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2.43 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Melanie Johnson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) on obtaining a debate on this serious issue. I can fully understand the great

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distress caused to his constituent and his family by the hijacking of the identity of a dead child--and, indeed, the distress caused to other families to whom this has happened.

This case involved the fraudulent use of a Scottish birth certificate. I cannot comment on the detail of this specific case, or on the procedures regarding the registration service in Scotland. As my hon. Friend has said, arrangements for the registration service in Scotland are the responsibility of the Registrar-General for Scotland and the Scottish Parliament.

My responsibility is for the civil registration system in England and Wales, and I am well aware that families there have also suffered following the similar misuse of birth certificates. I am working with ministerial colleagues in tackling the fraudulent use of birth certificates, AS my hon. Friend said, it is not the birth certificate that is the problem, but the use to which it is being put.

Civil registration started in 1837 in England and Wales, and its basic legal framework has not changed since then. Births, deaths and marriages are recorded in a register in the area where the event took place. The Registrar- General has a statutory duty to issue a certified copy of the entry, commonly known as a certificate, to anyone who provides sufficient information to identify an event, as long as the fee is paid.

The records have always been open, to help to protect human life and to allow people to know their civil status and lineage. Perhaps it is an early example of freedom of information.

A certificate can be bought at the register office where the event occurred, from the family records centre or by post or phone from the Office for National Statistics at Southport. Most people buy a certificate when registering a birth, death or marriage but many buy another at another date. Family historians typically use certificates of older events for research. Whenever they are bought, certificates have the same legal standing: they are a certified copy of the entry in the register. Thus it is not the application but the subsequent use to which the certificate is put that can be fraudulent.

An entry in the birth register is proof that the birth took place and forms a record of the information given by the informant, normally a parent, at the registration. The register entry is not updated with any changes or on the death of the individual. A death would be registered on the register of deaths where it occurred, which could be in a different area or even in a different country, and there is no link back to the birth register.

In that respect, the register is like a newspaper archive: anyone can look up the birth and death announcements published in a newspaper 30 years ago and take a copy of what was printed. Thus the birth certificate is not evidence of current identity. Indeed, since 1993, certificate forms bear a specific warning that that is not the case. The certificate does not contain a link to the individual, such as a photograph, fingerprint or current address.

Legally, the registers of births, marriages and deaths have to be held in paper form. Fully computerised information is available for births and deaths that took place in 1993 and subsequently, and births since 1993 are, as my hon. Friend said, matched to subsequent deaths. Information for earlier years, including the birth records of the majority of people living in England and Wales, is available only on paper or microfilm, depending on the date.

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The Government recognise that that is unacceptable in the 21st century. In December 1998, my predecessor--my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt)--commissioned the Registrar-General to undertake a fundamental review of civil registration with the aim of developing proposals for a service that can adapt to the changing needs and attitudes of a modern society, using modern methods and technology to meet those needs.

The Registrar-General published the consultation document "Registration: Modernising a vital service" last September. It identified a need to improve arrangements for access to and use of registration information. I am pleased to say that that was supported by respondents to the consultation. It proposed that the legal registration records be held in a computerised database and available at all register offices.

Computerisation of almost 300 million records of events before 1993 is, as my hon. Friend rightly said, a substantial undertaking, but it would remove the need to issue certificates for official purposes. Current users of certificates would be able to make use of checks against the central database, thus tackling at source many abuses. That is fully in line with the Government's commitment to integrated electronic services.

Computerisation would also enable birth records to be updated. That, and a further proposal to link death, marriage and divorce records, drew widespread support. That would prevent Day of the Jackal fraud.

Those would be significant improvements but the problem of linking the birth record to the specific individual would remain. It would be possible to include additional information--perhaps an address--in an individual's through-life registration record, which would make it much more difficult for a person to assume another's identity. It would go a long way to enabling citizens to access services simply and electronically, but there are substantial difficulties and updating civil registration in that way would take time.

The issue goes much wider than civil registration. Fundamentally, it is about how individuals are to establish their identity. Currently in the United Kingdom there is no single document whose sole purpose is to prove identity. The increasing need to verify identity often presents organisations with a dilemma. Government Departments and other organisations ask for a range of documents and information to verify the identity of an individual and have in place a range of measures to tackle identity fraud and the fraudulent use of birth certificates.

For example, the UK Passport Agency uses a birth certificate to establish nationality, but not identity. It requires a countersignatory to establish identity and it is enhancing the behind-the-scenes checks on identity. Similar procedures are in place for obtaining a photocard driving licence. The Department of Social Security uses a wide range of documents and, invariably, an interview. A group of officials representing those Departments with an interest in identity has a continuing role in improving the behind-the-scenes checks and the sharing of information. There have been successful prosecutions that show that the changes are working, and that approach is consistent with the Government's working group on electronic access, which has also recommended that an individual's identity is authenticated by seeking information that only they would know.

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As the person with responsibility for birth and death records, the Registrar-General for England and Wales has a role in tackling identity fraud. Of especial concern to the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries is the hijacking of the identity of a dead child. That can be solved only by matching the birth and death records for those births after which death occurred in infancy or childhood. Mortality rates in the 1960s and 1970s were higher than today and there were, for example, 420,000 infant and childhood deaths among the group of people born between 40 and 18 years ago. Matching each record to the right birth record is a challenge in the absence of a fully computerised version of those records. However, the Government recognise the importance of closing that well publicised loophole. Officials at the Office for National Statistics are working with officials at the UK Passport Agency and in other Departments on producing such information and using it effectively in checking identity.

Application procedures for certificates are kept under regular review, especially those relating to births occurring during the past 50 years. Those have been

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tightened in recent years. The procedures have to achieve the right balance between deterring fraudsters and ensuring that the vast majority of honest citizens get a responsive service that meets their needs. It is important that the Government consider services from their customers' point of view, irrespective of departmental and agency boundaries. For example, obtaining a passport should not mean having to go through two distinct processes. Checks must be made once, and at the appropriate stage of the overall process.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern and frustration. Our plan for the fundamental reform of the civil registration system in England and Wales demonstrates that we have recognised the need to bring that important service into the 21st century, and that we are serious about tackling identity fraud and fraudulent abuse of birth certificates at source. Those matters are complex, and we are determined to put in place effective solutions.

Question put and agreed to.

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