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

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Miss Anne Begg
Binley, Mr. Brian (Northampton, South) (Con)
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Clegg, Mr. Nick (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)
Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Godsiff, Mr. Roger (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Havard, Mr. Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Henderson, Mr. Doug (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)
Heyes, David (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
Hillier, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Mullin, Mr. Chris (Sunderland, South) (Lab)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Tenth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 18 July 2007

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

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

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Verification of Information in Passport Applications Etc. (Specified Persons) Order 2007.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time since I became a Minister, Miss Begg? I am sure that you will keep in order the vast numbers of us in this room who are anxious to discuss the proposal. I welcome other members of the Committee to the debate.
The purpose of the order is to ensure that the Government have sufficient information to be able to confirm the identity of passport applicants through the Identity and Passport Service. It refers to section 38 of the Identity Cards Act 2006, which gives the power to require information to be provided by specified organisations, and allows the Identity and Passport Service, acting on behalf of the Home Secretary, to verify information in connection with a passport application. It will also help to determine whether to withdraw an individual’s passport, but I stress that the main use is verification, as the withdrawal of a passport is very rare; it is usually because some small error has crept in, although occasionally it is for national security reasons. It is about verifying that the person being interviewed is who they say they are.
Section 38 already covers all Government Departments, but it also enables the power in that section to be extended to specified, non-government bodies by secondary legislation, which is the reason for this Committee. The order will extend it to two non-government bodies. The first is the Registrar General for England and Wales, which is responsible for the General Register Office for England and Wales. Although a public body, it is not a Government Department so it is not at present covered by section 38.
The General Register Office and the Identity and Passport Service already have a relationship for tackling fraud in passport applications. The GRO provides details of all child deaths to the Identity and Passport Service, which prevents imposters from pretending to be someone who is already dead. The order extends that relationship in the way I have described.
However, we need to extend checks to guard against passport and identity fraud. As part of that approach, we are introducing interviews for adult first-time applicants. To date, we have interviewed 800 people in live pilots and there will be 69 offices up and down the country. I can provide hon. Members with details afterwards if they are interested.
The inclusion of the Registrar General for England and Wales in the order will put beyond doubt our ability to obtain information about births, marriages or deaths in order to confirm the identity of an applicant at an interview. It will ensure that there is no legal obstacle to the extent of the information that may be provided. At present, when we check passport applications, we can check that information, but the order puts it on a statutory footing.
We have had questions about the use of other data. For the avoidance of doubt, I make it clear that there is absolutely no intention of using the powers in the order to obtain any census information from the Registrar General for England and Wales. The census will shortly be transferring to the new Statistics Board, created under the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, but even after that transfer there is no plan to use census information to verify passport applications. The census is used only for statistical purposes and it is important that people have confidence that the information is held in the strictest confidence. In any case, it would tend to be out of date if it were used for the purposes of the order. It is therefore of no interest to the passport service.
For the sake of completeness, I should mention Northern Ireland and Scotland, which are not covered by the order because the General Register Office for Northern Ireland is already covered under section 38(3)(c), which refers to “a Northern Ireland department”. The General Register Office for Scotland was given wide powers in the Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 to provide that sort of information to other public bodies or office holders and to charge when necessary, so it does not need to be included.
The second body covered by the order is a credit reference agency with which the Identity and Passport Service has a contract for the provision of information. No private sector organisations are currently covered by section 38, which is why we are using the order to include the agency. With passport interviews rolling out, we want to extend the amount of background information that we can obtain to verify identity. The order will ensure that we are able to do that. The Identity and Passport Service has a contract with Equifax—a leading credit reference agency for the provision of that sort of information. The order is drafted so that the power can be applied to a different credit reference agency if the contract changes, but it will apply only to the single credit reference agency with which the Home Office has a contract at any time. The Office of the Information Commissioner said that we should clarify that point, so I reiterate that the power will apply only to one such agency at a time.
