bencher to support my noble friend’s admirable and exemplary Bill. It was introduced in the other place with his customary aplomb by Mr, and now Sir, David Amess MP, and we all congratulate him on his recent honour.

As I say, this is an exemplary Bill because it has a target and a specific purpose. If it is passed into law, every Member of your Lordships’ House will be a potential beneficiary. As my noble friend said, there can be few of us who have not been victims of identity fraud of one sort or another. I have had my credit cards used in America, and so has my son. Large sums were involved, but they were fully covered so they were not particular personal disasters, but the incidents bring it home to one just how prevalent such crimes are. If this Bill when it is enacted can strike at the root of these appalling criminal offences, we will owe a great debt of gratitude not only to my noble friend Lady Berridge, but also to Sir David Amess. I hope very much that we will be able to couple in that vote of thanks both the Opposition and the Government before this brief debate is over. I give my full support to the Bill.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and to Sir David Amess on bringing forward this Bill. Perhaps the fact that there are not many speakers in your Lordships’ House is a mark of the support the Bill has. I do not see it as anything controversial, although it is interesting to note that because we are also debating the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, we can see the synergies where this Bill can feed into the work we are doing on that legislation. This important Bill has real and tangible benefits, and it has our full support.

I have a few comments and questions. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has just made a very important point. Most of us know someone who in one way or another has been subject to some kind of identity theft or fraud. I recall sitting at my desk as a Minister in Belfast and receiving a call from my bank asking, “Where are you?”. I replied that I was in Belfast and was told, “So you are not in China, then”, where my credit card had been used by someone who must have taken great delight in spending a lot of money. The noble Baroness mentioned the figures and the level of fraud, but these crimes also cause people personal distress.

Another area of concern has not been touched on. Some elderly friends of mine went into the local high-street branch of their reputable bank. Although they own a computer, they do not go online to surf the internet, they do not use online banking and they do not buy anything from websites. However, a bank representative convinced them that they should take out insurance protection against online identity theft at quite great expense. They were fearful because they had read in the papers about the problems people experienced with identity theft, so they were persuaded to take out an expensive insurance policy. This crime preys on people’s fears and causes other problems. This Bill gives us an opportunity to put a stop to it.

However, the Bill goes further because there are other instances to which the noble Baroness referred where obtaining a fake identity facilitates further serious crime. I have mentioned the counterterrorism Bill. It is interesting to note that before coming into your Lordships’ House this morning, I googled “fake passports” to see what came up. It was a legitimate inquiry and I was not trying to buy one; rather, I wanted to find an estimate of how many fake passports were in circulation and what other information there was about this issue. The very first link was to a website offering to sell me a fake passport. That is an indication of the seriousness of this crime. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about the efforts being made to crack down on those kinds of websites because they encourage half the nation to find a link to buying a fake passport.

This is a serious matter. The introduction of e-passports to reduce the level of counterfeiting that goes on has been important, and we should educate people on the value of e-passports and encourage them to use them. Last year I came through Heathrow with a Conservative MP. We looked at the queues at passport control and we both headed for the e-passport channel. The MP did not know what the logo was on his passport to identify its e-status, but we both went through much quicker than anyone else. At that point he did admit that he had actually spoken against e-passports because he had thought that they were less secure, but afterwards he swallowed his words. We need to make it clear to people that we are bringing in e-passports to address the security issues around these documents.

The noble Baroness has done the House a service by giving us some examples of what specialist printing equipment can be used for. I do not think that I have a particularly criminal mindset, but I did my best to imagine what kinds of things could be printed. The more I thought about it, the more possibilities and their attendant dangers emerged, which reflects how serious this issue is. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be able to help me by explaining whether every kind of document that could be forged is covered by the legislation. I shall probe on one point to seek clarity. It cannot be safe to have security guards producing false qualification documents or to have people working on construction sites producing fake SKILLcards. The definitions of the documents are rightly very wide, but it would be helpful to know whether the Bill would include all documents. Further, whether or not those kinds of documents would be included in the legislation, the people who produce them may well be involved in other criminal activities, such as producing documents that would come under the scope of this Bill. I am thinking by way of example of cards to verify national insurance numbers.

Road safety is undermined if people have fake driving licences. Our security is undermined if people have fake travel documents. Fairness in society is undermined if people use fake blue badges to park in disabled spaces. Fairness in our immigration system is undermined if false documentation is used to obtain work here in the UK. What should concern us, but which has not been touched on in our short debate, is the fact that once someone has obtained a series of false identity documents they can then apply for genuine identity documents, thereby creating what appears to be a genuine identity for themselves. That route is open to criminals. I join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to the Metropolitan Police for the work that it is doing in this regard. The fact that it has clear information about more than 90,000 false identities should alarm us all, and illustrates the importance of the Bill in order to ensure that the police have the legal powers they need.

I seek clarification on one other point. Can the noble Lord or the noble Baroness give some more details on how, under the Bill, it can be proven that somebody “knows” that the equipment will be used for illegal purposes? Will it be enough to assert that the person supplying the equipment could only reasonably have come to the conclusion or will a higher level of proof be needed? In addition, it will be helpful if anything can be said about the likely costs and benefits of the Bill. The Minister in the other place said that the likely costs and benefits would be overwhelmingly positive, and I have no doubt that he was right, but it would be helpful if we could have any other information on that. The City of London Police, which has expertise in this area, believes that it,

“will not be overly onerous on legitimate businesses, but will allow police to take much needed action against those companies who seek to put their own profit above the country’s security and safety by selling this equipment with a complicit ‘no questions asked’ approach”.

