Birth Certificates

– in the House of Commons at 2:27 pm on 10th March 2000.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries 2:31 pm, 10th March 2000

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this vital matter in the House today. The title of the debate on the Order Paper may be slightly misleading as there is no such thing as a fraudulent application for a birth certificate. The debate relates to the potential for fraudulent activities thereafter. I am sure that there is some concern in another Government Department about whether the responsibility for replying to the debate rested with that Department or with my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who appears to have drawn the short straw.

My concern today centres around an issue that was highlighted—although not for the first time—by a television programme just over four weeks ago. It was a Granada production called "Tonight with Trevor McDonald". It was a short story entitled "Identity Crisis".

The programme showed how easy it was to obtain a copy of a birth certificate of a child who had died in infancy, generally within weeks or even hours of being born, and how that birth certificate was used fraudulently to obtain a passport and thereby a new identity.

It is worth pointing out that in England and Wales the Government Department responsible for administering the laws relating to marriage and the national health service central register is the Office for National Statistics, whereas in Scotland the Registrar-General is responsible for the recording of births, deaths and marriages.

The programme showed how a team of undercover reporters, posing as a gang smuggling illegal immigrants into the United Kingdom, answered an advertisement in the International Herald Tribune which was offering genuine British passports for sale at $17,500. Such documentation would be more than helpful if an illegal immigrant was trying to avoid the risk of deportation.

At a meeting with the fraudster, it was explained to the undercover reporters how easy it would be to provide them with a genuine passport, and within a very short time the same fraudster was able to provide a new passport and thereby a new identification to an arranged address.

Within days of the programme having been broadcast, my constituent, Alec Little, visited my office. He explained to me that the programme had been an extremely upsetting experience for him as the team of fraudsters had acquired a passport and a new identity for one of the undercover reporters which turned out to be that of his late nephew, James Alexander Patterson, who had died at the age of 11 weeks. Young James Alexander Patterson had been born on the day of my constituent's wedding and had died in the early hours of Christmas day.

Mr. Little went on to say, quite naturally, that something has to be done. How ironic that Frederick Forsyth, in his book "The Day of the Jackal", portrayed the scam almost 30 years ago, yet here we are in 2000 and the problem still exists and has the potential to continue for many years.

The indexes of births, deaths and marriages maintained by the Registrar-General may be searched by the public without charge. They contain alphabetical lists of the names of the parties, the registration district and the location of the entry in the register. However, as the registers are not public records, there is no facility for members of the public to search them. Copies of individual entries in the register may be bought by any member of the public who pays the appropriate fee and is able to identify the record that they require. There is no requirement for anyone purchasing a certificate to prove a connection with the person or the family to whom the certificate relates.

The issuing of birth certificates that are then used fraudulently was commented on in the previous Government's Green and White Papers on the registration services. They considered the problem to be sufficiently serious to suggest that access to recent registration documents should be limited to those who had legitimate reason for wanting them, for example by requiring all applicants to furnish prescribed particulars about the entry, including date and place of birth, father's name and surname and mother's name, surname and maiden name. It was realised that it would be impossible to eradicate totally the misuse of records by determined criminals.

The 1990 White Paper included a chapter on the responses to the 1988 Green Paper and set out proposals for access to registration records, as the Green Paper had met with little approval from consultees. Many of the White Paper's recommendations have been implemented by administrative action or changes to existing secondary or primary legislation. I appreciate that primary legislation would be required to change the conditions of access to registration records. Nothing has been done to restrict access to date.

The Government made a manifesto commitment to crack down on the fraudulent use of birth certificates. Last autumn, the Office for National Statistics issued a consultation document on the whole registration service. I am delighted that the issue of access to registration records was discussed, but I am disappointed that no definite proposals to counteract fraud were made.

The debate throws up a complex question about identity and how we tackle the problem in the new world of information technology and e-commerce. How will citizens prove their identity in the future? Will there be a central database that someone logs us on to when we come into the world? As we progress through life, perhaps into marriage and contact with Government Departments and bodies such as the Inland Revenue, the Benefits Agency or the UK Passport Agency, adjustments could be made to our personal data, the final entry being the only guarantee in life—death itself.

It may seem fanciful, but many see an easy answer to the problem of the fraudulent use of birth certificates, particularly in the tragic circumstances that we are considering, in a computer entry registering the death being cross-linked to the registration of birth. That would flag up a warning if someone attempted to use that identity in the future. I apologise if that oversimplifies a possible solution.

Even bolder than "The Day of the Jackal" fraudsters—if that is possible—are those involved in what is called piggy-back fraud, which means using the identity of someone who is still alive. "Tonight with Trevor McDonald" was critical of the UK Passport Agency and said that, despite a £120 million investment in a new computer system, there had been little improvement in combating fraud. I am pleased to hear that the new system in operation at the UK Passport Agency manages to avoid piggy-back fraud.

I mentioned that little seems to have happened since Frederick Forsyth's novel was written. My research and contact with Government Departments indicates that measures have been taken to deal with the problem, but the problem still exists, and who knows how many birth certificates some of the fraudsters may well be sitting on?

Yesterday's report by Lord Grabiner on the informal economy—or the black or hidden economy, as it can be called—revealed a London organisation of bogus companies, specialising in large-scale benefit, mortgage and property fraud, smuggling illegal immigrants and cocaine dealing. Investigators found evidence of 500 fraudulent benefit applications worth £4 million, 50 cases of fraudulent false identities and more than 40 claims for child benefit, supported by counterfeit and false identity documents.

The issue of identity is far reaching and can be tackled only with an integrated cross-Government approach. I believe that moves to achieve that are under way. Lord Grabiner says: I recommend that whether the solution is stricter control over the issue of birth certificates or tighter checks on their use, this is a problem that needs to be tackled. It is strange that I have an Adjournment debate on the subject one day after that report has been issued.

Indications are that UK Passport Agency staff are being even more scrupulous, and that those responsible for registration are scrutinising applications for certificates. Above all, there is a strong working relationship with the authorities responsible for enforcement.

For the last 10 years, the register in Scotland has been moving to computerised registration and recording. In England and Wales, the records have been on computer since 1993, but that still leaves 300 million records on paper. I fully accept that what lies ahead will not be easy and that there is no way that we are likely to see those 300 million records being put on computer.

I hope that the Minister is aware of the concern that the matter has generated. The television programme contained comments such as: The oldest trick in the book, and one parent classed the activity as "sick". The story has brought back sad memories to a number of families, and none of us really knows how many people are wandering our streets with the false identity of a loved one who was taken so early in life. For my constituent Alec Little, it was an upsetting experience, but I know that he will be relieved that his late nephew's identity was not passed on to be used in some fraudulent activity.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to build upon the foundations that have been laid in recent years, and I hope that, this afternoon, she can outline how our country can be provided with a system that rids us of these jackals.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Economic Secretary, HM Treasury 2:43 pm, 10th March 2000

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 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 1993 and subsequently, and births since 1993 are, Friend said, matched to subsequent deaths. Information for earlier years, including the birth records on the majority or people living in England and Wales, is available only on paper or microfilm, depending on the date.

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.

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 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.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o'clock.