The order will provide absolute clarity that the organisations concerned have a legal power to provide the requested information, because section 38 of the enabling Act creates a statutory duty to do so. We have been checking passport applications against certain other data, but the order makes it fully legal for the relevant bodies to provide such information. They have co-operated fully and it has been legal, but the order makes the situation clear in statute.
Section 38 covers the provision of data to verify information provided to the Secretary of State in connection with a passport application. In such circumstances, the credit reference agency might provide information about previous addresses at which the applicant has lived recently, thus allowing the interviewer to ask questions such as “Where did you live five years ago?” in passport interviews. It would also help to confirm that the person attending the interview is the person who made the application and is applying in true identity. There has recently been publicity about people sitting driving tests for others, so we know that it is not beyond the ken of people to try such tricks with passport applications. The measures will help us to tackle that problem.
For first-time applicants, who might be younger and might not have a strong, or indeed any, credit record, we will be able to ask questions about their parents, which should, I hope, deal with any problems that arise with application forms.
All the measures will be data protection-compliant. The order ensures that all personal data collected are lawful under the Data Protection Act 1998 and that any extraneous information that is not part of the application form will be destroyed immediately the interview is concluded and the passport has been properly issued. Any personal information that is held will be held under the Act, but some will be used simply for the interview.
People sometimes worry what information credit reference agencies hold about them. Anyone can check their own credit record at such agencies, but I stress that the Identity and Passport Service cannot ask for irrelevant information such as details of an individual’s credit rating or financial circumstances. It cannot ask the agency to supply details about how much money someone has in their bank account, for example, so that a passport interview officer can ask an applicant that question at interview. It can ask for facts about addresses, or perhaps where a bank account is held, but not about financial transactions. It will be used directly to confirm the customer’s identity and information that they have provided, and to ensure that the person at the interview is the person who applied. Once it has been established that the application is genuine, any information that was obtained to confirm identity will be destroyed. To make things clear, the applicant’s name, address and date of birth will be retained, as will the application form, so anything on the form will continue to be held by the Identity and Passport Service. I hope that that satisfies any concerns.
In the extremely unlikely event that any of the organisations covered by the order refused to provide the information requested—as I said, we have had conversations with them and they are happy with the order—section 38 would allow legal action to be taken against them in the courts to enforce the requirement. However, we do not envisage that happening in any circumstances.
I mentioned that we are rolling out passport interviews for all new adult applicants. We have been piloting them since May 2007. We started in Belfast and Glasgow, and this month we are extending them to Newport and Peterborough. I shall be happy to provide Committee members with a map showing their nearest passport office. The full roll-out is planned to take place from August.
There will be 69 such offices up and down the country, generally within an hour of everybody. In the past, we trusted that people were who they said they were when they applied for a passport, and we did not interview them face to face. We were one of the only countries in Europe to have that approach. I should stress that, as I said, the order does not provide carte blanche for the General Register Office or a credit reference agency to share any personal information—nor would it be within their scope to provide any information about bank accounts.
In summary, the order creates transparency for the passport customer about the sources of information against which their application will be checked. The credit reference agency source—indeed, both sources—are open and checkable by the individual concerned. There should be no surprises for a genuine passport applicant. Importantly, the order will ensure that the provision of information to assist with background checks is entirely lawful. It will put that on that important statutory footing.
I trust that I have clarified the purposes of the order. I am happy to take questions from and give feedback to Committee members, to whom I commend the order.
2.42 pm
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg, and it is a tribute to the attractions of your chairmanship that several Members have been seeking to join this Committee, even though they are not members of it. In my experience, it is unusual—indeed, unique—for people to volunteer to be on Committees of this sort.
I thank the Minister for explaining so clearly the thinking behind the order. One of the slightly tangential points that she made was about the 69 interview centres. I should love her to assert strongly that each is within an hour of everyone who relies on public transport, but I suspect that she could not do so and that that will be part of the problem that will emerge. However, that issue is not central to what is before us today, which is the first sign of the expansion of intrusiveness caused by the identity card legislation.