My final point is that there is often a general view that forgery and dealing in fake goods is a benign offence. Many of us have been on holiday and seen the so-called Gucci handbags on sale in a market for the equivalent of £20. In Istanbul I was offered a “genuine fake”—not like the other fakes—Mulberry bag, which I must say was pretty impressive. I also recall being in China some years ago, when I took a trade mission from Northern Ireland when I was a Minister there, and the amount of fake “branded” goods on sale, semi-openly, was quite staggering. I did not take that terribly seriously—I was not going to get too upset about a handbag or a £1 Montblanc pen. However, officials told me that those things were linked to the same gangs who produced engineering parts—spare parts for aeroplanes and cars; there are obvious implications if those are fake—and documents. I do not know if that is always the case, but it illustrates how serious forgery is. What may seem benign and a bit of fun could be the thin end of the wedge that leads to very serious criminal activity and impacts on national security. This legislation is therefore clearly needed. I hope it will prove useful to the police in tackling a form of crime which in itself is bad but which may also lead to very many more serious and dangerous offences.

My Lords, I join other speakers in paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Berridge for the way in which she introduced the Bill. In the words of my noble friend Lord Cormack, this is an exemplary Bill. It is exemplary because it focuses clearly on a specific problem identified by the police. I join my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in paying tribute to the Metropolitan Police and to Project Genesius. The project has done tremendous work in tackling fraud since it was formed in 2007, which shows that this has been a problem for some time. We have all had experiences of being victims—or alleged victims—of this type of fraud. I once had a panicked telephone call from someone at my bank who said, “We’ve had to stop your credit card—it’s been used six times in Albania”. I replied, “That’s because I’m in Albania. I’m walking there”. They said, “Don’t worry; you can just pop into the local branch where you are”. I said, “This is Albania. You don’t have branches in Albania”. They said, “Don’t worry, we’ve got branches everywhere. I’m sure you’ll find one”. But I did not.

Identity crime is a serious problem. It is rarely committed as a sole offence; it is usually the enabler for a broad range of serious crimes. For example, criminals use false documents to evade criminal record checks and gain access to children and vulnerable adults, to commit immigration and benefit fraud and to assist in terrorist activities. I therefore fully support my noble friend in her taking this important legislation forward and join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the work of Sir David Amess in the other place.

Prosecuting those who make and possess false documentation is a relatively straightforward process under the Identity Documents Act 2010. However, it is not specifically against the law to supply specialist equipment or materials to those who make those documents. That makes it difficult for police to prosecute those who “knowingly” supply specialist equipment to persons who intend to use it to commit a crime.

The Bill has strong support among the specialist printing industry, as noble Lords mentioned. Some 81% of respondents to the Government’s public consultation expressed support for the legislation, with 93% agreeing that it would act as a deterrent to specialist printing companies that might be tempted to collude or connive with identity fraudsters.

Just one individual colluding with identity fraudsters can lead to the production of thousands of false documents; and as the noble Baroness said, in the wider context of the counterterrorism legislation that we considered last night, this issue needs to be addressed. I also pay tribute to her for the assiduous way in which she was able last night not only to identify Twitter accounts belonging to the proscribed terrorist organisation under discussion but, today, to identify new sources of fake passports. I am grateful to her for her research. I am sure that the officials are listening in to this debate, and we will be sure to pass those details on to either the police or other prosecuting authorities.

Existing legislation is clearly insufficient as there is no targeted offence for “knowingly” supplying specialist printing equipment for criminal use. Currently, the police can prosecute using the conspiracy to defraud offence under the Fraud Act. However, conspiracy to defraud is not easy to prove, and the police have informed us that prosecuting under that offence requires a lot of time and resources to take it forward, often to no avail. The Bill will therefore strengthen the police’s powers in this area and send the message that the Government and this House take criminal behaviour very seriously.

The Home Office has also developed a wider programme of activity designed to tackle the manufacture and criminal use of false identities, including working closely with the City of London Police to address the wider issue of identity crime. This will reduce the harm and loss to the public and service providers caused by the criminal use of counterfeit documents, an offence which ultimately damages businesses and harms the economy, at a time when we are seeking to encourage economic growth.

Identity crime is clearly a serious crime, and it is clear that we must act now to prevent and disrupt criminal activity brought about by the supply of this highly specialist technology. The Private Member’s Bill before us today provides us with the opportunity to make this necessary change to strengthen police powers and to send a message to those who might collude with criminals. We must seize that opportunity. I hope that all Members of this House will support this much needed and exemplary Bill today. I commend the Bill to your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and to the Minister for supporting the Bill. I shall deal with a couple of points that were raised.

First, on the scope, the Bill is aimed at identity documents; so while it would cover entry passes to premises and driving licences, faked examination results or qualifications would not be. Secondly, on mens rea, I made specific inquiries about why the wording is “knowingly supplying”. Making this a “recklessness” level offence had been considered but as there is a response to that, the mens rea remains “knowingly supplying”. Clause 3(1) states that the issue is whether the person who supplies the equipment “knows of the fact”. The lesser mens rea of “neglecting” or “consent and connivance” apply to the offices of a company. The Bill aims to ensure that officers cannot escape prosecution, leaving their front-desk staff, who have the knowledge, to be prosecuted alone. I hope that that clarifies the points raised.

I should cover one or two other minor matters. The craft shop sector was the only part of the industry where the police were concerned about a lack of awareness, because in order to fake a large number of documents, the forger needs hot foil which is obtainable in craft shops. Criminals go round buying up hot foil from many different shops, so the police are keen to raise awareness within the sector. I saw what these machines can do: they can print fake passports at a cost of just £300 each. I have checked and found out that, fortunately, none of the equipment seized so far has been used to try to forge parliamentary passes.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.