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Awed fraudsters defeated by UK's passport interviews

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Interviews for first time passport applicants have been massively successful - because, er, no fraudulent applications at all have been detected since the government introduced the system last May. In answer to a Freedom of Information request, the Home Office said last week that 38,391 interviews had been held to date, 222 applications were currently under investigation, but that so far no application had been rejected.

An Identity & Passport Service spokesman told the Press Association, optimistically, that interviews discouraged people from making false passport applications in the first place. He also claimed that IPS had detected 6,500 fraudulent passport applications last year. These will have been rejected before the interview stage, although not all will have been made by first time applicants.

But that 6,500 claim is a bit of a puzzle. In January of this year the Home Office Minister i/c identity, Meg Hillier, said that for the 11 months to 30 September 2006 IPS estimated that 0.25 per cent of passport applications, or 16,500 cases, were believed to be fraudulent. A further 1.61 per cent (105,000) included "some element of false declaration", but the identity and eligibility of these individuals "was not otherwise in doubt" (answer to Parliamentary question).

As IPS clearly differentiates between an "element of false declaration" and attempting to obtain a passport fraudulently, its definition of passport fraud obviously has some flexibility to it.

Answering another question in the same vein last July, Hillier said that IPS was then investigating "some 2,000 cases" of suspected fraud. Which puts the total of 222 interview-derived investigations into perspective. The Home Office has also claimed in the past that half of all fraudulent applications are made via the first time application process.

Doubts about the actual rates of fraud and detection are further reinforced by IPS figures, produced in answer to an FOIA request in August 2006. These put detected fraudulent applications at 1,126 in 2005, 1,880 in 2004 and 1,571 in 2003, the overall trend being downwards since 2001.

Obviously, not everybody can be right here. If the 6,500 detection number IPS is now claiming is genuine (i.e., not the consequence of a more brutal approach to the odd "element of false declaration"), then historically IPS must have been relatively useless at nicking passport fraud villains. If however IPS' estimate of 16,500 is correct, then the 6,500 actual detections indicate that IPS might not be as useless as it was, but that it is still fairly useless.

And the point of interviews? It seems bizarre that in ten months, interviewing almost 40,000 people, IPS has not been able to identify a single one as sufficiently obviously fraudulent to reject them. Are all the would-be first time fraudsters sufficiently smart to realise they'll be nicked if they apply? Or are all of them sufficiently smart to sail through the interview anyway? There really ought to be some kind of population in between these two extremes, and 222 doubtfuls doesn't look large enough to accommodate it.

According to Hillier, IPS is due to complete a sampling exercise similar to the one that produced the 2006 estimates next month. If the Home Office claims that half of all frauds were first time applications, and that the interview process deters frauds, are correct, then the numbers this time around - covering the first year of interviews - should be substantially down.

If not, then Tory and Liberal claims that the interview process, which involved setting up a network of 70 offices at a cost of £93 million, is an expensive waste of time will be borne out. Unless of course you were to view the interview centre network as softening the population up for mass biometric enrolment, starting 2012... ®

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