This is not the place to have an in-principle debate about why the Government are wrong to persist in that expensive folly, but the order reveals the first signs of the potential consequences in practical terms. The order is about the absorption into the state’s information net of private details given by private citizens to private companies. Such details are now to be arrogated to a Department of the state. Clearly, one consequence will be that people will lose even more confidence in the privacy of their private commercial transactions, so the order may have damaging effects at the margin.
The order illustrates what has been illustrated most notably by the leak of Home Office documents about the use of congestion charge cameras. Those documents have rightly inspired Shami Chakrabarti to call for a proper debate about the appropriate balance between security and privacy. The incident, which has been in the media in the past 24 hours, is a more dramatic illustration of the difficulty of striking the appropriate balance. The order is another, more low-key example of the Government proceeding inexorably in the direction of increased intrusiveness, whereby at every point they plead security considerations, but carry on apparently regardless. The order is another, small example of why it would be timely to have that debate.
The order will mean relying on a particular private sector provider, and presumably others in future, for complete accuracy. Important issues will be decided by the accuracy of the information. I can do no better than repeat a question from a Lords debate on the underlying legislation, when my noble Friend Baroness Anelay asked:
“Can the Minister assure the Committee that information held on those databases is 100 per cent correct 100 per cent of the time? If it is not, why should that information be used to verify information on the national identity register?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 December 2005; Vol. 676, c. 1274.]
I am not saying that public sector records are necessarily any more accurate than private sector records, but there is a substantive difference: this House can at least hold Ministers to account—to some extent—for things that go wrong in their Department. It is obviously much more difficult to do so if the original error, which may lead to an injustice, is made by a private sector operator who happens to have a contract with the Home Office.
There are also some detailed questions. The order covers a specific credit rating agency, so what happens if the IPS signs a contract with a new credit rating agency? Is that situation covered by the order, or will the House have another chance to debate it? Will Parliament receive regular reports about the reliability of the information? If one’s suspicions are right, and it may be that the information is not completely reliable, it will be useful for the House to receive such reports over time.
In summary, the order throws an interesting light into the shadows of the legislation, showing that it will lead inexorably to increased intrusiveness.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I must declare an interest. I am the patron of the Society of Registration Officers of England and Wales. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that “The Day of the Jackal” is not just fiction any more, and that a considerable number of people are distressed by having the identities of their deceased relatives—usually young people—stolen by people who want to commit criminal acts?
Damian Green: I am certainly aware of identity fraud, which is clearly a big issue. That is why I have just been calling—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has been following my argument closely—for a proper debate. There is a balance to be struck. We are all aware of that. However, my point is that the Government never seem to strike the balance; they always seem to come down on one side of the argument. In the order’s small way, it pushes us further in that direction, and we should pause before we move inexorably and continuously in one direction. This is an important debate about how one maintains the proper freedoms of a society with all the problems thrown up by the interaction of serious global crime, terrorism and the new technology that enables bad as well as good things to happen. This is one of our most serious debates, and although the measure seems on the surface to be a small order concerning one part of the primary legislation, it compels us to have that debate.
2.49 pm
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Miss Begg, it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
The hon. Member for Ashford has pointed out some of the broader issues, of which the order is, as he said, just a small part. I make it clear at the outset that my party believes strongly that we must do everything to make our borders secure. We do not want to see passports being issued and then used for fraudulent purposes in any way. Although I understand that the hon. Gentleman wanted a wider debate, I would prefer to concentrate on what the statutory instrument attempts to do and why it cannot achieve that.
I have read the SI’s explanatory note and listened to the Minister’s reassurances 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 she talked about what would happen if a credit reference agency refused to provide information. However, the explanatory note states 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 constraints to which the Minister and the background information referred. There is no requirement in the SI, and therefore no guarantee, that the information should be destroyed and that the Identity and Passport Service will confine itself to the limited information to which the Minister has referred.
