Clause 10 re-enacts the provisions of section 38 of the 2006 Act. It is a fraud prevention measure that allows the Secretary of State to require that relevant information is provided to verify the information within a passport application, or to decide whether to withdraw a passport. Relevant information includes identity information, to confirm that the applicant is a real person and is who they claim to be. It enables the Identity and Passport Service to obtain information on the completed application, which is necessary to conduct an effective interview with first-time applicants. That may include records from a credit reference agency about how long a person has resided at an address, or at how many addresses they have lived.
It would be unlawful, and a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, to require information that was not relevant to the passport application. The use of a credit reference agency mirrors the approach in the private sector, which routinely uses such agencies for bank loans or credit applications. Whereas the focus may be on credit worthiness, it also provides organisations with some confidence in the identity of the person applying for the bank or credit facility, and enables them to check personal details such as an address and the length of time that a person has resided there. Checks with an external credit agency, in addition to the range of governmental agencies, provide a high degree of security and verification in considering applications for passports. It would be odd if the Identity and Passport Service could not check an applicant’s identity with a credit reference agency, when mobile phone companies, shops, and banks and building societies that offer credit terms do so every day.
The information supplied to the Identity and Passport Service is automatically deleted 28 days after a passport has been issued. When a passport has been refused, the information is retained for possible investigative and prosecutorial purposes. We hope that that is an appropriate and proportionate approach to data retention. I commit to ensuring that that policy remains in place and is firmly applied. I am aware, from conversations with colleagues from all parts of the House, that there are concerns about the scope of the clause, so I will be interested to hear representations on it from all parts of the Committee.
In principle, we do not have any objection to the clause. We recognise the importance of verifying passports, especially as they will be the only secure identity document, if the Bill reaches the statute book. Of course, a higher level of verification was required for the issuing of identity cards.
Given the detail in the clause and the list of information that the Identity and Passport Service rightly requires to verify passports, it still puzzles me that the Government are rushing headlong into the abolition of identity cards. With identity cards, the verification process needs to take place only once, and thereafter an organisation would have less need to undertake verification by going to credit reference agencies or other bodies. That system would have limited the amount of data that private sector and other organisations need to look up, because of the secure nature of the identity card and the fact that an identity check can be made against the register to prove, once and for all, that somebody was on it.
I reiterate my deep concern that, overnight, the Government are junking the idea of using fingerprints and, in the future, biometrics, which are a more secure way of proving identity. However, we support the clause in principle.
I thank the Minister for his comments, and it is this clause about which I have concerns. He described how the clause will be used, which I support. I appreciate that clause 10 will re-enact section 38 of the 2006 Act, so the Opposition presumably support it.
I am still concerned that the clause contains potential errors. As well as looking carefully at new laws, we should be careful about new powers. “Relevant information” means information that might be used
“for determining whether to withdraw a passport.”
Questions arise about what information might be used by the Secretary of State to determine whether to do that, and what rules apply. That was briefly discussed during the first oral evidence session under Question 26. Again, the Library has done some work on this issue—reference 2010/6/80-HAS. There is no statute law governing the granting, refusal and use of British passports, and no limitation on what can be done. The question whether that should be statutory is for another debate.
Currently, there are no rules stating that the Secretary of State can use some but not other information to determine, for example, whether to withdraw a passport. If the Secretary of State makes the argument that somebody’s tax records are an important factor in deciding whether to withdraw their passport, they would be able to do so under this clause. If the Secretary of State believes a record of somebody’s speaking to undesirable people during the past few years would be useful information in making such a decision, they would be allowed to do so. I am not in the slightest degree suggesting that those are the intentions of the Minister, of the Opposition when they were in government or of anyone else, but I am worried that the wording is too loose and that “Relevant information” is undefined.
I have heard what the Minister said, and I hope that he will consider how the phraseology can be slightly tightened. If the relevant information concerns identity or residence, that might be written in the Bill, which would avoid any of those concerns. I hope that the Minister will take my comments in the spirit in which they are intended—as a constructive suggestion. I hope that we will see a slight limitation applied to the clause, so that we do not give excess powers to future Secretaries of State, who may not be as wise the current one.
I am grateful for the remarks from both the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. I am particularly grateful that the hon. Lady recognised in her speech that the UK passport is a secure document, although there seemed to be some doubt about that last Thursday. I am glad that she has put that on the record this morning.
I need to clarify my view. Yes, I believe that the passport is a secure document. However, the point that I clearly made last week—the record will show this—is that the IPS and all Governments over the years have been ahead of the curve in ensuring that the passport remains secure and will be secure in the future, which is why I am concerned about the loss of fingerprints and biometrics.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has made several interesting points, which were also made by him and, indeed, others on Second Reading. In the oral evidence session, I was interested to hear that both Liberty and Justice were broadly supportive of the clause, which was noteworthy and welcome. I have a degree of sympathy for the points made by my hon. Friend about the scope of the Bill. There is the opportunity to consider clarifying what was section 38 of the 2006 Act. I am particularly keen to examine how the Bill will ensure that information requests are passport application specific and how we can increase transparency and public accountability by ensuring that a data retention policy is set out in the Bill.
I should perhaps know the answer to this question. Where an individual has information about them supplied to the Minister for the purposes of verification, is that individual notified of that information and of its source, or is secret information being transmitted?
That is a good question, and I suspect that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch may know the answer off the top of her head. I do not know whether someone who has applied for a passport in the past couple of years is given that information, but I imagine that that is not the case. The hon. Gentleman has raised an underlying important point about the confidence of the citizen in the Government’s data retention policy and in the active application of the Data Protection Act 1998.
If the hon. Gentleman wants a detailed answer, it is that those applying are not notified automatically, but they can ask under the data subject accord provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998. As someone who has recently applied for a passport, it is news to me that it is possible to ask for that information. Clearly, the system is designed to ensure that those who might be particularly careful about the information that they provide to the state have some ability to find out about that.
Off the top of my head, I cannot. I will write to the hon. Lady with that information, which is important because, I suspect, few people know about that process, and therefore few people ask. In her previous incarnation, she may well have been at the other end of those requests, if they came that far up the system.
Returning to the good general points made by my hon. Friend, if he and the Committee are agreeable to this, I will consider those points further before the subsequent stages of the Bill to see whether the clause can be improved to ensure that it is not over-intrusive or too loose in its attitude to the provision of private data.