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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 June, 2005, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Passport applicants face grilling
Tony Blair holds up a sample biometric passport
More than 4.5 million people a year will have to go to an interview to get a new passport from the end of 2008.

The interviews are part of plans to replace traditional passport photos with high-tech biometric data such as face scans, fingerprints or iris scans.

UK Passport Service chief Bernard Herdan says 600,000 people will be interviewed by the end of next year.

The interviews will check people's identity with questions about their previous addresses and their schools.

Smooth transition?

The passports will use the same database as being used for the proposed identity card system, which is being debated in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Mr Herdan told the Financial Times the biometric passports would move "pretty seamlessly" into the ID card scheme.

We are just starting with the private sector whereby if they have doubts about a passport they call us on a special hotline and check details
Bernard Herdan
UK Passport Service

All 27 countries involved in the US visa waiver scheme, and all EU countries, are adopting biometric passports, says the Home Office.

Without them, travellers would need many more documents to be able to travel between those nations, said a spokesman.

Most countries already interview passport applicants while the UK allows most applications by post.

From the end of 2006 first-time adult passport applicants will be called to interview at one of 70 centres nationwide.

It believes 75% of passport fraud involves first time adult applicants.

The Home Office says it wants 97% of the population to be within 20 miles of one of the interview centres.

The interviews will not be "intrusive", said a spokesman, but aimed at ensuring the applicant is who they say they are.

From July next year, all new passports will include a computer chip which would initially contain only facial scans.

Mr Herdan said: "The next stage will be putting fingerprints into passports...

"So we will be moving from 600,000 being interviewed at the end of 2006 to interviewing more than 4.5m a year from the end of 2008."

Interview test

Mr Herdan said the interviews should take 10 minutes for "law-abiding citizens".

"For others it will be different," he said. "We hope the effect will be to act as a deterrent and that a lot of people who might otherwise try and get a passport fraudulently won't try."

The service has already set up a database of 500,000 children who died under the age of 18 since the early 1950s.

The idea is to prevent the scam used in the book and film The Day of the Jackal, where an assassin applies for a passport using the birth certificate of a dead child.

Private firms' role

Mr Herdan said private companies, such as banks, would be able to have information checked against passport details.

"We are just starting with the private sector whereby if they have doubts about a passport they call us on a special hotline and check details," he said.

"They wouldn't have access to our database because it is protected but they can send us data on the passport and we can give them the green or red light."

Liberal Democrat spokesman Mark Oaten said it was another sign of a "surveillance society".

"Gone are the days of going to a photo booth at the local station," he said. "Within a few years, fingerprinting, iris scans, and big bills will be a daily fact of life."

A spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents said people would have to accept the interviews as part of ensuring safe and secure travel.

But he said there had to be enough resources for the scheme so the number of applicants did not create waits at the interview centres.

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