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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 March 2007, 22:53 GMT
How easy is it to get a passport?
Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Almost 36 years after the bestselling thriller The Day of the Jackal revealed how criminals used the birth certificates of dead babies to obtain fake travel documents, the UK is still seeing its passport system abused.

A UK passport
The UK passport application process is changing

And while author Frederick Forsyth's 1971 assassin was given identity documents by masquerading as a dead Briton, the Home Office revealed on Tuesday that a 21st century terror convict and thousands of others were wrongly given passports due to fraud.

Dhiren Barot, from London, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder in December and was sentenced to life, had seven passports in his true identity and two further passports under fraudulent names.

The Home Office estimated that thousands of other people obtained passports under false pretences.

The Day of the Jackal-type loophole has already been closed, by links with databases of birth certificates.

And now the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) hopes new face-to-face passport interviews for adults, the introduction of enhanced background checks and the switch to biometric ePassports will improve security.

Big demand

According to the IPS, there are currently around 47m British passports in circulation, with 80% of the population holding one. And they are much in demand from genuine applicants and fraudsters.

Announcing that adults applying for the first time would face an interview from May, James Hall, Chief Executive of the IPS, said it was "ramping up" its anti-fraud capacity to "keep ahead of increasingly sophisticated forgers as well as deterring and preventing fraudulent applications".

But a government spokesman for the IPS told the BBC that dealing with fraud was seen as a "constant battle".

Interviews will be a massive deterrent
Government spokesman

With 90% of applications coming through the post, and some from abroad, it was easy for criminals to assume false identities, he said, but face-to-face interviews could bring that to an end.

"Interviews will be a massive deterrent," the spokesman said. "Because applicants need to be here in the country."

It is "not acceptable" that 10,000 passports were wrongly issued, he said, and it was important for Britain to keep up with the criminals and technology in other countries.

"We are the second biggest issuer of passports in the world after the US. We have issued 6.6m passports in the last year because so many Brits travel. So it is a massive volume.

"But we must keep up to stop the British passport becoming a second-class document."

'Tough process'

Criminals were increasingly sophisticated, creating their own false backgrounds and credit history, he said.

"It is not just about enhancing the document any more, it is about toughening up the application process. That is why we are bringing in so many measures."

And although people like Barot could perfectly legitimately apply for a British passport as a British citizen, he said, in his case he obtained multiple passports under his own identity by reporting them stolen over a period of years.

However, the government is confident that even this will no longer be possible due a database introduced in 2003 detailing lost or stolen passports.

"Under the new system, if someone is doing this a lot, it will be flagged up," the spokesman said.

"In the future we will be much more confident of people's identity and it will be much harder for people to steal someone's identity and get a passport."

10,000 passports go to fraudsters
20 Mar 07 |  UK Politics

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