The hon. Member for Ashford referred to the issue that was in the news recently: the use of one type of information for another purpose without the people concerned necessarily being aware of that purpose. My concern regarding the SI is not about what it seeks to achieve. I would have absolutely no problem if what the Minister has said were achieved to the letter and that information were provided; I want to see Government officials given the power to stamp out the issue of fraudulent passports. However, the problem is that the SI contains nothing that will guarantee in law what the background information says will happen.
We are all concerned about the ever-encroaching use of information by not only the state, but various other bodies. As the hon. Member for Ashford said, a much wider debate is needed on that issue. The Government’s argument is not helped by the fact that the SI is so sloppily worded and all-encompassing that it will allow the wider use of additional information that can be obtained. I would have preferred the SI to be drafted in such a way that it delivered what the Minister said it would deliver.
In other words, a provision saying that only certain amounts of information will be collected and used, and that it will then be destroyed should be on the face of the SI. It is not at the moment. My party and I have a problem with that, not with what the Government are attempting to do. Drafting such sloppy legislation does not help the argument that the state must have access to certain information that various people might object to being used.
I hope that the Minister will understand why I am making that point. I hope that, with regard to future statutory instruments, what is said in the explanatory notes will be written in the SI so that it has the power of law. As it stands, there is no constraint to stop a future Minister or Government completely ignoring that insurance, collecting further information, and using it for whatever purpose they desire.
2.55 pm
Meg Hillier: It is worth commenting on the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East about those who try to steal the identities of young people who have died. As he said, the Identity and Passport Service has detected and prevented frauds of exactly that type, and it is important to extend those checks in order to tackle that real problem.
I shall take the comments of the hon. Member for Ashford in order. He touched on passport interviews. In rolling out the passport offices—I can provide hon. Members with a colourful map to show where they are; I am not sure whether there is one in Ashford, but I am sure that there is one close by—we have tried to strike a balance between the cost of setting up the office network and the fees to be charged for passports. More than half of the population will be within 15 minutes’ travelling time, and 95 per cent. of the population will be within one hour of a passport office.
The hon. Gentleman raised some questions about credit reference agencies, but they are widely used. He suggested that people could lose confidence in their private transactions, but anyone who gets a mobile phone or makes a credit purchase is checked against a reference agency. People are also able to check their personal data with such agencies. The system is transparent and open. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman would rather that the Home Office had its own set-up instead of contracting that out to another organisation.
I have just been advised that the nearest passport offices to the constituency of the hon. Member for Ashford are in Maidstone and Dover. He can work out while I am speaking whether they are within an hour’s travelling time of 95 per cent. of his constituents.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether any new credit rating agency would be covered. I stress that only one credit agency has a contract with the Home Office at any one time. Currently that is Equifax. Should the company change when the contract is renewed next year, the arrangement would be with that one company under the new contract.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we can be sure that the information provided is 100 per cent. correct, 100 per cent. of the time. It would be very bold of me, or of any hon. Member or Minister, to stand here and say, “Yes”. The whole point is to ensure that the information that we have is as accurate as it can be. A credit reference agency is one well-rehearsed source for getting that sort of information.
I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Rochdale for secure passports. I welcome and look forward to his party’s support if we have to vote on the matter on the Floor of the House. He raised the issue of the credit reference agency again, but I stress that only the one with the contract will be used. I hope that I have made that clear.
The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about the exact wording of the statutory instrument. As I said in my opening remarks, the information gathered is covered by the Data Protection Act; it cannot be kept because it would contravene the Act. I hope that he is confident that we have that protection, and that the statutory instrument reflects the existing law of the land.
I thank hon. Members for their comments, and I commend the order to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Verification of Information in Passport Applications Etc. (Specified Persons) Order 2007.
Committee rose at one minute to Three o’clock.

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